James 1: 1-2
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
When I was trying to find the congregation God was calling me to serve I was invited to preach for a Vacancy Committee (as they were called in those days) in a neutral Church which just by coincidence happened to be the Interim Moderator’s church, meaning she had to reluctantly take that Sunday off. Anyway I prepared my sermon, chose the hymns, decided on a children’s address and all the other parts plus of course the most important bit, the Bible Reading. This was particularly important because my whole sermon was based on how one verse was phrased in the RSV I usually use in preparation. All went well, the IM introduced me and warned her congregation of the need to not go broadcasting my name as a possible candidate for the vacancy, although this was slightly odd given that my name had been listed in the local paper’s church notices for that week! All went well until one of the congregation came forward to do the Reading and used an entirely different translation to the RSV and my chosen verse actually had a completely different wording.
The above verse from James are from NIV and are a bit similar in that they do not convey the same strength as another translation that reads “James a slave of God…”
There is of course a world of difference between the words servant and slave, and especially in recent times slave has become a very nasty word with all its connotations of racism and subjugation. Quite rightly so. It is though important to remember that slavery was not quite the same in all cases in the ancient world. Yes, there was subjugation and if you were captured in a battle or land raid then you would expect to be sold into slavery, likewise a creditor could sell you and your family to recover his debts.
Often though, especially if a low born person happened to be well educated and qualified like Luke, who was both a physician and slave, they could sell themselves into slavery for a set number of years, it was not uncommon for city administrators to do this effectively selling their services for the next 20 years say for 20 years pay. An arrangement that gave both them and the city security in knowing they were working together for a set time (not sure what happened if the administrator turned out to be rubbish at his job).
Here though James says he is a slave, bondservant or servant of God and each word contains the same meaning. He has no real personal freedom to do what he would, he is compelled to serve God as an evangelist and apostle. To modern ears the description slave may be derogatory but to him it meant he had a master he could not disobey, he had to do his will.
I used to work with a minister who got very hot under her collar when people started to use gender neutral language in the Bible. She always said she had no problem being called a son of God with its inferences of adoption and rights that the phrase bestowed, being a child of God she claimed might satisfy the PC brigade but it did not have the same sense of possession that son has. You can of course argue the point endlessly as you can with the differences between slave, bondservant and servant.
What is important is that James acknowledges God is in charge and everything he does and says is to reinforce that point.
Lord God our loving Father in Heaven, we acknowledge you to be our father, may we also acknowledge you to be our master to whom we owe all we have and all we will have. May we pay you the tribute in praise and service that your mastery deserves.
In your Mercy hear our prayer,