Plagues, Wages and Servanthood

Our reading today from Exodus (Chapters 7-9) had to do with the first plagues that God sends through Moses upon Egypt in an attempt to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go, so they can worship God freely in the wilderness.

 There are a lot of ways one could reflect on these plagues.  Like why can the Egyptians magicians duplicate them so easily?  Does God actually harden Pharaoh’s heart?  You get the idea.

I am most interested today in the connection between slaves of an empire, the laborers from Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20, and finally Jesus’ statement to the disciples, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”  I imagine you could get into some slippery territory if trying to apply Jesus’ statement in a forced way (rather than as a freely chosen orientation) .  It seems clear to me that God doesn’t approve of the slavery his people face in Egypt, a slavery that not only perverts their work lives, but affects their ability to worship.  However, we all know that generations not too far removed from our own have justified slavery through using the Bible.  What is a faithful reader to do?

Well, I can’t speak for you, but I will say that today I found a new connection among these readings.  When I read the story of the laborers who are hired at different parts of the day but paid the same wage by the landowner, I can not help but think of a scene that I first saw in Austin, Texas during seminary, and which was played out several other times as I worked with undocumented immigrants in North Carolina.  I saw Latinos, primarily Mexicans, standing on a corner in East Austin, clamoring into the back of pickup trucks that needed workers for the day.  Those that were slow, injured, or old weren’t always able to get into the back of the trucks, and were often left behind, unsure whether or not they would be able to make enough money in the day to provide dinner for their families.  Immigration issues aside, it was clear to me that instead of a parable about God’s unfairness (some worked longer hours and didn’t get paid more), this was a parable about God’s justice and generosity (all were assured of daily bread and no one was left behind).  I had visions of God coming by that corner in Austin with a truck that kept picking folks up until the corner was empty and everyone was in the vineyard together.

When I read it today, I heard a new connection between the wrongness of forced slavery (Exodus) which is upsetting enough that God interrupts the natural world order in an attempt to show Pharaoh how his decision to enslave is disrupting creation on a human level, and the rightness of work and freely elected servanthood.  In a time in which economies are crumbling, jobs are scarce, and slavery still exists, what do we Christians have to say about the nature of labor and servanthood that is faithful and hopeful?  There is a wide gulf between forced slavery and chosen servanthood, but often a fine line between work and slavery in  the contemporary economies. How do you proclaim the difference?

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