Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
It always makes us a little uncomfortable when the scriptures discuss slavery as an accepted part of the social order. But we need to understand the context of Jesus’s and St. Paul’s time as distinct from the dehumanizing and blatantly immoral institutions of more modern times. At that time and place, people became slaves for generally one of two reasons. One was that they or their people had been defeated in battle, and they were enslaved rather than killed; the Latin word for slave “servus” actually means “saved”. The other was that they sold themselves into service for repayment of debts. Slaves also might be born into the institution. At any rate, as our scriptures demonstrate, slaves were expected to be treated humanely and had opportunities to advance to prestigious positions and even to be granted their freedom. They were in a position of servitude because in some sense, they owed their master their life; yet their position was neither permanent nor hopeless. But being bound to the master to whom they were indebted, they were at his mercy and their situation and prospects depended on whether or not they had a good master who cared about their wellbeing.
St. Paul therefore uses this image of presenting ourselves as obedient slaves to indicate our relationship to either sin or obedience to grace. For our sins are that debt that we cannot repay, that lost battle that bears a death sentence that require us either to continue to sin and become further indebted to this cruel master or to throw ourselves upon the mercies of grace. And grace and the obedience leading to righteousness are those good masters, that entrust those indebted to them with their priceless treasures of sound teaching to exalt and enoble those bound to them and set them free. But the responsibility remains to be obedient for the sake of righteousness.
Jesus also uses this paradigm of the slave of the master to remind us that the choice to serve sin or righteousness is ours, and that the gift of grace comes with the responsibility of obedience to the master’s will. He tells a parable of a slave who has risen in the ranks and is a manager entrusted with the affairs and estate of his master. This is one who, though in servitude, has at his disposal the riches of a well-to-do free man and even the rule of the rest of his bond men and women. And he has the choice either to be self-indulgent and oppressive, or to do as his master did and dispose of his resources wisely and to take care of and exalt those in his care and at his mercy.
We may not think of ourselves too often as slaves of the ancient world, but the same choice faces us every day. Will we be mastered by sin, indulge our vices and despise our fellow human beings in our self-centeredness, taking the mercy of God for granted? Or will we throw ourselves on that mercy in full gratitude and obedience and become like the One who has shown us mercy who is wise, generous, and other-centered?
What sins have I allowed to be master over me? Have I been self-centered, lashed out and hurt anyone, or exalted myself above anyone? How can I be more obedient to God? How, with God’s mercy, can I be more merciful, more generous, and more gracious to others?
Today, let’s meditate on the mercy we have received and the responsibility of obedience that mercy asks of us. Let’s pray for generous and obedient hearts to accept that mercy and responsibility, so to break the power of sin and become agents of mercy in our world.