Persis Hears Colossians

[So what do we do with something like Colossians 3.18-4.1? While we are all fighting against misogyny, child abuse and economic exploitation, how do we hear this “household code” in which wives, children and slaves are all called to obedience?]

It is hard to hear
these verses from Col 3.18-4.1
in our day and age.

It is hard to listen to them
in a world that gives,
at the very least,
lip service to equality.

And it is hard to hear them,
to actually hear what Paul is saying,
in a world so far removed
from first century Colossae.

So what I would like to do is this:
try to hear these verses
through the experience
of a first century slave girl.

We’ll call her Persis.
And we’ll see if she can help us
hear what Paul is saying.


I must confess that I was a little nervous.
Nervous to be hearing a letter
from the apostle Paul
for the very first time.

What if I didn’t understand it?
Or worse,
what if it put me to to sleep?

My master had demanded my services
very late last night,
and I wasn’t sure I could stay awake
if this letter was going to be long and complicated.

I have only been coming to these meetings
for a little while.
One of the other slaves brought me the first time,
and since our master is not a follower of Jesus
we can only sneak out when he is away
visiting his country estates.
I hadn’t believed what my friend
had told me about this group:
how they showed honour to both slave and free,
how they allowed women to lead the meetings,
how they brought food that was shared with all.

I had been skeptical,
but it was true.
Here I was treated not as a slave,
but as a person with honour.
I was allowed to sit at the table with free people.
I was allowed as much good food as anyone else.
I wasn’t expected to satisfy the desires
of any of the men.

These meetings offered something that wasn’t present
anywhere else in my life:

acceptance and love.

So I was there when Paul’s letter was read.
My master had left for the country at mid-day
and I was able to sneak out that night.

I waited eagerly and nervously
for Tychicus to begin reading.

And the beginning of the letter
made me even more nervous.

“To the holy ones
and the faithful in Christ in Colossae.”

Well, although I know I am called to holiness
and faithfulness,
it is hard to feel as if
I live up to that calling.

I am a slave, and the life I live is shameful.
I have no honour,
I am used by both my master and his friends
for anything they desire.

It is hard to be holy when you have no choices
over how your body is used.

It is hard to be faithful
when you have to obey the unjust commands
of your master.

I was still struggling with this when|
I realized that Paul
had said that Jesus rescues us
from the empire of darkness
and transfers us to the empire of his beloved son
who redeems us and forgives our sins.

Maybe those forgiven sins included what I had to do
for my master.

Could that possibly be?

The letter was hard to understand in a lot of places,
but every once in a while there was something
that made a lot of sense to me.

In one place Paul said that God disarmed
the rulers and authorities
and made a public example of them,
triumphing over them in the cross.

And I could see it in my mind’s eye,
for that is exactly how it had happened to me.
When the Romans had captured my people,
they took the weapons away from our leaders,
and made them walk in the victory parade in Rome,
publicly humiliating them.
But it wasn’t just the leaders—
all of us who were captured
were led in that triumphal victory parade,
humiliated and then sold
to the men who became our masters.

But Paul had turned that on its head!
The rulers and authorities who humiliated me

have now been disarmed and humiliated by God,
on the cross,
by the one who sets the slaves free.

And then later, when Paul said
that those who follow Jesus
are to put to death immorality,
impurity, passion and evil desire,
it felt to me that he was also condemning
my master and his friends,
who are consumed by immorality,
impurity and evil desire.

This good news condemns their abuse
of me and my fellow slaves.

So it was no surprise when Paul said that
the renewed image of God has no slave or free.
It seemed like he had been building up to this.


Except that I am a slave who follows Jesus.
And I am not free.

I am still expected to obey my master.
I am still expected to do the impure
things that he tells me to do.
How can I say that I am free,
that I am a holy one, a faithful one,
as long as I am a slave?

And then Tychicus took a deep breath
and paused slightly,
and began to address wives and husbands,
children and fathers,
slaves and masters.

I tell you, he took us all by surprise.
I mean, the husband and father and master,
they are all the same guy,
and usually he is the only one who is talked to.
But here Paul began with wives,
as if they have a choice,
and told their husbands to love them,
and not treat them harshly.

I can tell you that I’ve seen a lot
of interactions between my master and his wife,
and love is not the word that comes to mind.

And then Paul talked to the children,
as if they have a choice in the matter.
Sure they are to be obedient,
all good children should be obedient.
But the fathers are not to provoke their children!
That is also unusual.
Why, some fathers purposely push their children,
just to test their obedience;
especially their adult children,
to make sure that they aren’t getting any ideas
around financial independence.

And then Paul addressed me, a slave.
“Slaves, obey your earthly master in everything,
not only while being watched and in order to please

them, but wholeheartedly,
fearing The Master.
Whatever your task,
put yourself into it,
as done for The Master
and not for your masters,
since you know that from
The Master you will receive an inheritance.
You serve the Messianic Master.”

Did I hear that right?
Did Paul just suggest that
Jesus is our real Master
and that he is the one that we serve
while being forced to obey
our earthly masters?

And did he say that Jesus,
our real Master,

will give us an inheritance?

Slaves do not get inheritances.
Slaves are the inheritance.

Is he suggesting that slaves
will be set free,

like in the jubilee
and the year of release in Torah?

(Pretty good, eh? I’ve been listening
n on some studies of the scriptures
of Jesus.)

It almost sounds as though Paul is
telling us that even though
we are to obey our masters,
they aren’t actually our real masters.|
And that we will be set free
at the hands of our Master Jesus.

While it might sound good,
this is a hard word for me.
Such obedience makes it hard to be holy.
But maybe Paul realizes that I have no choice.
Maybe he realizes that to disobey
would mean that I would be killed.
Maybe he is giving me permission to be a slave
subject to the will of evil,
and still be a follower of my real master, Jesus.

If so, then his next sentence makes sense.
“For the unjust will be paid back
for whatever injustice has been done,
and there is no partiality.”

In all that I am forced to do,
I am not the one doing unjust things,
but my master is.

And normally he would be judged leniently
because he is the master,
and I would be judged harshly,
because I am a slave.

But there is no partiality, Paul says.
My evil master will be repaid
for all the injustice that he has done to me.
He will not be let off the hook
just because he is a master.
No privilege and partiality in Jesus!

And then Paul ended with a word to the master:
“Treat your slaves with justice and with equality,
for you know you also have a Master in heaven.”

Well, that doesn’t help me much.
My master doesn’t believe that Jesus is his Master in heaven,
so he is unlikely to change his behaviour.

But it might help some of the other slaves here.
Maybe they have masters who will treat them with justice,
and with equality,
maybe their masters will stop the abuse,
because they follow Jesus.

I know that isn’t the case for me.

Still, this letter turns my world
on its head.

This is a world where there are no slaves or free;
where God disarms those who humiliated me.
A world where Jesus knows I need to obey,
even though it means I can’t be holy.
It is a world where I will be forgiven,
and it is a world where my master will be judged
for all that he makes me do.

But more than that,
this world is found in this room,
among these people,
who don’t judge me for being a slave,
but rather welcome me,
offer me forgiveness,
feed me at their table,
and embrace me in their love.

And in this way,
they give me a little glimpse
into the world that Jesus promises.

Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

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