Meditations in 1 Peter : 31: Employees and Employers
1 Pet 2:18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
For some of us, when we come across references to slavery in the Bible, and especially when it is in the New Testament, we immediately move into negative mode but that, I would suggest, simply indicates our lack of thought about history. It is legitimate to wonder why God didn’t eradicate slavery because the Bible speaks often of Him being a God of justice. The truth, I believe, comes in the recognition that God gave humanity free will and He never forces His will on us. Thus when we go back to the New Testament period we see that slavery is common in the world and that nowhere in that world are there any stirrings to suggest change. The Lord would have to wait centuries for the likes of William Wilberforce so the battle to remove slavery would be won. Yet, tragically, even now there are places in the world today where there are slaves.
Thus when we come to the Gospels or letters of the New Testament we find they simply accept the fact of slavery and live within it. Peter has been telling his readers to stand out in the world and live in such a way that they bring honour and glory to their Saviour. Now he turns to a group of people who might have every cause to feel negative about others. But no, he doesn’t let them get away with that; he demands that even slaves respect their masters.
Now this takes the teaching about respect that we considered yesterday, to an even higher level. It is a strong word: “Slaves submit yourselves to your masters with all respect.” Now when we think about this more fully in the light of the whole revelation of the Bible, we realise that within Jewish society at least, and according to the Law, slaves would be those who had sold themselves into slavery, probably to help the finances of their family. The Law also required slaves to be released at regular intervals, so slavery in that society was not the same as that which had been seen, say, in the southern states of the USA. This was more like a case of employment but the wages had been paid up front.
The quality of the life of the slave would depend on the master and theoretically if you sold yourself into a family for seven years you would only do it with a master with a good reputation. Yet Peter recognises the reality of living in a Fallen World, that there will be slave owners who are harsh. This was more likely in that period where Rome had subjugated all the nations of that area and so slavery in that context would not have the protections provided by the Law of Moses and in the area to which this letter would go, slave owners were mostly not Jews who respected the Law of Moses..
So, as much as we might wish to think otherwise (as it should have been in Israel in earlier centuries) now with Rome being the dominant force, slavery was a much tougher experience, which makes Peter’s teaching all the more amazing. If in the previous meditation we saw that we should value every person – whoever they are – as people made in the image of God with their own unique special features, this still applies to slave owners. They are still people! They are still people and so, if we have understood this teaching, they deserve respect. We don’t have to like the bad side of their lives but they are still people who perhaps God wants to reach.
This is purely an academic discussion until we place it in the context of modern life, of you being an employee who has a harsh or unkind or unfair employer. Now on occasion the labour market means that sometimes it is possible to change jobs if you don’t like your employer, but that isn’t always possible, and so we need to face this teaching. With God’s grace we have the opportunity to be completely different employees to the rest or the world. The truth is that if there is an employer, manager, supervisor etc. who is harsh, unkind etc. then the other employees will probably be thinking (and talking) badly of them as well.
You and I, with the grace of God, may wonder, why is it that this person is like they are? I remember a teacher at school who was known for being tetchy and harsh with discipline and it wasn’t until I was older and further up in the school that I came to hear that he suffered with constant pain. Understanding what that person is carrying may help us cope with them. Seeing them as someone that Jesus loves and would like to draw to himself – through us? – may also help us adjust our thinking and our behaviour in respect of that person. Causes and possibilities! What causes them to be like they are? Does my bad work add to their attitude? Maybe it’s me who need to change first. What possibility is there of God moving in this person’s life? What could be the outcome if I will be open to what the Lord might want to do in them?
When we suffer an unkind, insensitive or harsh person above us in employment, the temptation is to go down under it and to be negative about them. That is not the way of the New Testament. There is always hope of change and faith looks to the Lord for such change to come. Be a blessing at work. Change the world!