Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:18-21)
Peter's words are utterly remarkable, if not baffling to many. Peter tells slaves(1) that they are to be subject to their masters with all respect (or fear), even the ones that are harsh and unjust.
Think about that. All respect. Even unto those that abuse you.
In Roman society, slaves had essentially no rights. They were basically chattel. People could and did abuse their slaves, both physically and sexually. They were sold and dispensed like cattle.
Some held somewhat lofty occupations. Some worked mundane jobs. Others (typically criminals) worked in the mines until their bodies broke.
Whatever one's particular duty, slavery was not a desirable position. Kids weren't saying, “I want to grow up and be a slave,” unless, of course, it was a young boy dreaming of entering the gladiatorial games as a kind of god.
So when Peter tells slaves to respect their masters, even as they endure sorrows while suffering unjustly, it is no small thing.
Suffering is hard enough. Unjust suffering is almost unbearable. So it's not as if the apostle is imaging a s_lightly_ inconvenienced situation. We are talking about beatings. That is never minor.
But note the rationale. If you feel the weight of the instructions in verse 18, the concluding rationale in verse 21 should cause your Western mind to stagger. Look again at what the apostle says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
If you are suffering unjustly, being punished for doing good, you are not experiencing an unforeseen glitch. You are walking in the center of God's will, because you are walking like Christ.
What an incredible perspective! The horrible treatment and eventual torture of Jesus is our model. It is the street and sidewalk of God's kingdom. That's the idea. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ. That's the model. It is our calling.
I honestly don't know how to fully process this deep truth. But this I do know. I am sometimes mistreated. And when I am mistreated, I get angry very quickly. I feel the impulse within me to demand my rights. To vindicate myself. To retaliate. And yet, here is this unambiguous command right before me. Do not return evil for evil. Do not revile. But do that which is a gracious thing in God's sight. Share in the sufferings of Christ. Share enduringly.
Oh, how hard it is to keep this eternal focus. It requires not only a stout faith, but a faith rooted in a recognition that this life is so very, very short when compared to eternity. But more than that- that the future is unimaginably bright in Christ.
That's where the struggle exists, I think. Do we really believe that God's plan to conform us to the image of Christ is _better _than a life (or human history) where it does not exist? Will it prove to be better over the long haul?
If we truly believe such things- if it is the bedrock belief of our soul- I suspect that, with God's grace, a life of unfair servility could be lived out with joy.
Now if you are like me, prayer will be much in order at this point.
Footnote: (1) My assumption is that while the term used here (for servant) is a bit more general in nature it likely doesn't exclude slaves as they were commonly conceived.