(Philemon, Luke 14:25-33)
Jesus brought the Kingdom of God/Heaven to earth. He “inaugurated” its arrival. In doing so, he tapped into the Hebrew prophets and their hint of a future that would come. Such a future looked forward to circumcised hearts instead of flesh, and to equivocate on the metaphor ‘flesh’, they looked forward to hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. THESE REALITIES are what was dubbed the “New Covenant” (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26) in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The New Covenant, in part, is the Kingdom of God INTERNALIZED. The law, not just coming from without on tablets of stone, but now – with Jesus’ coming – is inscribed on the human heart! One might be tempted to say, “Now that all sounds great, but then, why does Paul give instructions for slavery? Why doesn’t he condemn the institution? Why give guidelines for believers in a system that is evil?”
Those are all good and fair questions. First, we should note that Paul “relativizes” the entire system. He allows for participation (After all, God reveals himself to a sinful world!), but he strikes at its very foundation. A slave is to serve, be attentive, not steal nor flee. Why? Because someone owns you? Well, that depends on WHO you think owns you. No man owns another man; that’s an affront to the dignity of being an image bearer. But neither does one own oneself! Slaves are to obey – as to the Lord. So God approves and condones slavery? No! Rather, he pulls the rug out from underneath. A slave is to no longer obey out of human fear or human ownership, but rather divine ownership! This turns the entire system upside down.
In a context where Paul advises all to stay in the calling in which they were found when they heard the gospel, e.g., married, then stay married/single, then stay single, Paul does state that if a slave is offered freedom, they should take it (1 Cor 7). They could also apply for manumission, whereby they were given freedom at or around 30 years of age (Sadly, age 30 was the average lifespan of a slave). Some call these nuances of Paul “trajectories.” Those hints at a social vision that would exclude slavery, if taken to their logical conclusion – even if Paul did not fully realize such goals. The church was simply not in a position to develop any social policy in detail; they were a persecuted lot. But such trajectories are few, and often require logical implications rather than declarative statements.
One thing for sure. The good news of Jesus Christ means that a new vision is in place as to personal relationships. We are no longer curved in upon ourselves, but rather we now seek to utilize our resources for the well-being of the other/neighbor. I don’t think Christianity is foremost a social revolutionary ethic to be implemented into law, as much as it is an instantaneous radicalization of love for “the other” that God has put in our lives.