A Calling to Service and Suffering (1 Peter 2:18-25)

Having addressed the need to “be subject” in the world of politics, Peter now turns his focus to another sphere of public life:

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (1 Peter 2:18-20)

Now, if we’re to apply a text like this, we have to wrap our heads around the ancient practice of slavery.  Why would writers like Peter (as well as Paul—Colossians 3:22) claim to love Jesus yet seem to wink at the practice of slavery?  It’s not an easy question to answer, but we must first recognize that slavery in the Roman world was very different from the slavery of America’s recent past.  For starters, we need to recognize just how many slaves there were.  Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary estimates that about a third of the first-century Roman population was slaves.[1]  While many became slaves by being born into it or even through piracy, provisions existed in which people would sell themselves into slavery.  The second-century jurist Florentius spoke of selling oneself into slavery with confidence that you could later be freed.[2]  Other writers defined slavery through decidedly contractual terms—meaning slavery was something like the “indentured servitude” of our recent past.[3]  Yet another writer said that slavery provided him physical necessities (food, clothing, shelter, medical care) that he would not have had otherwise.[4]  Granted, abuses ran rampant; the increasing tension between city and country life in Rome meant that there was a lot of moral ambiguity surrounding the practice.  But—unlike the slavery of the pre-war south—slavery in the ancient world was not anchored in systemic injustice or racial hatred.

So if we recognize this cultural difference, we can apply this text to our jobs, our careers.  This is what Christian writers have historically called “vocation”—the manner by which we fulfill God’s calling by using our gifts, skills, and abilities for some public good.

OCCUPATIONAL IDOLATRY?

Peter, however, seems to recognize that—perhaps owing to injustices within the world of ancient slavery?—there was a need for harmony to exist between “master” and “slave.”  In the same way, there is a need for harmony between employers and employees—even when we feel as though we are receiving unjust treatment at work.

What might this look like?  Well, it might start with repenting from “occupational idolatry”—that is, finding our ultimate worth and value from our careers.

Peter writes:

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:18-25)

Our ultimate source of security and comfort comes not from the approval of our boss or co-workers; it comes from God.  This is why we are able to follow Christ’s example, because we are confident that we don’t need to repay injustice with evil but instead demonstrate humility.

SHOWING LOVE THROUGH VOCATION

One of the key dangers in talking about our jobs in a Christian setting is that we tend to think that there are “secular” jobs and there are Christian ministries—as though these are worlds apart.  Part of Peter’s point—at least when applied to us—is that our character can be a powerful testimony to those around us.  Therefore all jobs can become a ministry, so long as we see our careers as a stage on which we enact the love and character of Jesus.  Nancy Pearcy makes this point in her book Total Truth.  She writes:

“Ordinary Christians working in business, industry, politics, factory work, and so on, are ‘the Church’s front-line troops in her engagement with the world,’ wrote Lesslie Newbigin. Imagine how our churches would be transformed if we truly regarded laypeople as frontline troops in the spiritual battle.”[5]

What about you?  Do you “use” your coworkers by seeking approval and admiration from them?  Or do you love and honor them by performing your job with integrity?  Do you show honor to your employers?  Or do you cut them down when they’re not around?  The gospel promises us that we have God’s approval and we need no one else’s—that true justice comes in Christ’s kingdom and not our own.  Our careers, therefore, become opportunities to demonstrate eternal values rather than sources of a weekly paycheck.

 

[1] Daniel Wallace, “Some initial reflections on slavery in the New Testament,” appearing online at https://bible.org/article/some-initial-reflections-slavery-new-testament

[2] Florentius, Iustiniani Digesti 40.12.7

[3] Dio Chrysostom

[4] Epictetus, Dissertations, 4.1.37.

[5] Nancy Pearcy, Total Truth

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