We haven’t addressed the small parable in Luke 17:7-10. If the reader finds that parable troubling and offensive, I take that to be a good sign. The parable simply assumes the dynamics and language of the Roman enslavement system. It addresses the realities of that system from the perspective of the enslavers. And it assumes that enslavers are members of the Christian communities addressed by the Lukan account.
Were the “apostles” enslavers? While even small landowners in the first-century Roman empire often enslaved one or more enslaved persons, those who followed Jesus were less likely to fit into the category of enslavers. Jennifer Glancy, in Slavery as Moral Problem, argues that in fact our parable assumes that some of the apostles were enslavers. If that is the case, then “Luke’s suggestion that the apostles include slaveholders,” Glancy observes, “is incidental and casual.”
Enslavement, as Mary Ann Beavis notes, was practiced in first-century Palestine by both Jews and non-Jews. The realities and dynamics of the enslavement system and of the lives of the enslaved were known to Jesus’ audience and to the Lukan audience as well. Glancy notes the direct address of the text, “which among you…” As we have noted previously, this indicates a direct address both to Jesus’ audience and to the Lukan audience.
It may be that the apostles included former enslavers. “It gives me pause to consider that Luke, so much closer than I am to the everyday realities of Jesus’ world,” Glancy muses, “sees nothing amiss in an off-the-cuff suggestion that some of Jesus’ followers might have had experience giving orders to slaves” (Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 137). It should give us pause as preachers, and perhaps we need to help our listeners feel that discomfort if they don’t already.
Some members of Jesus’ entourage may well have held enslaved persons. That may be the case, for example, with the well-off women described in Luke 8 who underwrote some or all of the mission expenses. On the other hand, as Glancy notes, one of those women might have been the spouse of a slave/steward (Joanna). But most of the crowd, I suspect, did not possess sufficient wealth to purchase and hold enslaved persons.
It’s clear that a different situation unfolds as the Church begins to flower and grow in Acts. At least some early Christians were in fact slaveholders. That was likely even more the case in the communities of faith addressed by the Lukan account. The notable reality is that nowhere in the Lukan gospel or Acts is there any condemnation or questioning of the Roman enslavement system. Nor is there any such condemnation or questioning of the system in the Pauline letters, while we’re at it.
Jennifer Glancy offers a measured evaluation of enslavement metaphors in Jesus’ parables. “To say that Jesus relies on the patterns of slaveholding in his parables does not mean Jesus therefore approves of those patterns of behavior,” she writes. “Nevertheless, he does not explicitly repudiate those behaviors” (Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Locations 218-219). Glancy argues that the values of the Gospel are incompatible with the Roman enslavement system. Yet, I would argue, it takes significant exegetical and homiletical effort to make that clear and credible.
So, what are we to do with this little parable? I think that we preachers must note that this is a troubling passage for us. We are no longer in a place where some of us can blithely slip past it, muttering that it is a poorly chosen metaphor. For any who know the history of enslavement in our society, “an insistence that slavery is a paradigm for discipleship is cringe-worthy” (Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 241).
“Like land and livestock, slaves were objects to be used to best advantage by their masters,” Beavis writes. “Ancient slavery was intrinsically oppressive and was maintained solely for the benefit of the privileged (slave owners). It is difficult to imagine,” Beavis continues, “a slave owner sincerely wishing to trade places with his/her slave” (page 39). Yet, the Lukan author describes such place-trading in Luke 12. The situation assumed in our current parable reflects the societal and systemic norm, while the parable in Luke 12 subverts that norm.
Beavis notes that the point of the parable is not that the enslaved person is remarkable in any sense. Instead, “this parable is rather conservative in that it casually assumes that the listener is a slave owner who treats his/her slaves without undue consideration” (page 41). If there is a subversive or surprising element to the parable, Beavis argues, it is the suggestion that the enslavers in the audience would align and identify themselves with the enslaved persons (page 42). This idea would have been offensive to at least some listeners, whether in Jesus’ audience or the Lukan audience.
Jennifer Glancy compares the two parables in Luke 12 and 17. She notes that the difference in treatment is not due to the conduct of the enslaved persons, “which in both cases conforms to the behavior demanded of countless menial slaves in the ancient world” (Early Christianity, Kindle Locations 2162-2163). The difference depends on the “whims of the slaveholder.” In both cases, the enslaved persons have no control over how they will be treated.
There is no merit system that guarantees rewards for “better” behavior. “While Luke leaves no doubt that slaveholders would not customarily act as waiters for weary slaves,” Glancy notes, “the structure of these parables rests on the recognition that the welfare of chattel slaves depends on the caprice of the slaveholder and not on the intrinsic merits of the slave” (Early Christianity, Kindle Locations 2167-2168).
The parable begins from the perspective of the slaveholder. It’s true that all of Jesus’ listeners could imagine the situation, whether they were slaveholders, enslaved persons, or persons of some other status. However, the language is directed to those who hold slaves. If the rhetoric in the rest of the Lukan account is any indication, this second-person address usually indicates that the Lukan author is speaking through Jesus directly to people in the audience.
So, Jesus is talking to slaveholders and appealing to their firsthand experience. Of course, they would not tell the enslaved person in question to sit down and have a meal. The grammar of the question indicates clearly that the expected reply to the question is that no slaveholder would behave this way. Verses eight and nine describe the behavior expected from the slaveholder.
Suddenly, in verse ten the position of the listeners is reversed. They are no longer slaveholders. Instead, they are now “useless slaves” (Greek = douloi achreioi). The term, “useless,” is a stereotypical description of all enslaved persons in the Roman enslavement system. Cadwallader notes that even when the enslaved persons in the parable have done everything required, they are still to call themselves “worthless slaves.” Nothing has changed the basic reality for the (parabolic) enslaved person.
When we read the Lukan account and we encounter a status reversal, we should feel a tingle of recognition. The Great Reversal is one of the primary themes in the Gospel of Luke. That theme has just been illustrated at length in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Our text, if we begin at Luke 17:1, is a direct application of that parable in the lives of the disciples. If, even as disciples, we find ourselves in positions of power over others, we should expect such positions of power to be reversed in and for the sake of the Kin(g)dom of God.
This theological reversal apparently did little to facilitate an actual reversal or abolition of the Roman enslavement system. There was no Christian abolition movement in the Church until the nineteenth century. Yet, there was real concern about how Christian enslavers would interact with Christian enslaved persons and vice versa. We can see that concern expressed in the household codes in the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “Ancient slavery as an interpretive context for the New Testament servant parables with special reference to the unjust steward (Luke 16: 1-8).” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 1 (1992): 37-54.
Cadwallader, Alan. “Name punning and social stereotyping: Re-inscribing slavery in the Letter to Philemon.” Australian Biblical Review 61 (2013): 44-60.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today. Kindle Edition.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Kindle Edition.