During the days prior to the Civil war, today’s reading which admonishes that “slaves should be obedient to your masters,” was used as biblical proof text for the divine ordination of slavery. Such an interpretation which would justify an inhuman treatment of another human demonstrates a poor reading of the text and the denial of the fundamentally revolutionary character of Paul’s writing. Although Paul admits to the actuality of slavery, he inserts into this social condition the reality of the universality of God’s presence and power, and recalls for those slave holders that all have the same master. Paul does not so much change culture but takes what is a cultural reality and moves it closer to the divine plan.
An episode in Jesuit history resembles Paul’s predicament. Roberto di Nobili arrived in India in 1605 to preach the good news and faced the problem of the Hindu Caste system which permeated society. Offensive to his Christian sensibilities, he realized that an immediate abandonment of this system would be impossible. Change, he realized, must come slowly and but never letting his life or work wander from that goal of bringing men and women to Christ.
Our challenge is that of Paul and Roberto. How do we bring Christ into a Society that desperately needs redemption yet rebels at the medicine that would make it whole? Like the great saints we should look for every opportunity for conversion for ourselves and others and move with patience, keeping our eyes, as St. Paul wrote, on the prize. There is great wisdom in that prayer which takes the title Serenity by Rienhold Niebur.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.