Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
I suspect that the words "slave" and "slavery" are two of the most hated words in the English language, especially for American people. Our national history and experience with slavery and its aftermath have permanently scarred our culture. Even though the war to end slavery ended more than 100 years ago, we still hear politicians speak of the need to make reparations to those people who were held in bondage from the foundation of our country until they were emancipated by the thirteenth amendment to our constitution in 1865.
So when St. Paul uses the word "slave," as he did in identifying himself at the beginning of the Letter to the Romans and as he does again in referring to us in today's passage, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Wouldn't it be better to translate this word as "servant"?
A slave is one who lacks the ability to choose his/her own path. They are controlled by another. St. Paul chooses the word advisably. The Sinai Covenant and the Law which emanated from it placed a yoke of slavery to sin upon the necks of the Israelite people. If one combs the Torah, one will discover that there are 613 commandments attached to the Law. Try as one might, it would be impossible to avoid breaking any of them in one's lifetime. Most of us cannot even get through life without an infraction of the "Top 10." If one believes that one is saved by obedience to the Law, as the Israelites did believe, then salvation would be impossible. Perhaps this is why the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the most solemn of all the Jewish feast days. For one brief moment, the devout Jew can relish freedom from the slavery to sin.
St. Paul maintains that the yoke of sin is definitively broken for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Our salvation is not conditioned by our obedience. It has been won for us by Jesus and is guaranteed to those who believe.
One of my favorite images comes from a story I once heard. In it, I (or anyone else for that matter) am standing before the judgment seat of God. The bailiff of the court is reciting a list of my sins. When the bailiff finishes the long list, God the judge asks: "How does the defendant plead?" My advocate, Jesus, states unequivocally, "Guilty." However, without missing a beat, Jesus adds: "However, Gracious Judge and Merciful God, the debt has been paid. I paid for this sinner's crimes by my death upon the Cross of Calvary, and he believes that I am Lord." Just like that, God bangs the gavel and says: "Case dismissed."
The chains of slavery to sin have been broken for the believer.