"Pimps, Prostitutes, Pharisees and Freedom" – John 8:31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” They said to him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone, what do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free.’?” Jesus answered them, “Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the Son has a place there forever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free, indeed.”
Oddly enough, I had slavery on the brain this week even before I started to consider this Gospel for Reformation Sunday. Many of you know we had a pretty meaningful evening last Sunday, watching this documentary about human trafficking called Sex and Money. I learned at least one new thing that night which was deeply profound for me and that I’m still stewing about. But before I go there, you should know that I’m no prude about this subject. I was a Psychology, Criminology major in college, remember, and I’ve done my fair share of thinking about these sorts of things. I even watch plenty of documentaries, like that one, in my free time, much to my wife’s dismay (She thinks it’s a bit weird how interested I am in the world of criminal behavior.)
And despite what I feel like I know – or knew – about it all, it wouldn’t have taken much to convince me that it might be worth considering that something like prostitution would/could, maybe even should be legalized in more places. Morality and ethics aside, I can get behind the notion that it would save lots of time and money on the part of law enforcement, the court and criminal justice systems, jails and prisons, and all the rest. I can even see that in some instances, like prostitution for example, there are grown people making adult decisions about what they do with their lives, their bodies and their money.
If it were legal – prostitution, I mean – at least it could be regulated, the argument goes. If it were legal, at least there could be mandatory testing and treatment for diseases. If it were legal, the workers would have more opportunity to manage their own affairs, more power over their own money, more control over their own well-being, less of a chance they’d be taken advantage by their pimps.
But the most enlightening part of the documentary we saw last Sunday came when a woman (I wasn’t taking notes, so I’m not sure if she was a psychologist, a sociologist, a professor, a lawyer, or what), but she said something about being thankful that during the days of the abolition movement in our own country, she was glad no one ever proposed the notion that there might be better, safer, more fair ways to regulate the owning of African people as slaves. It was an all or nothing sort of deal. It was either going to be all okay or it would all be deemed an abomination. And thankfully, of course, it was all abolished, from a legal, cultural perspective anyway.
Her point was that there is no way to pretend – or that we should ever be convinced – that slavery is okay; that you can regulate or make fair or keep safe or make right the enslavement of another human being – whether it’s Africans during the 18th Century or boys and girls, or men and women in this day and age.
Like I said, I’m no prude about this. I can imagine there are grown men and grown women who make adult, informed, considered, consenting decisions about their participation in the work of prostitution. But, if you believe the statistics, this just isn’t true for too many, if not the vast majority, of workers in that field – and it’s the point at which good ol’ fashioned prostitution begins to look a lot more like modern day “human trafficking” and slavery.
For instance, the average age of entry into the human trafficking industry is 12 years old.
Some statistics suggest that 1 in 3 young people is solicited for sex within 48 hours of running away or becoming homeless in the U.S.
The average price for a human being in the world is $90.
And finally, if a woman survives all of that and "decides” to make it a way of life, the average prostitute, in an effort to escape abuse and violence of all kinds, leaves and goes back to her pimp 5-7 times before getting away from him for good, if she ever does. It’s all very much like any abusive relationship. The victims are convinced they are loved and in love with these men. They are groomed into believing this is what they’re worth; how life is; that they don’t have any other option so that this is what they want, even, for themselves.
These women live so long under such mind-numbing, mind-controlling, mind-warping conditions that they believe they are deciding, choosing, consenting to this way of life. Which is where – believe it or not – this Reformation Gospel comes to mind. For most of us, it may not be as shocking or as shameful or as dark as the world of human trafficking, but for others it may just be.
Either way, my favorite moment in this Gospel is when the Jews who were listening to Jesus say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free.’?”
The truth, of course, is that they come from a long history of slavery, these Jews. Jesus could have said, “Are you crazy? Are you serious? Are you so ignorant of your past that you don’t know? How can you say you’ve never been slaves to anyone? As Jews, we’ve been slaves as often as we haven’t, it seems. What about all those generations in Egypt? Or all those years in Assyria? What about the fact that, even now, centuries later, we’re living under the rule of Rome and none of us is as ‘free’ as we’d like to be?
And none of that is really even what Jesus is talking about or referring to or getting at, except that it highlights how readily we allow ourselves to misunderstand the reality of our circumstances.
See, Jesus isn’t talking about freedom from some social, political, or cultural kinds of slavery the way we – and those First Century Jews in his audience – are inclined to assume. Jesus is talking about freedom from the helpless state of our souls and freedom from the slavery of sin that binds everyone of us.
“Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin,” Jesus says. “Whoever commits sin is a slave.”
So, could I see a show of hands? Who among us is without sin in the eyes of God?
So, we’re clear about this. We get it. Like Paul says, we all sin and we all fall short of the glory of God. Like it or not. It’s just the way it is. We’re sinners. Losers. Broken. Enslaved. Bound. Helpless.
And, like the Jews of Jesus day, there are Pharisees among us, and pastors and pimps and people living next door, too, who try to convince us, and trick us and fool us into believing we need them and their rules and their ways to be free.
But Jesus shows up and says none of that will do. He says we need someone bigger and something better than anything in this world to set us free. Specifically, he says, “the slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the son has a place there forever. So if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
The world is filled with people just like you and me: sinful, broken, enslaved, fearful, helpless people who are either so numbed by or immune to their sins, or so overwhelmed by the gravity and the shame of their sinful ways, that they can’t imagine being released or freed or forgiven or allowed in to the good graces of their Creator. And there are also those enslaved by their ability to be or to appear flawless, bound by their need for perfection because they can’t bear to disappoint their family, their friends, themselves or their score-keeping, sin-counting, judgment-casting, fear-mongering God.
But Jesus Christ – the Son who has a place in the household of God’s heaven forever – makes room for us all there: Pharisees and free people; the pimp and the prostitute; the sinner and the saint. Because of this good news and by God’s abundant, amazing, all-consuming grace we are invited to be more hopeful than we are helpless and to live like liberated people – sinners, forgiven; not dead, but alive; not bound, but free; not afraid but full of hope. And no matter how far away we think we are from the ugly, scary, shameful ways of the world around us, we have prayers to offer and arms to open and resources to give and good news to share, in Jesus’ name, with all those who haven’t heard or come to believe any of this, just yet.
(While it’s true we’re called to leave judgment and forgiveness, redemption and the eternal state of our souls up to the grace of God, there are things we can and should do to free people who are bound, in this world, by the kind of stuff I talked about here. Check out www.purchased.org if you want to learn more or find some ways to help or get involved.)