1 Peter 2:18 – 25
18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22 ‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,* so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds* you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Peter moves on to give specific advice about how this people, who are already persecuted and driven from their homes, might live quiet lives in their exile, not bringing any attention upon themselves, staying “under the radar” as we said earlier. This is how they are to do that – slaves should accept the authority of their masters.
First, we must understand that this author lives in a time when slavery was simply a part of life, a part of every culture of the time. The Romans had slaves, but so did the Jews. Roman slaves were generally prisoners of war; Jewish slaves were people who got into trouble financially and sold themselves. No one, including Peter and Paul, ever considered that, perhaps, this might be wrong. We find similar passages in Paul, similar advice to slaves.
However, these passages were used over the years, especially during the first half of the 19th century, to justify what was actually a great systemic evil in our own country, slavery. Justice Thurgood Marshall tells the story of reading the Bible to his grandmother, who could not read. She loved the Bible, and loved for him to read to her, but she would never let him read the letters of Paul or Peter. One day he asked her why that was, and she told of how, when she was a slave, the master would send a preacher down to preach to them, and he always used these passages, “Slaves, obey your master.” In this particular passage, the slave is told that he is blessed for enduring punishment that is unfair, and harsh – wouldn’t the plantation slave owners have loved that! It is wrong to use scripture to perpetuate a wrong! This wrong goes against Jesus’ own teaching about loving one another, and caring for one another.
Having included that qualifier, what can we, who are free people, learn from what this author is saying? Sometimes people find themselves in situations beyond our control – I think here of people who are imprisoned for their faith, or perhaps a much milder, but still uncontrollable, situation, such as having to remain in a job where the environment is abusive for a time, until retirement, or until another job opens up. (I would not tell anyone to remain indefinitely in an abusive situation!) So – let’s consider the author’s advice in light of an uncontrollable situation: In such a situation, we are called to emulate Christ, to remember how he suffered for us.
Certainly, the suffering that Jesus endured was undeserved, but he endured it, for us. He could have called down an army of angels, but he did not. Instead, he bore our sins on the cross. For, like sheep, we had gone astray, but he has brought us back to him and to God.