Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
A lot of people talk about St. Paul as having domesticated Jesus' message, taking the edge off of all of those radical things that Jesus said and did and rendering the Christian message palatable to an audience in the Roman Empire who didn't want much about the current social order to change. People who talk like that would love to use our gospel and epistle passages this week as a case in point. Jesus calls people to leave what they're doing -- their occupations, villages, families, and their lives as they knew it -- to follow him. Paul says “remain in the condition in which you're called” -- advice that, if Simon and Andrew took it, would have them still toiling away at their nets and fully immersed in their former lives as village fishers.
That's a bad reading of Paul, though, which depends on a bad translation of 1 Corinthians 7 (and props to Scott Bartchy for my reading of this passage).
First off, Paul doesn't say “remain in the condition in which you were called.” What Paul says is “remain in the klesis in which you eklethe. As you might be able to tell from the transliteration, those two Greek words are related. Besides in 1 Corinthians 7:20, the word klesis occurs eight other times (Romans 11:29; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Ephesians 1:18, 4:1, and 4:4; Philippians 3:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; and 2 Timothy 1:9) in the New Testament, and each time the NRSV renders it as ”call“ or ”calling.“ That makes perfect sense, since it's derived from the verb kaleö, ”I call.“ What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:20 is ”remain in the calling in which you were called.“
Another and more thorny translation issue arises in 1 Corinthians 7:21, which the NRSV renders as ”Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition more than ever.“ But there's nothing in the Greek that says ”present condition.“ That phrase is added by our translators to clarify for readers what they're convinced the verse means: namely, that those who are slaves should try to remain slaves even if they are offered freedom. This is a highly problematic reading for at least two reasons, though.
First, nobody polled slaves for their wishes with respect to whether they would be freed. Owners could free slaves if they wished, and they generally did so when it was advantageous to them to do so. For example, a slave who had been injured or had become elderly and was unable to work would often be freed by her or his owner -- at which point, the slave would find, in the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
Cast out from the owner's household, possibly separated from family by her or his slavery, a slave in this situation might well want to beg the owner to remain in slavery -- but as I've said, nobody asked them, and when they did ask not to be cast out like a broken appliance, their cries generally fell on deaf ears. Slaves in the first-century Roman Empire couldn't choose to remain slaves any more than they could choose to be freed; their owners held all the cards in this situation. Paul wasn't saying, "if your owner wants to free you, try to remain a slave instead" any more than he was saying, "if you're a slave, try to get your owner to release you." If I can be a little anachronistic with the science, Paul might as well have told them to obey or protest the law of gravity; it would have had as much effect.
So what WAS Paul saying that slaves should do, then, in 1 Corinthians 7:21? The Greek is ambiguous: it's mallon chresai, literally, "rather, make use," and doesn't specify what slaves should make use of. It doesn't make much sense for the object of the phrase to be either "the opportunity to become free" or "the 'opportunity' to remain a slave," since the slave would have no control either way. There is a third possibility, though: that Paul was telling slaves to make use of their klesis, their calling in Christ, regardless of their status as slaves or freedpersons.
This not only works better than the other two readings in the context of what choices were and weren't available to first-century slaves; it also makes the most sense in the context of Paul's thought. Paul was, after all, the person who wrote that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28); and in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wants slaves who, after all, can't do anything about their status not to feel that it in any way undermines their worth in God's eyes or their ability to live into Jesus' call.
Indeed, Paul holds that Jesus himself was a slave in the world's eyes and died a slave's death, but was honored by God with the name above all names, and Paul instructs all Christians regardless of status to have the "mind of Christ" in this respect (Philippians 2:5-11). Every Christian receives this klesis, this calling, from God. That call from God is hardly a call to stasis, or to passive complicity in propping up an unjust world order. It is rather a call to full humanity in God's image, to full maturity in Christ, and to make full use of the gifts God gives us to live into what we pray: God's just rule come and God's will done, on earth as it is in heaven.
That's the klesis to which we were and are called -- slave or free, male or female, and whatever our nationality. (And, by the way, that's why the FREE, open-source, comprehensive adult formation curriculum I designed with John de Beer is called Klesis.) That's the call that led Andrew and Simon to leave their nets, their homes, their families, and everything that gave them a good name in their culture to follow Jesus, who is always on the move in the world as Christ's Body, anointed with God's Spirit to call the whole world to the wholeness and justice for which it was made.
Thanks be to God!