Summary: In this overlooked parable Jesus describes the life of discipleship in terms of service. Rather than focusing on our rights and needs, and deciding what we'd like to do, we need to focus on how we can serve our Master.
This has been called “the most troubling parable” in the Bible. Why does Jesus say we are like unworthy servants? I know I must have read this before, but somehow I glossed over it. I've got a lot of books on the parables of Jesus and most omit this one. A year ago an article in Christianity Today magazine reminded me of this forgotten parable of servant-hood, and I've taken some thoughts from it for this message.
So what is a servant? Jesus is describing either a paid household servant, or a slave. The terms are interchangeable because they were both by personal choice. We tend to forget that. We think of people being captured and sold into slavery. The recent movie 12 Years a Slave depicted slavery in all its dehumanizing horror. In Bible times--at least in Israel--slavery was voluntary indentured servitude, a means of getting out of debt, and for no more than 6 years, sooner if bondsmen could pay off what they owed. It was also a kind of apprenticeship, and included the learning of valuable job skills. And it was never racially defined. What the American South did with slavery is not the slavery condoned in Scripture (though southern slave owners used this parable to justify their version of slavery). Lifelong slavery and the practice of slave traders is condemned in the Bible.
In what is mostly an overlooked parable, found only in Luke, Jesus compares slavery to discipleship. We are God's servants. That's not something we may aspire to. In the parable, a domestic servant finishes farm work, then prepares the master's meal. That's his job. Should the master invite the servant to sit down and eat? Should the master thank the servant for his work? You'd think in both cases the answer would be “yes”...but the answer is “no.” The servant is simply doing what is expected.
Jesus is not saying that, if we're in a position of authority, we have the right to be uncaring. Our Heavenly Father doesn't treat His children that way, and neither should we. In another parable (in Luke 12) the master returns home and finds his slaves gainfully employed. He dons an apron, and serves them. Jesus is more-so describing the attitude of a servant. Whether we're thanked or not, we choose to serve. In the Christian life, whether our life situation improves or not, we continue to live for Jesus.
In my military career I supervised enlisted soldiers, Department of Defense civilians, and other chaplains. The highest level of authority I reached was as the USAREUR-Forward Chaplain in Taszar, Hungary during Operation Joint Endeavor in the Balkans. I provided support, guidance, and I let people know what I expected from them. I was part of their chain-of-command. I did my best to be a compassionate senior chaplain. I did have do some correction from time-to-time, but without being mean about it.
Do we understand that, as Christians, we're under authority? Or do we live independent of God, on our own? When we come to God in prayer, our attitude should be: “I am Your servant.” In our consumer-driven American Christianity, that's hardly a popular message. We tend to be more concerned with what we can get from God, not what we can give Him. We come to get needs met...not to work. Yet Jesus set the standard: “The Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He also said, “If I, your Master, have washed your feet...do likewise” (John 13:14). Elisabeth Elliot noted, “The best way to find out whether you really have a servant's heart is what your reaction is when somebody treats you like one.”
This is hardly the only passage that offers a “disciple-as-servant” metaphor. Jesus also tells us to “take up our yoke,” “No slave can serve two masters,” and “a slave is not greater than his master.”
The Apostle Paul's favorite title for Jesus is “Master”...and “slave” for himself. Yet didn't Paul say in Galatians 3:28 that “there is neither slave nor free”? He is speaking of human relations. Among ourselves is equal standing...but our relationship to God is that of serving our Lord and Master.
We tend to stand up for our rights; we often feel a sense of entitlement. We tend to think of God as a celestial vending machine, catering to our needs, dispensing whatever we desire. We think of God, not in terms of Master, but Servant. He's like Santa...we pray by giving Him our wish list, not by reporting for duty. One thing I learned by joining the Army--you surrender a lot of your rights: the right to speak freely, the right to privacy, the right to live where you choose, and often the right to be treated fairly. A lot of soldiers say they feel like slaves. When we come to Jesus, the Captain of our salvation, we surrender our plans, we turn from our selfish ways, and we give up control. We come with obedience and dependence. This is what being a disciple is all about. Jesus is Lord; we are not. We don't have the option of choosing what to obey. There's no negotiation here; we are under orders and submission is a matter of duty.