Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2“Honor your father and mother” —this is the first commandment with a promise: 3“so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” 4And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
The household code continues with instructions to children to obey their parents, referring back to the Ten Commandments. The author says the commandment to love one’s father and mother has a promise, that it may be well with you and you may live long. But, once again, the code departs from the usual by giving instruction to the father, who should not provoke his children to anger, but should bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
And then the author goes on to speak to slaves. We were discussing in our Tuesday class this week how slavery in biblical times differed from slavery in the American South. Throughout the Bible we find mention of slavery – in Leviticus there are laws for the treatment of slaves. Most often, slaves were prisoners of war, captives from some other army or country. Sometimes slaves were people who sold themselves, to pay off their debts. But slavery was not hereditary – a slaves children were not automatically slaves; nor did slavery have anything to do with the color of one’s skin – people of all races could be slaves. Slaves were often educated people who held positions of honor in a household, manager or steward of the household, teacher, or accountant to a householder’s business. They could also work their way out of slavery, earn money on the side, and purchase their freedom. All of this being acknowledged, the use of the words of Paul (or the author of Ephesians) for furthering the servitude and pretending that slavery in the South was justified was appalling! But it happened. It is indeed possible for people to ignore the meaning of scripture as a whole (love God and one another and try to live good lives), and use bits and pieces for their own purposes, as slave owners certainly did.
How then should we take these words about slaves? Consider it a way to live and work no matter what your work is. Do the job assigned, whether or not someone is watching – not to please your boss, but to please God, as if you were his slaves. Be enthusiastic in giving service, as if you were giving service to Jesus.
And, finally, masters do not get excused, even in their treatment of slaves – take this to heart if you are a boss or supervisor in the workplace. Do not threaten those whom you supervise, but respect them. Treat them as if they themselves are Jesus, helping you. The bottom line is, we all have the same Master, who is in heaven – and with us here – and he is not partial to the wealthy slave-owner, or the CEO.