Phil. 2:5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Did your Bible translators “chicken out?” Which ever version of the Bible you read, it didn’t just drop out of heaven ready bound and in English. It had to be translated from the original languages. If the translators came to verse 7, and the words, “but He emptied himself, taking on the form of a…..” and decided to translate the next word as “servant,” they might have gotten cold feet. Because everywhere else in the Bible that you find that same word, its usually translated as “slave.”
Now I can understand why one might hesitate before saying that Christ “emptied himself and took on the form of a slave.” That’s a tough word. It hurts just to say it. It brings up terrible images of Africans forcibly transported here like livestock, chains and manacles on their hands and feet, being sold at the auction block, split up as families, and forced to work against their will, at no profit to themselves. If they even survived the boat trip here, that is. Lest we think that’s just history, it also brings up modern images of human trafficking and sweat shops today. The U.S. State Department estimates that today there are anywhere from 4 to 27 million slaves worldwide, stuck in the sex trade, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and other services by no choice of their own. Even 4 million is more slaves now than at any other time in history. Some of them are hidden in this very neighborhood, in restaurant kitchens and brothels. And what do you call it when undocumented immigrants work full days and then sometimes don’t get paid, because they have no legal recourse?
“Slave” also conjures up images of someone whose back and spirit are bent over, whose eyes are downcast, who is but a passive, unwilling victim, who has learned to not even dare to have any say in the direction of his or her life, just so as to survive another day.
Christ Jesus certainly was not like that. The world has never seen a man more free. Yet one reason I prefer the translation, “slave” to “servant” is that Christ died a slave’s death, as the passage so powerfully reminds us. The cross was reserved as an instrument of torture, shaming and disposal for rebels, brigands and “uppity” slaves who would not be not servile; who did not bend the back, the gaze, nor the spirit, to their self-appointed superiors.
A second reason I prefer the word, “slave,” is because of what Paul is trying to accomplish in this letter. Paul is writing to a conflicted church. He wants to get their attention, to wake them up and shake them loose from the usual competitive games of social preening, status-seeking and attention-getting that made junior high so miserable for a lot of us, that make some of us rue going to work. So, which word is more likely to get their attention and break the chains of social one-up-manship that were dividing and tormenting the Philippian Christians? I’d vote for the word, “slave.”
All the more striking is that Paul is not the only one confronting us with the word, “slave.” A lot of scholars believe that Paul did not make these words up. These verses read like poetry; they have the structure of a hymn. Very likely, Paul was reminding the Philippian Christians of a hymn that they knew already. All over the Roman Empire, Christians were singing about a God who broke into human history as….a slave, the least-honored, most vulnerable, least secure, most dis-empowered member of society.
Consider too that they were singing this at a day and age when many other people believed that God had indeed broken into history and society, but on the other end of the social pyramid, the top end, the pinnacle, as the emperor. Ask any Greek and Roman subjects of the empire at the time, “Who is the Son of God?” and many of them would say, “Caesar.” You can still read it on their coins.
So have I convinced us of the shock value of Christians—not just Paul—confessing that divinity entered humanity at the level of a slave? Because that’s about all the status and security that a working class Jew of the Roman Empire had, that of a slave. On the cross that’s the death that Jesus suffered and died, the one reserved for rebels, criminals and slaves, especially for slaves who did not act their place.
And that’s an important distinction: “slaves who did not act their place.” As I said, the world has never seen anyone more free than Jesus. Free from the compulsions and fears and desires that drive us against ourselves and each other. And yet his total and eternal commitment to God His Father and to us was like that of a slave. As this first-ever recorded Christian hymn points out, he was obedient “unto death, even death on a cross.”
If anything, I’m reminded of a special kind of slave mentioned in Old Testament law. In the Old Testament is a law to the effect that, after a slave’s years of indentured service are up—seven at the most–he or she is to be sent off with some sort of financial gift to help them start a new life. But if it should happen that this Hebrew slave should love his master and mistress and their family so much that they would want to serve them forever, they could seal themselves in to a lifelong covenant relationship with that master and his family, by having the master take a hammer and drive an awl through the lobe of their ear. That hole would then be a public and visible sign of the commitment and covenant between master and slave, who had effectively become family.
By calling Jesus that kind of “slave,” we could say that the nails that held the hands and feet of Jesus on the cross are like the hole on that slave’s ear, the sign of how God has bound himself to serve us and love us, his human family, whatever the cost.
Now, if enough people could have understood this about 200 years ago, we could have skipped the American Civil War. Because about then, the churches and the people of the United States started dividing and drawing up sides over slavery. In fact, some historians say that the fact that each side appealed to the same Bible diminished a lot of people’s trust in the Bible. I still hear that today, when people ask me, “Why should I believe you Christians and your Bible? You can make your Bible say anything, even the most morally offensive and oppressive things, as you did for slavery.”
