The Stories Jesus Told: The Obedient Servant, Luke 17:7–10
October 17, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Obedient Servant, Luke 17:7–10
Note: Due to video equipment problems, the filmed version of this post is not yet available.
In the Gospel of Luke, we find a number of parables which begin with a question to which the answer is obvious. For example, Jesus asked, What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?1 And, Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost?2 Other parables start with questions to which everyone would answer in the negative, such as, What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?3
The parable of the obedient servant starts out with not just one question, but three—two of which call for a negative answer and one which would receive a positive reply.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”4
In this parable Jesus speaks of a servant. In some Bible translations the servant is referred to as a slave. The reason for this is that the Greek word doulos can be translated as either servant, bond-servant, or slave. In the time of Jesus, slavery was common throughout the Roman Empire. It has been estimated that between twenty and thirty percent of the people throughout the empire were slaves. That Jesus used an example of a slave doesn’t mean He condoned slavery. He used a servant/slave in His parable to make His point, as it was so common in those days and was a concept people were sure to understand. We perhaps get a glimpse of Jesus' attitude about slavery when we realize that the call for His followers to forgive debts5 would have undermined the basis for debt slavery. We’re also told in Scripture that Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (doulos/slave).6
Slavery in the time of Jesus had nothing to do with race, as it did in the New World. In the time of the Roman Empire, it was believed that the freedom of some was only possible because others were enslaved. The concepts of freedom being a right for all and of slavery being evil would have been very foreign. The majority of slaves in those days were from the losing side in battle, as well as their subsequent children. Some people also sold themselves into slavery in order to escape poverty or to pay debts. Others did it to obtain particular jobs. Slaves could sometimes control property and own their own slaves. It was not uncommon for slaves to be set free or be able to purchase their own freedom at some point. Some slaves were educated, and many functioned in sensitive and highly responsible positions. Some were trained and served as physicians, architects, craftspeople, shopkeepers, cooks, barbers, and artists. Some ran their masters’ businesses and were considered part of their master’s household. In the culture of that time, many people derived a sense of meaning and personal honor, as well as economic and food security, through serving someone of a higher social and economic status and being attached to their household. While this wasn’t always the case, it was not uncommon. Yet in any case, slaves in Jesus’ day were slaves, and not free persons.7
The response to the opening question would have been that no one listening to Jesus would ever consider having their servant or slave who was a plowman or a sheep herder come in from work and lie down at a banquet table and eat. The traditional roles of master and servant were well defined in those days, and to allow such a thing would have implied that the servant had the status of an honored guest or was equal to the master. Starting His parable with this opener would have piqued the curiosity of those listening.
While to us it sounds quite harsh to make a man or woman who has done a day’s labor come in from the field and be expected to prepare and cook a meal, change into clothes which are proper for serving food, serve the master, and only after all of this is taken care of properly, be allowed to eat, in the ancient world this was considered normal. To the second question, everyone would have answered that of course the servant would come in from the field and proceed to feed the master before eating.
In the context of the time, no one listening to this parable would expect that a servant would be given special treatment for fulfilling his duties. The servant was simply doing what was expected of him as a servant. The master wasn’t indebted to the servant for keeping the sheep or plowing the field. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, and no one would expect that the servant would be given privileges for simply doing his job. The servant had put the master’s needs before his own. He acknowledged and accepted that his first duty was to serve the master.
When those listening heard the third question, Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? they would again respond with “Of course not.” The Greek word translated as “thank” is charis, which is usually translated in the New Testament as “grace.” However, in the Gospel of Luke, it is also used to convey the meaning of credit or favor, so that it comes close to implying receiving a reward. So the question is: Does the master give credit or reward to the servant for doing what he was told to do?
Kenneth Bailey explains:
The master may well express appreciation to a servant at the end of a day’s work with a friendly word of thanks. The issue is much more serious than this. Is the master indebted to his servant when orders are carried out? This is the question that expects a resoundingly negative answer in the parable.8
At this point, Jesus addressed the listeners, who in the context of Luke’s Gospel are His disciples, saying:
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Here the phrase “unworthy servants”—or as it is rendered in other translations, “unprofitable servants” or “worthless servants”—can also be translated as “without need.” In other words, it's stating that the servants or disciples who do what they are commanded to do are “without need,” meaning that they aren’t owed anything by their master. The master is in no way indebted to the servant for doing what is expected of him.
The message, as applied to the disciples, was that those who serve God do not put God in their debt. God isn’t beholden to those who serve Him.
This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t reward those who love and serve Him, but rather that those who serve God have no right to claim reward. Our relationship with God is not one where we earn, deserve, or bargain for reward. A disciple is a servant who serves the Lord out of love, duty, and loyalty to Him. The apostle Paul called himself a servant/bond-servant/slave, depending on which Bible version you read, which means that he saw his relationship to the Lord as one who labors out of a sense of duty and loyalty rather than for financial or other gain. He serves with a sense of total security, knowing that his master will fully take care of him.9
Our salvation is a gift bestowed upon us by God; we don’t work for it or earn it. Our service to Him is done out of gratitude and love, as well as out of duty to the one who has redeemed us. When we have done what He has commanded us, we aren’t putting Him in a position where He “owes” us anything. We shouldn’t be keeping a mental ledger of all the things we’ve done for the Lord, with the expectation that because we’re doing them, God is indebted to us.
This doesn’t mean that there is no reward for those who serve God. Jesus spoke of rewards numerous times.
When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. … That your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.10
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.11
Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.12
We are promised a reward, but our relationship with God is not a matter of deserving, bargaining for, or working to attain or earn it. As servants of the Lord, we work for Him in order to fulfill our duty to Him. What we receive from God is a gift from His hand, not a payment for services rendered. No matter how hard we work, how much we do, and how long we serve the Lord, under no circumstances do we put God in our debt. We serve Him because He saved us. We serve Him because we are grateful. We serve Him because we love Him. And it’s because our service to Him is motivated by love and gratitude, not reward, that He rewards us.
The Parable of the Obedient Servant, Luke 17:7–10
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?
8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?
9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?
10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved
1 Luke 15:4.
2 Luke 14:28.
3 Luke 11:11.
4 Luke 17:7–10.
5 Matthew 6:12.
6 Philippians 2:6–7 NIV.
7 Points taken from J. A. Harrill, Slavery, in C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter, eds., Dictionary of New Testament Background. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1124–1127.
8 Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 120.
9 Ibid., 124.
10 Matthew 6:3–4, 6, 18.
11 Luke 6:22–23.
12 Luke 6:35.