Theology, no matter how sophisticated it is, no matter how transcendent the thinking behind it is, remains written by us, conforming to our limited human capacity to engage the absolute truth. What we are able to comprehend is finite; what lays beyond our comprehension is infinite. While we can apprehend the truth, we do so in a limited fashion; what we declare can only be relative representations and pointers to the absolute truth. Paul understood this. He knew that he had to distill what he learned from his mystical experiences into a presentation which his audience could understand. He also recognized that he had to let his readers know what he was doing so that that would follow the spirit and not the letter of what he said. This is why, in the middle of a discussion concerning sin and righteousness, he wrote: “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19 RSV).
The terms which Paul used, terms like sin, death, shame, slavery, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal life, were all words which his audience already had some sort of understanding based upon their background. They were able to appreciate the connotations implied by his use of them. Paul also know that with each and every term, there were possible dangers in their use, as people could ignore the limitations implicit in their use. That is, they could construct systems of thought which ignored those limitations. Then, they would end up obscuring the absolute truth instead of pointing to it. This is something which we can see happening time and time again throughout history, as people interpreted Paul’s text, absolutizing the text instead of looking for and seeking the meaning Paul wanted to imply.
Paul wanted people to realize that slavery to sin was overcome by Christ. Once we are freed from the bondage to sin, we should then engage righteousness, and in doing so, find ourselves receiving eternal life. Thus, our spiritual journey takes us from slavery to sin, a slavery which undermines our freedom because it limits our ability to be righteous, to freedom from sin. It is not that we will merely be able to do good, once we are properly freed from sin and united with the righteousness of God, we will do what is good naturally, making us, in effect “slaves to righteousness.” We will serve God by being righteous. This is because our nature is inherently good, and when it is freed from the corruption of sin, we will follow through with our natural goodness and do good. Thus we must not interpret Paul’s description of being a slave to righteousness as being the same thing as being a slave to sin, that is, we must not think it leads to an undermining our freedom. It is, rather, the reverse; we are being made free so we can truly be ourselves. Sadly, so many have taken this metaphor literally, and so misconstrue Paul’s point, which is that we are freed from the tyranny of sin:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:20-23 RSV).
True freedom lies with righteousness, so that through it, we no longer have to face the consequences of sin, that is, we will not have to face total corruption and annihilation through death. Such death is the ultimate destruction of our freedom, because it would take from us all that we are; if we were eliminated from being, we would not exist, and if we did not exist, we could not and would not be able to will anything. Being a slave, or servant, to God, is the opposite of slavery to sin, for it means we are united with God and find ourselves living out and experiencing the divine life, with all the joys granted by it. It really is not slavery, as we think of slavery; we will not be forced to act from any form of coercion.
We must also understand that Paul used the term slave, because, in his day, some slaves had a good relationship with their master, being treated as members of the household, loved and respected by their master (and so loved their master in return). While the number of such relationships were probably very few, and many slaves were abused and treated as if their life was without value, we do find an example of such a positive relationship between a “slave” and a “master” in the Gospels, when a Centurion sought out Jesus because of the love he felt for his slave:
As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:5-10 RSV).
Often, commentators discuss the great faith of the Centurion. This is certainly an important part of the Gospel story. But it is not the only thing which is found in it. What is also significant is the fact that the Centurion looked after and took care of his servant. His faith in Jesus emerged out of his love for his servant, so that, instead of having the servant serve him, he served his servant by looking for Jesus and having Jesus help him. It is this care, this concern, which even if it was rare, could be and was seen in Paul’s day, allowing Paul therefore to use the term “slave” as a metaphor for our relationship with God. In such an instance, God would be like the Centurion, taking care of and serving the servants instead of being served by them. This is how he could use an otherwise inhumane structure to discuss, in human terms, our relationship with sin and righteousness. We choose what we serve based upon what we love; if we are slaves to sin, we will not get any love and respect back, but instead, we will find ourselves used and abused by what we love until it destroys us and leaves us for dead. If we tie ourselves to God with love, God will serve and help us, rewarding us, granting us far more than we could ever imagine.
When we read Scripture, we should try to look beyond the terms which are used in it. We must not be attached to the letter of the text, but rather, we must look for the intended meaning, to the spirit of the text. If we do, then we will be able to appreciate Paul’s words better, seeing that what he presents to us is a discussion of love and the way we tie ourselves to that which we love. Sin is nothing in relation to God’s love, so that when we turn to God with our love, God frees us from its bondage. Once we are freed from our slavery to sin, we will be able to enter communion with God and engage God in constant, eternal love, receiving the benefits of that love, not just once, but for all eternity. For, instead of the death and destruction which sin brings to us, we will have the life and beatitude which is had by those who unite themselves to God with love.
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