WHAT DOES SLAVERY LOOK LIKE?
3rd Sunday in Lent – B LSB #865
Text – Exodus 20:2
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
WHAT DOES SLAVERY LOOK LIKE?
It’s a single word yet it evokes a thousand different viewpoints. It’s a single word yet its historical context is so vast & pervasive that writers will never come close to capturing the totality of the effect it has had on the human race. In order to approach some understanding of the damage it has done, we’ll consider, “What does slavery look like?”
To some it will appear to be the chores they’re asked to do – cleaning their room, going to confirmation class or babysitting younger siblings. To others, slavery is having to cook meals, clean the house, keep up on the laundry. It can include mowing the lawn, paying the bills or fixing the car. A dead end job, or a dead end marriage may leave the same impression.
Still, as trying as any of those circumstances can be, they’re trivial compared to the kind of slavery practiced when President Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation. It was often a brutal & inhumane way of treating people, yet it wasn’t unique to our nation. Slavery has been a common practice throughout the history of sinful mankind.
In Exodus 20 the people of Israel had already been brought out of the house of slavery. If we look back to chapter 5, however, we get a glimpse of what things were like prior, as Moses & Aaron said to Pharaoh:
“…This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go so they may hold a festival in my honor in the wilderness.’ ‘Is that so?’ retorted Pharaoh. ‘And who is the Lord? Why should I listen to him & let Israel go? I don’t know the Lord, & I will not let Israel go. (Exodus 5:1b-2 NLT)
“That same day Pharaoh sent this order to the Egyptian slave drivers & the Israelite
foremen: ‘Do not supply any more straw for making bricks. Make the people get it themselves! But still require them to make the same number of bricks as before. Don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy… Load them down with more work. Make them sweat! That will teach them to listen to lies!’” (Exodus 5:6-8c, 9 NLT)
Today, slavery is officially illegal in all countries, but there are still an estimated 20 to 36 million slaves worldwide, many of them in debt to loan sharks in South Asia. In Ancient Greece, it’s reported that anywhere from 40 to 80% of the population was enslaved. The estimated number of slaves in the Roman Empire ranges from 60 to 100 million people.
No wonder the ancient Greeks & Romans had such magnificent building projects. We are blessed to live at a time in history when slavery is far less pervasive than it was in centuries past. Our struggle now is not so much in being enslaved by other people, as it is in being enslaved to our own desires. Marketing & advertising exploit much of that.
“What does slavery look like?” To some, it’s striving to own a particular car, or fashionable clothing, or the designer home. To others, it’s striving to get a certain college degree, or a position with that famous company, or maybe it’s to have a boyfriend or girlfriend who looks like those on television, or in the movies.
There are also people enslaved to the obsessive compulsive sort of tendencies. The classic case is someone who washes their hands a hundred or more times a day. Maybe their desk, or kitchen table, has to be sparkling clean all the time, or their house, closet & shoes need to be in immaculate condition & position at all times.
People who suffer from addictions, along with those who have eating disorders, are slaves to impulses that are irrational & yet exceedingly difficult to control. The underlying & key issue beneath anything we may be enslaved to is that we are not able to control our actions with precision or with authority. St. Paul wrote to that point in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (7:19 ESV) So it’s interesting to note that in the 20th chapter of Exodus, after our heavenly Father states that He rescued His people from the house of slavery in the land of Egypt, His very next word is this:
“You shall have no other gods before me.” Somehow, in Yahweh’s wisdom, the Ten Commandments follow immediately upon Israel’s rescue from slavery. Yahweh’s call to obedience is based upon His rescue of them, as He parted the waters of the Red Sea & led them to the other side on dry land.
No matter what you might be enslaved to, no matter what slavery looks like in your own particular life, as your heavenly Father redeems & rescues you from sin, death & the power of the devil, the Ten Commandments are Yahweh’s answer for the life you are now privileged to live. You have been rescued & led to the other side through the waters of Baptism.
