Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134
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Sermon on the Mount
The Unworthy Servant, illustration, artist unknown.
7 "Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? 8 Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? 9 Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (Luke 17:7-10, NIV)
We abhor slavery. The idea of being a slave or being treated like a slave is abhorrent to us. Perhaps that is why we have such a difficult time understanding one of discipleship's most important lessons -- humble servanthood -- that Jesus teaches in this brief Parable of the Dutiful Servants.
We like to translate Greek doulos as "servant," but the word used in this passage describes a slave, probably the only slave of a small farmer, a slave who not only works in the field, but also performs household chores.
In America we still haven't recovered from 400 years of slavery, and the very thought of slavery is repugnant to us -- so repugnant, in fact, that it is difficult to read about slavery in the Bible without loading the subject with a great deal emotional and historical baggage.
But to Jews in the first century Roman empire, slavery was just a fact of life. The average person didn't own slaves, but many villages would have one or more wealthy persons who owned slaves.
People generally entered into slavery in one of five ways:
- Born of slave parents,
- Failure to pay a debt,
- As prisoners of war, and
Though it might seem strange to us, a number of people would sell themselves into slavery, principally "to enter a life that was easier and more secure than existence as a poor, freeborn person." Slaves sometimes received an education at their owner's expense, and, if they sold themselves to a Roman citizen, when manumitted they might expect to become Roman citizens themselves.
While the Greeks considered slaves to be sub-human, Hebrew history in Egypt taught Jews to show respect to their slaves. And Romans, as mentioned, might manumit a slave and make him a citizen. Nor did slaves just have servile duties. Some might be tutors, physicians, companions, household managers, sales agents, and administrators.691
But the slave Jesus describes in this brief parable, probably the only slave in this household, got mostly hard labor -- plowing, looking after livestock, as well as cooking and household chores. His was a pretty hard existence.
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'?" (17:7-8)
Jesus invites his hearers to imagine that they had such a slave to work around their house and farm. Many of his poor but free listeners would have loved to have their own slave to wait on them!
Then Jesus asks a rhetorical question: Does the master offer to fix dinner for the slave or the other way around? Of course, the slave had to prepare the meal and serve the master and his family before he could eat himself -- all that after a hard day in the fields!
That isn't fair! we retort. We struggle with this kind of demand -- mainly because we don't usually have a single person for multiple kinds of work. You'd expect a cook to prepare a meal but not the farmhand. But in our day, too, certain kinds of jobs sometimes require extra hours. I have a contractor friend who on occasion demands that his crews work into the wee hours of the morning to get an office ready for a client. That's part of the job; it comes with the territory. And though my friend's workers don't especially like it, they do it because it is required. People in our culture work two or three jobs because they have to. Is it fair? No. But it's required by the responsibilities they have.
The point here is that, fair or not, the slave was expected to work in the fields and fix the food. That was his duty. The master wasn't there to serve the slave, but the slave to serve the master.
Of course, says Jesus. The master doesn't "owe" the servant a reward for his hard work.
"Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?" (17:9)
We Americans, steeped in a management culture that seeks to motivate employees, expect to be thanked and resent it if we are not. We don't think we are paid enough for what we do! We want a raise! But don't impose your own social expectations on the first century. Especially, don't load this poor servant down with your mental baggage. That isn't the way he thinks. He understands that he is doing his duty. That's all. He doesn't deserve a reward for doing it, but he knows he'll be punished for neglecting or shirking his duty.
While we might expect a "thank you," in Greek the word charis implies more. Here the phrase, literally "have gratitude" is used in the sense of "to be grateful,"692 the idea of a debt of gratitude that must be offered to even the score, placing the master somehow in debt to the slave.693
"Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (17:9-10)
In both verses 9 and 10 in the NIV we see the word "told." It renders the Greek verb diatassō, "to give (detailed) instructions as to what must be done, order."694 Here the verb is in the form of a participle meaning "the things ordered or commanded," in other words, "duty."
A second verb translated "duty" at the end of verse 10 is Greek opheilō, "be obligated," with a verbal infinitive that means, "one must, one ought."695
But "duty" and "order" and "command" aren't very popular concepts in American culture. In the first half of the twentieth century the concept of duty was widely accepted. But in the Sixties, there was a growing tolerance, it became okay for everyone to "do your own thing." Authority was the target of widespread protest, civil disobedience was a popular social tool. The role of women and men changed. Personal "space" and independence became considered a person's right.
The society shifted. Here's an example. When my wife was a Girl Scout growing up, she learned the Girl Scout Pledge:
"On my honor, I will try: to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Girl Scout law."
But times have changed, and the words "duty" and "obey" have given way to softer words. Now, as a Girl Scout Leader, she hears the girls recite the Girl Scout Promise,
"On my honor, I will try: to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law."
