by Lois Tverberg
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
Jesus’ odd parable in Luke 17 is a head-scratcher for many readers. You may never have heard it mentioned in a sermon, because of its apparent negativity. He said,
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’? 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.’ Luke 17:7-10
What was the point of his message? It sounds as if we shouldn’t approach God as our loving Father, but merely as our master. Why?
It’s likely that this parable was offered as a contrast to Jesus’ many statements about a future reward that God has for those who have been obedient to him. While of course it is faith in Christ that atones for our sins and allows us to enter heaven, Christians rarely note how many times Jesus promises a “reward” which does seem to depend on how a person has lived:
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. Mt 16:27
And, Jesus even declares that his followers will be rewarded in this life as well.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” Luke 18:29-30
When a person hears this, the typical human response is “Wow – what will be my reward?” and our focus shifts to that. Indeed, some prosperity preachers focus their entire ministry how God wants to bless us and make us rich. But Jesus’ parable at the beginning of this article teaches us that our focus shouldn’t be on the reward at all, but on doing God’s will. Other rabbis of Jesus’ time said similar things:
Do not be like slaves that serve their master to receive a reward; rather, be like slaves who do not serve their master to receive their reward. (1)
If you have performed many mitzvot (good deeds) [literally, if you have done much Torah], do not think that you have any merit [i.e., that you are entitled to a reward]. This is the purpose for which you have been created! (2)
And Paul also points out that this is our purpose:
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph. 2:10
It’s wonderful that we have a loving Father that enjoys blessing us, and plans for a future together in eternity that we can hardly imagine. But instead of greedily grasping for the pleasures we’ll gain, we should respond out of love to the One who wants to give them to us.
(1) Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:3. (As quoted in “The Rich Man Who Rejected the Kingdom” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 81-87.
(2) Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, Ch. 31 (ed. Schechter, p. 66). Quotation also from New Light, pp. 81-87.
Photo: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. and little*star