Bread – Servants

May 14, 2012


Readings for Monday, May 14, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: Lev. 25:35-55; Col. 1:9-14; Matt. 13:1-16; Psalms 77, 79, 80

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Among entrepreneurs there is a joke which goes something like this – “the benefit of being an entrepreneur is that I get to choose which 80 hours a week I have to work.” This sounds good until you realize that, if you are working 80 hours a week, there is very little choice as to when those hours are. The choice has an appearance of reality but the fact of non-existence. The entrepreneur is a servant to his or her customers or market or competitors, and it is they in reality who tell the entrepreneur what to do and when to do it. The perceived independence is a mirage.

But the Bible does not deal in jokes; it deals in reality. As a result, we have the reading today from Leviticus which concerns the problem of poor people and how they are treated. There are basically four ways this is done.

The first way is if there is a family and the brother “becomes” poor. This way seems to assume that the “poorness” has some kind of temporary feature to it. God through Leviticus says “If your brother becomes poor nd cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.” Lev. 25:35

The second way assumes there is a family and the brother “becomes” poor and, by implication, stays that way for an extended period of time. In this case, God through Leviticus says: “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave; he shall be to you as a hired servant and as a sojourner.” Lev. 25:39-40.

The third way assumes that the poor person has sold himself to a third party, even though he has a family. In that case, the sold person becomes more like a permanent servant to the purchasers, but can be redeemed (paid for) by the family. “If … your brother beside him [the stranger] becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, then after he is sold he may be redeemed.” Lev. 25:47-48

The fourth way assumes that the poor person has no family but is so poor he has to sell himself. In that case, the poor person becomes a slave with no right to be repurchased or set free. “You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property … you may make slaves of them.: Lev. 25:45-46

With respect to those members of the family of God, they are set free from whatever bondage they have in the year of Jubilee. With respect to those persons who are not members of the family of God, they are not set free.

There are several observations from this Leviticus reading today. First, everyone who is poor is in a dependent, servant relationship to someone who is not. The poor person who is temporarily poor is dependent upon his family. The poor person whose state is such that he has had to sell himself to his family is a servant to that family. The poor person whose state is such that he has to sell himself to a third party, even though he has family, is a servant to that third person and, if he has no family within the family of God, is actually a slave to that third person.

Second, the family member who is rich is a servant to someone who is poor. The rich person with a poor relative who is temporarily poor “shall support him” and there is no mention of the recipient’s showing any gratitude by helping around the house. The rich person with a poor relative who is more permanently poor must release that person at Jubilee, whether or not the “debt” of assistance is every re-paid.

Third, the only person who is not set free at Jubilee is the stranger who is not part of the family of God.

Fourth, the rationale for this structure is contained in the words “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.” Lev. 25:38. We are to be servants to our less fortunate brothers because we were poor and received mercy from God who delivered us. “…[T]hey are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt…” Lev. 25:42. Our brothers who have sold themselves to us are to be servants and not slaves to us, released on Jubilee, because they are first God’s servants and not ours. “For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants.” Lev. 25:55. Even those brothers who have sold themselves to third parties are to be redeemed or set free because they are ultimately God’s servants and no-one elses.

Fifth, the treatment of those poor persons who are outside the family of God is very different from those members of the family. Those within the family are all servants, subject to obedience but always with the expectation of release in the year of Jubilee, and those without the family are slaves, able to be transferred as such to the next generation, gaining no benefit from the kinsman-redeemer and receiving nothing at Jubilee.

There is something which strikes the Western mind as unfair or unequal about this, and so we are inclined to substitute the government for the family of God. Government in this case tries to act like a family, taking from the rich to give to the poor, but it is a “pseudo family” and not a real one. As a result, the schema of government support always ends up in slavery – both slavery of the rich (as they are compelled to “give”) and slavery of the poor, as there is no one to redeem them from their state, they have been sold to strangers who are not family, and there is no year of Jubilee.

The Bible, on the other hand, recognizes that there are those who are in the family of God and who receive the family’s blessings and those who are not. Before one jumps to conclusions, however, that this is somehow unfair, contemplate that in God’s economy there are four groups of poor people, three of who receive the benefits of servanthood, family support, and, ultimately, redemption and forgiveness (Jubilee). In man’s economy, there may be only one group of poor people, but they are all slaves with nothing ahead of them except to passed down from generation to generation in their same condition, neither free, redeemed, or forgiven.

Since, truly, we are all poor, the real question becomes then, are we “servants” or “slaves.” The answer to that is not in attitude or choice but in relationship. Are we truly a member of the family of God? If we are, we are servants with a destiny of release, redemption, and forgiveness. If we are not, we are slaves.

In this light, maybe our prayer should be today, “God, let me be a servant.” Because the alternative is not good.

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