No, the meaning hasn't changed that much, but it is softer. When we drop the ideas of "duty" and "obedience" from our relationship with God, however, we miss one of the essential components of true discipleship. To be real disciples we must be obedient to God's word and do our duty as followers of Jesus in a fallen world.
"So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (17:10)
But do we gain some special hammer-lock on God if we obey his commands and do what he says? Doesn't our piety earn us some special treatment? To be true disciples, we must dispense with an attitude of "entitlement" and instead see ourselves as "unworthy slaves." The adjective is Greek achreios, "pertaining to being unworthy of any praise, unworthy."696
Jesus probably directed this parable at the Pharisees who felt as if God owed them rewards for their acts of piety.
The New Testament is quite clear about the difference between merit and grace. Perhaps the classic statement of this is by Paul the Apostle:
"Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." (Romans 4:4-5)
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The blessings of God are ours because of our adoption as "sons," but that adoption itself is by grace. God doesn't owe us anything! He gives it freely. Rather we owe him an unpayable debt.
It is easy for us to get this backwards. Our prayers tend to be "gimme" prayers, not servant prayers.
- Please help my business succeed.
- Help my children to be safe at school.
- Heal my mother's cancer.
- Protect the widows and orphans.
- Provide food to those experiencing a famine.
And -- while you're at it, God, --
- Work in my boss's heart to give me a raise.
Too often we pray in the way you might command a genie who has granted you ten wishes. Is this any way to address God to whom you owe your allegiance and life and salvation? You are his servant, not the other way around!
Our prayers should rather be servant's prayers:
- Father, what do you want me to do today?
- How can I help Johnny learn to be more polite to his friends?
- Give me strength and boldness to witness for you in this situation.
Now, I'm going overboard here a bit for the sake of making a point -- as Jesus did in the Parable of the Dutiful Servants. It is true -- praise God! -- that scripture instructs us:
"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16)
Nevertheless, we are not to command God, but he is to command us! I remember listening to Pentecostal healer-evangelist A.A. Allen on the radio in the 1960s. He had it wrong. He loved to quote the Bible to the effect the we could command God:
"Thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me." (Isaiah 45:11, King James Version)
A more accurate translation of this verse, reflected in the NIV, NRSV, RSV, and Amplified Bible, renders this as a question:
"This is what the Lord says--
the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker:
Concerning things to come,
do you question me about my children,
or give me orders about the work of my hands? (Isaiah 45:11, NIV)
Yes, when God gives us a gift of faith we can act with tremendous boldness and see God's power work greatly -- Moses certainly did at the Red Sea (Exodus 14) and at the Rock of Meribah the first time (Exodus 17:5-6) -- but we are to be very sure the we don't forget which one of us is God and which is the slave. We don't command God! God doesn't owe us one dime! There is no debt on God's part! We are the debtors.
His very great and precious promises to us are all by grace -- unmerited favor. They are gracious gifts. But we must not misunderstand charity as an entitlement, as somehow our inalienable constitutional rights as citizens of his Kingdom. Our access to God's throne and freedom to speak to him about our needs are granted, not because of who we are, but 100% by God's gracious and merciful rescue mission through Jesus Christ.
For me, the Parable of the Dutiful Servant is has a two-fold lesson for us disciples:
- We are not to allow ourselves to be soft and pampered, so as to excuse ourselves from hard labor and hard hours in serving the Lord. Don't kid yourself; he expects that of you and me!
- We are not to presume upon God and expect his thanks. Instead, we are to serve him dutifully without any expectation of reward.
Anything he bestows upon us -- and those blessings are very great -- is not because of any obligation God has toward us, but are fully and completely at his gracious pleasure. We are his servants, his slaves first. And afterward, after we have learned that lesson of obedience well, -- oh, what joy! -- he condescends to call us his "friends."
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:13-15)
Father, forgive me for presuming upon my relationship with you as if you owed me something. I've done that, I know. Help me to better understand my appropriate role as your slave, so when you graciously grant me your friendship I might truly appreciate your love. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (Luke 17:10)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- In Jesus' parable, should a slave expect his master to prepare dinner for him, or should the slave expect to prepare dinner for his master after doing his other chores?
- In the parable, the slave should not expect thanks for fixing the family dinner. Why?
- What does this parable say to the Pharisees, who expected God's special favor towards them because of their strict observance of the law?
- In what ways do we citizens of the twenty-first century take God for granted, expect him to do our bidding, and become petulant when he doesn't grant our wishes?
- Why is "duty" such a bad word in our culture?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 S. Scott Bartchy, "Slavery," ISBE 4:539-546; Bartchy, "Servant," ISBE 4:419-421.
 Hans Conzelmann, charis, ktl., TDNT 9:391-402.
 Green, Luke, p. 614.
 Diatassō, BDAG 237-238.
 Opheilō, BDAG 743.
 Achreios, BDAG 160.
In-depth Bible study books
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- Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-134)
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Apostle Paul
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- Conquering Lamb of Revelation
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