Now is not the time to rehash the whole argument over slavery. But it basically came down to an argument between human rights and property rights. And that’s still how we tend to argue over things today: my rights versus your rights. Now I think that human rights take priority over property rights, if ever the two should conflict. But those arguments missed the big, game-changing event that the earliest Christians understood and sang about: that Almighty God entered the world at the lowest level of society, not the highest. And like Jesus turning over the money-changers’ tables, that way of divine entry has turned everything upside-down and scrambled all our calculations of who’s in, who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. It should bring all the games of human exploitation and social one-upmanship to a screeching halt.
In effect, this is about more than human rights. Its about divine rights. But not the rights that God has and which God exercises. Its about those rights that God has surrendered. Or literally, those of which he emptied himself, in verse 7.
Which naturally raises the question of why He would do this for us. Three reasons I can think of: First of all, by “taking on the form of a slave,” Jesus mirrors to us the reality of human nature: that we are all slaves and will be slaves whether we like it or not. The question is, Will we be slaves bound to death and evil, to our fears and our appetites, or will we be slaves bound to God and goodness, to life and love?
This is what our friends in the Twelve Step Support Groups understand, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous, that addiction is enslavement to the word, “More.” Two such groups meet here on weeknights. I’ve been trying to get a Twelve Step group going for fellow work-a-holics, but we’re all too busy to meet. And I keep being told that a support group for procrastinators intends intends to have a meeting one of these days.
In the movie, “Wall Street Never Sleeps,” the main character asks his antagonist, a billionaire investor and speculator, “Do you have a target figure, money-wise, at which you’ll keep your winnings and get out of the stock market?”
“Oh, I have an exact figure,” says the billionaire tycoon.
“And what is that?” the main character asks.
Which again is slavery. Because we so easily become slaves to “more” of something, anything, there are war, pollution, global warming, corruption, addiction, abuse and….slavery, human trafficking. It all began when the First Adam grasped for Godhood in the garden. Ever since then, we’ve been susceptible to every snake-in-the-grass who tells us, “You can be like God.”
But what the First Adam grasped for, the Second Adam emptied himself of, when he entered our world through the back door, the slave quarters. And that’s the second reason why he did so: by emptying himself of all that Adam grasped, God has reversed the curse of sin and death, he has un-sinned the original sin, the sin at the source of all sins: our rejection of our humanity, our grasping after Godhood. What the first Adam grasped for, Jesus, the second Adam, released, and emptied himself of it. God’s slavery then becomes our freedom from our enslavement to power, position and possessions.
The third reason the Son of God entered the world as a slave was to mirror to us the true nature of God: that compassionate service, sacrifice, self-giving and eternal faithful covenant love are inherent, indelible, central and profound features of God’s nature. Its what we mean whenever we quote the Bible passage, that “God is love.” What does God look like? children naturally ask. Well, God looks like a slave, with a towel around the waist and a washbasin in hand, bending down to wash the feet of others. That, again, was slaves’ work.
When God entered history and society through the slave quarters, that was the death knell for all human slavery, abuse and exploitation. What if so many slave-holding plantation owners, or today’s human traffickers, could put all that in their mental pipes and smoke it a while until they got it? I think slavery, then and now, would have crumbled under the weight of conviction and conscience. But let’s not underestimate the addicting, enslaving power of profits and power over people.
In keeping with our Lenten season theme, “For the Joy Set Before Him,” we have to ask, Where and how would the human Jesus find the joy and the strength to identify with the slaves of his world, and to die their most shameful and painful death? That’s where the word “exalted” comes in, in verse 9. “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and given him a name that is above all names, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
At the beginning of Lent we heard how the devil tempted Jesus with a shortcut back to his original glory. “Worship me and all these kingdoms that you see, with their glories, will be yours,” he said. But Jesus did not fall for that. He trusted his Father’s promise, that the way to his rightful throne led through the slaves’ quarters. That “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” is not only good advice for dinner parties, its how the universe works.
“To the one who overcomes will I grant to sit with me on my throne,” Jesus says to us in John’s Revelation. Christ’s throne is ours as well. The throne and the crown are not for those who grasp at it, like the first Adam did. Its for those who put their trust in the One who emptied himself for our sakes, and who follow him in life. Having put our trust in him, we too are free to empty ourselves of the enslaving addictions of power, status and superiority over others, for the sake of all slaves, in earth as well as the One in heaven.
Christ’ slavery purchased our liberty. Our liberty is his kind of slavery.