Today’s second reading is the formal greeting that constitutes the beginning of the Letter to the Romans. It contains a rather cringe-worthy statement. Paul introduces himself to the church community in Rome as, “a slave of the Messiah Jesus.” (Rm. 1:1) Today, the shameful memory of slavery in this country probably makes most Americans reluctant to examine Paul’s meaning. There is, however, a compelling reason for Paul’s description of himself as “a slave of the Messiah Jesus.”
Slavery was a universal phenomenon in the ancient world. It was an accepted social institution throughout the Roman Empire. The church community in Rome would have had more than a passing familiarity with the widely accepted practice of slavery; the Roman congregation would have been composed, at least in part, of slaves. The fourth bishop of Rome, for example, was a slave who took his name from the Clement family which owned him.
Paul’s characterization of himself as “a slave of the Messiah Jesus” was intended, in part, to establish common ground between himself and the church community at Rome whom he had never met.
In the first decades of the evangelization of the gentiles, the Gospel had a strong appeal to the lower classes of Roman society. Jesus made a habit of giving special attention to the poor and marginalized; this certainly would have made an impression on the poor and marginalized among the gentile population of the Empire. The nature of Jesus’ redeeming death, likewise, would have appealed to slaves and the lower classes of gentile culture. Jesus was an innocent victim of persecution by the powerful; slaves, the poor, and the dispossessed would have felt an affinity with Jesus’ life and death.
When Paul called himself “a slave of the Messiah Jesus,” he was appealing to the majority of the membership of the church in Rome who were themselves poor and marginalized. He had another goal in mind, as well.
Later in the Letter to the Romans, Paul describes all of humanity as being born into slavery to sin. His readers would have been able to sympathize as some of them would have been born into the condition of slavery. He uses the common social practice of slavery as a means to describe the Gospel and God’s offer of salvation made through the death of Jesus. He wrote to the Romans, “thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become wholeheartedly obedient to the new way of life in which you have been trained.” (Rm 6:17)
Paul uses slavery as a metaphor with which to draw a contrast between sin and the grace of forgiveness. He describes sin as slavery to evil in order to describe the obedience of faith as new sort of “slavery” to holiness. There is, however, a vast difference in Paul’s mind between sin’s slavery and the new, redeemed “slavery” to God in holiness. He writes “when you were slaves of sin, you were free from righteousness . . . but now you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God.” (Rm 6:20,22)
Being “free from righteousness” (Rm 6:20), on account of sin, is an ironical way of describing a life bereft of goodness. The corresponding comparison of becoming “slaves of God” (Rm. 6:22) is a similarly facetious description of the obedience to God’s will that one chooses freely in order to fulfill the vocation of holiness to which all are called. (Rm. 1:7)
Paul called himself a “a slave of the Messiah Jesus” in order to describe his conversion experience as one in which he “received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith . . . among all the Gentiles.” (Rm. 1:5) Paul’s theology of sin and forgiveness describes sin as slavery to the choices that create a godless life. The antidote to sin, therefore, is the choice to live in “the obedience of faith” to the divine teachings communicated by the Gospel.
Here, Paul offers up another cringe-worthy statement. Obedience is an unpopular notion today. The idea of being obedient to anyone or anything sounds as if it requires sacrificing one’s personal autonomy. In a culture that prizes personal autonomy over all else, obedience is the equivalent of a mortal sin. Paul’s slavery metaphor for sin and forgiveness, however, applies directly to our cultural obsession with personal autonomy.
It is a common observation that American culture has become fragmented, polarized, increasingly violent, and decreasingly humane. Our cultural attachment to personal autonomy continues to grow hand-in-hand with the social ills that trouble us. I suggest that, in this country, we are slaves to the choices that create the lives we regret. Some Americans are slaves to their anti-social choices and the rest of us are slaves to our complaining about those who lead anti-social lives.
Even if we choose to live in denial about it, obedience to our sins is burdensome and self-destructive. Would it really be such a burdensome thing to choose obedience to righteousness? (Rm. 6:18) Choosing to be “a slave to the Messiah Jesus” is more than an exercise in freedom of choice. The choice not to remain mired in our sins is both a free choice and a choice that leads to greater freedom.
The great irony of human existence is that we insist on following our own counsels despite the fact that our chronic efforts never bear the fruit we desire. Perhaps, it would be worth trying a little dose of the irony of sacrificing the appearance of freedom in favor of the actuality of freedom.
Ironically, all of us are, metaphorically speaking, slaves of something. Many are slaves to their desires and appetites; others are slaves to their emotional needs. Many more are slaves to their fears. Paul’s facetious question to the Romans is worth our attention. In light of our naturally-occurring slavery to sin, wouldn’t it be preferable to choose freely to be “slaves” of holiness?