“So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” Luke 17:10
Jesus’ words at first they sound a bit harsh and unbending. However, when you read the fuller context you discover they are very harsh and unbending!
The parable preceding this verse involves a master who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep. Jesus asked if after the servant performed those duties would the master invite him to come and sit down at the table and eat with him? The answer was no! In fact, the master would say to the tired servant, “fix me supper.” Further, the master would not even be expected to say “thank you” to the servant. Why? Because the servant was simply fulfilling his duty.
Then Jesus directed the parable at us. We are servants, and we perform our duty without expectation of thanks or extra time off.
This is one of those “harsh sayings” by Jesus that we prefer to gloss over. We’d rather have the parable of the labors in the vineyard (everyone paid the same no matter how long or little they worked), or the Prodigal Son (he had done nothing to redeem himself). Let’s spend a few moments with it, though, and let the harshness make its point.
First, we are servants. Paul often described himself as a slave. Though that word is often translated as servant, it means slave. You are owned by God, bought with a price. Now the very good news is that ownership by God provides our greatest freedom, but we must never forget we belong to God. He is the Master. The Creator. We are the servants and creations.
Second, as servants we have duties to perform. Here is where the harshness enters. Duty sounds legalistic and coerced. Duty does not sound like it belongs in the same sphere as grace. But it does. Duty is obedience in the face of inconvenience.
We must not make the mistake of serving God only when it seems sensible and rewarding. Incentive is not our motivation. Sometimes serving God is not easy and certainly not fulfilling. Serving God can be a joyful delight! At other times it can be a puzzling burden. The servant serves even when he or she does not “feel” like it.
There’s the rub. We live in the age of feeling. Post-modernism (whatever it is) is mainly a feeling. Today when people do not feel like serving God (take worship as an example) then they do not serve. Why? Because they do not feel like it, and feelings reign.
Also involved here is the overwhelming desire to avoid any appearance of hypocrisy. The thinking goes, “if I serve (worship), but do not feel like it, then I am a hypocrite.” Sincerity is the most highly prized value in our upside-down world, but it is usually simply an excuse for lack of commitment.
Hypocrisy, or at least the charge of hypocrisy, is out of control. Jesus certainly condemned hypocrisy in the Pharisees, but they were engaging outward behaviors in order to wield power or curry favor with God and other people. That is far different from doing the right thing because deep down you know it is right, even though you do not feel like doing it. We have so twisted the notions of hypocrisy and sincerity that if we don’t feel like being godly then we implicitly have the right to act ungodly. At least we then have avoided the appearance of hypocrisy!
I believe this is the kind of absurdity Jesus addressed in this obscure parable. Sometimes we have a duty to perform. So we do it. That may mean simply showing up, to pray, to worship, to give, to serve.
Duty is a very Christian word. It highlights the backbone of belief and the unassailable commitment to holiness. Duty is the daily “putting on” of Christian qualities. N. T. Wright wrote, “If we don’t ‘put on’ God’s holiness when we feel like being unholy, then we have guarded our sincerity at the cost of our obedience.” Never forget you are a servant, a slave of Christ. Obedience is your obligation.
Dr. Terry Ellis
April 30, 2012