The Hardworking Servant (Luke 17:1-10)

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from The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech
by Douglas D. Webster

Throughout Luke’s travel narrative, we are aware that Jesus is heading to the cross. Along the way, Jesus challenged the religious leaders and instructed his disciples. In the parable of the hard working servant, Jesus’s attention shifts from the crowd and the religious leaders to the small band of disciples. Three linked sayings set the stage. Each saying has an unexpected verbal twist, and the use of hyperbolic images gets our attention. First, the consequence for causing a little one to stumble is worse than if you were thrown into the sea with a millstone around your neck. Second, forgiveness is required when a person sins against you and repents, even if it’s seven times in the day. Third, faith as small as a tiny mustard seed is able to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea. These three crisp attention-getting one-liners on acute sensitivity for the well-being of the young; unwavering forgiveness for a sin- prone friend; and a bold, genuine faith in God, all focus on what it means to follow the Lord Jesus and thereby set up the next parable, Jesus’ no-big-deal-work-ethic parable.

EARTHY DISCIPLESHIP

Disciples who respond to the call of God, who embrace the call to salvation, service, sacrifice, and simplicity, never put God in their debt. Disciples are not accruing credit through their faithful service. They are simply doing what is expected of them—what God’s grace has equipped and empowered them to do. Jesus told the story this way:

Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after his sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will 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)

Jesus couples a sensitivity to sin, a readiness to forgive, and a willingness to trust in God with an attitude of humble service. This no-big-deal-work-ethic parable is not about labor relations. It is certainly not a resource for an executive to use to pressure subordinates into submission and diligence. If the crowd had heard this parable, they might have misconstrued its purpose. And if the religious leaders had heard it, they might have felt the story defended their authority. Only the disciples were in a position to understand this parable. Jesus was addressing the work ethic of the kingdom of God. Simon Kistemaker explains, “The context of the parable is the cold, impersonal relationship of the ancient world in which a slave was expected to obey whatever his master told him to do. If the owner instructed the servant to plow the field during the day and to prepare supper upon returning home, he merely obeyed because he knew that this was his task. It was as simple as that. And for doing his task the slave did not receive a ‘thank you,’ for it was not customary to thank slaves.”[1] The hyperbole in this case is found in imagining the unimaginable: the master treating the servant after a long day’s work as if he were a dinner guest, “Come along now and sit down to eat.” That’s just not how servants were treated.

LABOR OF LOVE

The parable is about serving God with gratitude because of God’s grace rather than serving with an attitude of entitlement because of our effort.[2] God is never in our debt. God never owes us a favor, no matter how hard we may labor. “A  life of the most blameless holiness and love is no more than God requires. It is no ground on which a special reward can be demanded. It is not reason for expecting promotion or praise.”[3] The point is not that the Lord treats us like servants or refuses to reward us. In an earlier parable, Jesus told the story of a master who rewarded his diligent, faithful servants by inviting them to dinner and humbly serving them (Luke 12:37). And in the upper room, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as an example of how they should serve one another (John 13:5). On that occasion, Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). However, the fact that the disciple’s relationship with the Lord goes beyond the status of a servant does not mean that disciples  bargain with God. His grace and favor are always more than we deserve and fill us with joy and gratitude.

Yet if we’re honest, to embrace the role of the servant does not come naturally. What comes naturally is a sense of entitlement. We act as if God owes us. We feel overworked and unappreciated, more concerned with how people honor and respect us than how we honor and respect the Lord. Our worldly priorities leave very little room for God in our lives. But what if we reverse this mindset, put our excuses aside, and acknowledge our privilege to serve at the pleasure of the Lord? Jesus lays out the daily, ordinary work of the disciple: accountability, forgiveness, and faithfulness. This is the real work: nurturing the young in the faith; forgiving those who sin against us, even when they sin against us repeatedly; and exercising our faith, no matter how small, for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Instead of complaining when we have done everything expected of us, we simply say, “The work is done. What we were told to do, we did” (Luke 17:10 msg). The apostle Paul summarized the believer’s work ethic beautifully when he said, “We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28–29).


[1] Simon J. Kistemaker, The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 247.

[2] Robert Capon insists that this parable is not about work at all. Jesus is not instilling a kingdom work ethic of sensitivity, forgiveness, faith, and faith- fulness. Capon quotes the Lord’s perspective: “You’ve got only one job to do and that’s to drop dead for me. That’s all I need from you, because everything else that needs doing, I do. And I’m not going to thank you for what you do, or reward you for what you achieve, because no matter how nifty any of it may be, it’s all useless for my purposes—all tainted, like even your faith, with your boring commitment to winning” (Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 322).

[3] Charles R. Eerdman, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 174.


This post is adapted from The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech by Douglas D. Webster. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

“In The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech, Douglas D. Webster defamiliarizes the familiar to help us read these ancient stories with new eyes. Scholarly insights and honest reflections on his own ministry come together in a thoughtful exploration of the parables’ indirect—but powerful—confrontations of the religious status quo, and of how Jesus not only teaches us what message to communicate but how to communicate it best.”
—Rebecca Poe Hays, George W. Truett Theological Seminary

“In this excellent book, Douglas Webster considers numerous parables of Jesus in a most refreshing way. Of particular importance is the convincing way he shows Jesus’ indirect communication method of articulating the gospel of the kingdom in contexts of hostility and resistance, and its relevance to today’s world. Jesus told the truth slant. The book includes a very helpful appendix spelling out how to preach the parables. This is a book to read with your Bible open.”
—Graham A. Cole, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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About Author

Douglas D. Webster (Ph.D., University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for fourteen years as well as churches in New York City, Denver, and Toronto. His other books include, Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation and Preaching Hebrews: The End of Religion and Faithfulness to the End. Find him at douglasdwebster.com.

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