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Jesus continued teaching the apostles along the same lines. Next he used a parable to warn them about missing the point:
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,” Luke 17:7-10
No doubt about it, parables are tough to understand. I mean, by nature they are intended to bring both light for some and confusion for others (Matthew 13:12-13). Yet this particular parable has always been a bit puzzling to me.
I think the trouble comes from how it seems to conflict with other parts of Jesus’ teaching. Here are a couple examples that come to mind:
- “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14:15
- “No longer do I call you servants…I have called you friends,” John 15:15
- “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much,” Matthew 25:21
- “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me,” Revelation 3:20
These passages appear to teach that fulfilling one’s duty is not only important, it’s rewarded. Being a good and faithful servant means becoming a friend of Jesus who gets to dine with him. Yet according to Jesus’ parable in Luke 17, a servant gets neither thanks nor a place at the dinner table. Huh?!
This is why the context is so critical. Remember, at that moment the disciples were focused on having the kind of faith that gets things done. They wanted a faith that made them competent rather than dependent. So Jesus struck at their hearts:
When you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty,” Luke 17:10
While living overseas I had the opportunity to employ a few house workers. It provided great jobs for people–and helped keep a single guy fed and laundered! I saw them every day, so they became some of my closest friends. But I also failed to maintain appropriate boundaries. Soon I was treating them solely like friends, giving them freedom to leisurely come and go, freely use household items, and neglect certain parts of their jobs. Should I have treated them like friends? Yes, they were part of my household and our relationship wasn’t purely transactional. Should I also have treated them like employees? Yes, they had a job to do.
A similar tension existed for the disciples. They were literally learning to obey Jesus’ commands, while at the same time realizing what he alone could provide. Such mystery is reflected in Jesus’ response to the question, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?”
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” John 6:29
I can totally identify with that kind of tension. Ever found yourself thinking the best way to make sure you’re truly a Christian is to do the hardest thing you possibly can for God? We often define that “hardest thing” as missions.
So part of me is drawn to missions out of an unrest with my own soul. I find myself living with this kind of underlying assumption: ‘If I’m truly in Christ, then I should prove it by telling every single person I see about Jesus.’ Thus, when I don’t live up to that–and I never do–I’m defined by failure and guilt.
This even plays out in non-Christians. I’ve actually heard people say, “Well, I’m just afraid that if I become a Christian then God’s gonna make me go to Africa or something.” Humanity, here we are trying, trying, trying to do our duty and missing the point. It would do us well to hear this echoing from Dallas Willard:
An obsession with merely doing all that God commands may be the very thing that rules out being the kind of person that he calls us to be.
Just doing better deeds will fool us every time. Jesus is pointing us to something far better.