God’s call for you, to obedience, is not based upon His creation of you, but upon His rescue of you; upon the fact that Yahweh is bringing you out of the land of sin – out of the house of slavery to sin. In the design for human life, our Lord has woven into our very being both freedom and responsibility to love God above all things & to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In the book of Exodus, Israel was to recognize its complete dependence on God’s redemptive mercy & power. Helpless in the shackles of slavery, it had not merited divine favor nor had it contributed to its deliverance out of the “house of slavery.” It had never been able to control its actions with precision or with authority.
When Jesus was serving the three years of His ministry, the people recognized He was different: “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, & they obey Him.’” (Mark 1:27 ESV) None of us can control all our actions with authority. We do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want is what we keep on doing. That’s what slavery looks like. We too are helpless in the shackles of slavery to sin. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34 ESV)
Now it’s time to be really honest. When things begin to get crazy, when stuff is getting out of hand, don’t we like to deal with it from a standpoint of power & authority? You know, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” That’s how our ego likes to view things, but the truth is we are not tough, & when it comes to living a perfect life, we never get going!
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” is how we’d like to view ourselves. Its how the world likes to view itself, & because of that, the gospel message is foolishness to our sinful nature & to unbelievers: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV)
So what do we do with the Law, with the Ten Commandments? How do we keep ourselves from becoming slaves to it, or to all of our earthly desires & obsessions & failings? When we want our home to be immaculate, or give in to the latest advertising to buy this, so we can be like that, what are we to do?
Those are critical questions since God’s law gives us part of His design for life. Fortunately, God has also given us the other part of His design for this broken world, & that is the gospel, or the message of the cross. It is folly to our sinful nature, but it is the utmost of wisdom to our saintly nature, to the part of us that does have faith in Jesus as Savior.
Because we want to run our own lives, making decisions contrary to God’s law, we experience His commands as the enemy. We think God’s law is what slavery looks like, because it interferes with our efforts to redefine what it means to be human. As creatures we can only create frustration & fear with our futile, fatal efforts to redesign our humanity according to our own foolish plans. It only makes sense to enjoy God’s gift of the true design for human living. We think God’s law is what slavery looks like & we think God’s good news is for chumps who are taken advantage of. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about the Gospel:
“The Word of God in its weakness takes the risk of meeting the scorn of men & being rejected. There are hearts which are hardened & doors which are closed to God’s Word. Yet that Word recognizes opposition when it meets it & is prepared to suffer. It is a hard lesson, but a true one, the gospel, unlike ideology, reckons with impossibilities.”
The Ten Commandments are an impossibility for us, that Christ needs to fulfill on our behalf, & to save us from. Taking the message of God’s mercy into our sin hardened world will cause us to get hurt, but not just out there. Even in here, among our fellow church members & among our own family members. The good news of forgiveness is often dismissed as weakness.
The Ten Commandments do show us how to live, but we’re able to live the life that fulfills God’s design only through the liberating resurrection of our Savior, the Son of God. Luther’s approach to teaching the Christian faith incorporated those elements in this way:
We diagnose our sin through the Law, we receive healing, life & repentance through the Gospel, & with both we have a plan for living as a forgiven child of God.
In Exodus 20, God was making His covenant with the people whom He had freed from slavery in Egypt. He had claimed them, giving them this gift apart from anything they had done to earn this freedom. With God’s gift came His expectations. These expectations were also a good gift, a plan for enjoying their identity as His creatures & His children.
Yahweh never faltered in the terms of His covenant with Moses, but the people of Israel did fail. At last, our Lord made the final covenant on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was there as fully God & fully man. He fulfilled both sides of the covenant. The difficult question is: “How do we live up to the expectations that come along with being in God’s family?” The answer is the focal point of Lent. We live a life of repentance in the grace & mercy of our heavenly Father. We are no longer slaves, but heirs of our heavenly Father.
The Law of God was meant to show us what true life is. The Gospel of Jesus Christ enables us to live that life & live it to the full. Amen.
Help us Your holy Law to learn, to mourn our sin & from it turn in faith to You & to Your Son & Holy Spirit, Three in One. Hear us, dear Father, when we pray for needed help from day to day that as Your children we may live, whom You baptized & so received. Lord, when we fall or go astray, absolve & lift us up, we pray; & through the Sacrament increase our faith till we depart in peace. Amen.
 Bonhoeffer, D., The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), p. 207.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet