Sunday, February 10, 2019

Invisible Chains

“For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”

“We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”

There are few things more pathetic than a slave who doesn’t realize he’s a slave. But denial is a powerful thing.

In one of the Pauline epistles, there’s a sad little instruction to slaves not to pilfer. Well, I find it sad.

Think about it. Why would a slave bother engaging in petty theft?

The Lot of the Slave

A slave lived in his master’s home. His meals were provided. The parameters of his life were rigidly defined. In most cases, he had no future aspirations to scrimp and save for. Anything unexplained that showed up among his possessions would be instantly obvious to the entire household, so he would have to hide whatever he had stolen rather than enjoy it. When assessing risk vs. reward, everything about pilfering was a bad idea: a whipping or worse if you get caught, futility if not.

And yet petty theft was sufficiently common among newly-saved bondservants that it concerned Paul. And I actually understand why, I think. Perhaps for some, a stolen coin or a small trinket to sell meant nothing more than an extra piece of fish on a trip to market. But for other slaves, taking something that didn’t belong to them was a way of saying to their masters, “Okay, you’ve got me, but you haven’t got all of me.” It was an expression of individual will, however trivial, unsubjected to the master’s dictates and outside of his knowledge. It was an act of clandestine self-determination in an environment where self-determination did not exist. It was petty defiance and resentment.

And it was a sad, childish refusal to acknowledge reality. If you succeeded at it properly, nobody would even know you’d done it. Not much rebellion in that.

A State of Denial

The group of Jews who followed Jesus seemed to be in a similar state of denial. They were puzzled by his statement that by abiding in his word, they would know the truth and the truth would set them free. “Free?” they asked. “Why would we need to be freed? We are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”

Now, nothing could have been further from the truth. Nothing. We know from the word of God that these men and women were deeply enslaved in ways they did not comprehend, and that this sort of spiritual bondage is what the Lord Jesus was really concerned about. But let’s just assess their claim literally, as they meant it.

Historically, their nation had been slaves in Egypt, slaves to Philistines, Ammonites and other marauding tribes in Canaan, slaves successively to the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, and if you read Maccabees, you’ll see the Greeks enslaved a good many Jews in the years after Cyrus freed them. In fact, at the very moment they denied being enslaved, each man present was effectively a slave of Rome. Iudaea — or Judea, as it is called in the gospels — was a Roman province. These “free” men paid tribute to Caesar and used his coin, were grotesquely put to death by his soldiers for any misbehavior or suspicion of sedition, and couldn’t themselves even execute a religious heretic without approval from the local Roman authorities.

At the human level, the fate of Israel had been determined by the whims of powerful men almost from its inception. Its citizens remained without self-determination even as they postured before the Lord. It was blatantly and almost humorously untrue that they had never been slaves to anyone; in fact, the offspring of Abraham had been overcome and enslaved by almost everyone. Their level of denial was breathtaking.

Whatever Overcomes a Person …

I repeat, there are few things more pathetic than a slave who doesn’t realize he’s a slave, that he’s always been a slave, and that he always will be a slave. Is a man whose chains are invisible to him any freer than a man who chafes under his bondage? Of course not.

Hey, we are all slaves. It’s just a question of whom we serve. Your master may be the nanny state, the needle, the bottle, the job or the technology in your pocket. It may be the vision of a brave new utopia right around the corner that determines how you spend your days and what you really care about. Your master may be mammon, fear, the need for approval, a legalistic heart, your passions or your out-of-control ego. And, as Jesus put it to his would-be followers whose character he was in the process of exposing, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” As Peter wrote, “Whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”

Why? Because we are not autonomous entities. We were created to serve. Service is built into us because we exist at and for the pleasure of Another. We do not self-determine. We can’t. The notion that we can is a lie drummed into us by the worst possible master of all.

To be completely autonomous is not even desirable. It doesn’t suit the way we are constituted. We haven’t the power to wield or the wisdom to exercise it if we did. Our very next breath is subject to divine fiat.

Freed by the Truth

So what did Jesus mean by telling these disciples that abiding in him would produce genuine freedom if he didn’t mean autonomy or self-determination?

Well, it’s related to the truth, isn’t it? It’s the truth that sets men free. Freedom is the acceptance of a particular sort of knowledge, not a change in one’s living conditions.

I think it’s the awareness of our rightful place in the universe, first as created beings, then as men and women subject to Christ, choosing to acknowledge what he says — and only what he says — as the accurate description of reality, and what he is in his essence as the only valid and worthwhile way to exist. That’s the truth that enables us to become everything we were intended to be and to realize our full potential as children of God.

To embrace that truth willingly and eagerly is to be truly free in heart and head, the only places freedom matters.

To deny it is to remain enslaved, however energetically you may posture about it.

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