Did Jesus teach that slaves should be abused?(!)

Did Jesus teach that slaves should be abused?(!) May 1, 2017

REX’S QUESTION (Paraphrased):

How can anyone believe in Jesus when he was a liar who preached “liberty” yet instructed people to beat slaves?


Rex, and any folks who influenced his thinking, seriously misread Jesus’ teaching, so it’s worth unpacking why and glimpse how experts advise us to understand the Bible. Here’s the full question, as posted:

“How is it possible to believe in Jesus when he claimed to ‘set at liberty them that are bruised’ (Luke 4:18) but also gave bruising instructions on how to flog slaves? (Luke 12:47-48)  His first claim is clearly dishonest! His instruction to flog slaves for not knowing what they’re doing is malicious. After all, he also said “God forgive them for they know not what they do’! How can anyone trust a man who lies and contradicts his own instructions?”

If Jesus was deceitful, confused, and advocated physical abuse of helpless slaves, yes, he’d be a flawed moral teacher, much less someone for billions to worship as the Son of God. When a passage like this seems puzzling or contradictory, it’s advisable to seek guidance from a couple Bible commentaries in your local library written by solid scholars familiar with the ancient idiom and context.

Rex’s interpretation follows a wooden literalism that makes Fundamentalists look liberal. The Luke passage is not divine “instructions” from Jesus but a parable, his distinctive method of teaching. Parables are tales, or tall tales, that often employ exaggeration or perplexity, and are intended to provoke reflection or make a point, somewhat like the secular Aesop’s Fables.

A preliminary issue here is whether Jesus was talking about “slaves” or everyday farm workers, that is, “servants.” To some extent that’s a distinction without a difference in ancient societies where subsistence agriculture dominated. To make a living, most servants had few options except to be hired hands, bound to a particular farm and subject to an owner who might treat them fairly or (violating biblical commandments) harshly.

Either translation is possible, but the ever-handy www.biblegateway.org shows 42 prefer “servant” so we’ll use that. Though only seven say “slave” that includes two biggies, the literal New American Standard Bible (NASB) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), an ecumenical favorite. The Expanded Bible picks “servant” with “slave” as an option in brackets.

Either way, look beyond the two verses Rex cites to peruse the entire section, Luke 12:35-48 (paralleled in Matthew 24:43-51). We find three interrelated parables about  a “steward” who supervises fellow underlings, assigned by the master who owns the farm.

Jesus employs metaphor and hyperbole, and analysts see three layers of interpretation. First, on the surface Jesus is a wisdom teacher conveying common-sense advice akin to the biblical Book of Proverbs. A dependable steward is acting morally, and also wisely because he’ll be rewarded with a promotion. The wise steward is also ready to handle things that can happen unexpectedly.

Like many academic commentators, I. Howard Marshall of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, explains a second, deeper layer. He thinks “no doubt” Jesus was referring to himself as the master who needs his disciples to be skillful, faithful, and alert stewards — and by extension Jesus also wants the later leaders of the Christian movement to be prepared for whatever is to come.

In the third layer of interpretation, for instance by Fred Craddock of America’s Emory University, this means Jesus wants his followers to be “ready for the coming of the kingdom,” which was already beginning with his advent, and for “the coming of Christ” upon his second advent at the close of the age.

Samuel Abogunrin of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, says “one must be spiritually ready at all times for the advent of the Son of Man. The mind that is spiritually alert is not one preoccupied with worldly concerns, defensiveness, and the physical accumulation of wealth. The focus is to be in preparation for the Lord’s coming,” whatever “the time of his arrival.”

Back to Rex’s concern. Jesus depicts an opposite example. Say the master is absent and the steward beats the servants, denies them the meals they’re due while gobbling up the food supply himself, and gets drunk. When the master turns up without notice he will give this fool “a severe beating” and fire him. The NASB and NRSV exaggerate the punishment in verse 46, saying he’d be “cut in pieces.”

Jesus is not advocating the beating of servants (or slaves) but the opposite. Look back at verse 45. The sinful steward is condemned precisely because he unfairly beats the servants (or slaves) he’s responsible for. The master in the story may generally represent Jesus, but he’s not saying I will beat unfaithful stewards, much less dismember them. Analysts say the punishment underscores the seriousness of the steward’s beatings and other misconduct, drawing upon the real-life reality that a steward should beware because a landowner might respond by giving the steward the same treatment that he gave the other staff members.

That’s not all. Verse 48 in Luke adds an important kicker not found in Matthew’s version. A steward who “did not know” but “did what deserved a beating” is punished for careless misconduct, but only lightly. Jesus’ moral: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.” He was directly addressing that to the leaders of God’s people.

The passage endorses a far-sighted principle in Old Testament law (carried into modern criminal justice) that the level of knowledge affects culpability and thus the severity of punishment (as in Numbers 15:29-34 or Deuteronomy 25:2-3). Make sense?


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