Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Unprofitable Slave and the Gracious Master


Luke 17:7-10; Mathew 20:1-16

It is fortunate that Luke 17:7-10 is not the only parable that Jesus related concerning God's relationship to his servants. If this were the case, it would give us a distorted picture of God. The parable does, however, provide a vital truth.

Jesus begins this parable as he often does by asking his audience to agree with him.1 "Who among you would say to your bondservant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the bondservant for doing what was commanded?"

Jesus rightly assumes that his listeners would answer the last question in the negative. A bondservant's obligation is to serve the master, not the master the servant, even though the servant has worked all day and is tired and hungry. A master doesn't say to a servant, "Supper is ready. Come, take your place at the table." The servant must prepare supper for his master before he eats. He should expect no commendation for this. He is a servant, and this behavior is expected of him.

One should not conclude from this story that the Master is an unjust or evil man. In this case, his bondservant has simply been asked to do what he is obligated to do, and consequently deserves no special thanks or reward.

This parable is given in answer to the disciples' request to have their faith increased (Luke 17: 5-6), and deals with the emotional context of service. Should we as God's servants judge our worth by the rewards we receive? In other words, should we believe ourselves to be judged "useless" in our Christian service if we haven't "earned" special treatment? The bondservant in this parable performs necessary, even vital service for his master, and it wouldn't occur to him that his work was without value because he received no special commendation.

The disciples had left their nets, their boats, their families, their livelihood to follow Jesus, and they were looking for some kind of reward that to them would indicate that their sacrifices were commendable. This seems to have been Peter's attitude when he asked, "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" (Mathew 19:27)

Christians that have made special sacrifices for their faith often look for signs-good health, security, well-being of family members-that indicate God had judged their service praiseworthy, thereby validating their many years of sacrifice and service. Jesus' promise of "treasure in heaven" or that "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother, or children or fields, for my name's sake . . . will inherit eternal life," (Matt 19:29) somehow isn't enough.

Peter's question revealed that he was still influenced by the Pharisaic understanding of merits. The accumulation of merits took place when one fulfilled the legal precepts; "for example, every individual act of Sabbath observance, every time the phylacteries were put on . . . every act of charity, every prayer, every fast . . . were so many Mitzvoth to a man's credit." 2 In this case, Peter was claiming a reward in the here-and-now for the disciples' good deeds.

It was this spirit that Jesus wanted to counteract when he told the parable of the gracious master in Mathew 20:1-16. In this parable, the master hired workers at the beginning of the day for a denarius a day and continued to hire workers at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours. When at the end of the day the master paid all the workers the same wage, those who worked twelve hours complained.

Oesterley 3 quotes a Jewish parable similar to this one but with a significant difference.

It is like a king who hired many laborers. And there was one laborer who understood his work beyond measure well. What did the king do? He caused him to accompany him as he strolled along many pathways. When evening was come those laborers drew near to receive their wage; and he gave each the full amount of his wage. But the laborers murmured and said, "We have toiled the whole day, and this man has toiled but two hours, and yet he has given him the same wage as we have received." Then spake the king to them, "He has done more work in two hours than ye have during the whole day."

The point of this Jewish parable is that even though he worked for only two hours the "laborer who understood his work" deserved the whole day's pay because he did twelve hours of work in two. While it is true that some people produce more than others in the same amount of time, the men in Jesus parable who worked fewer hours did not deserve the pay they received. "Thus in this apparently trivial detail lies the difference between two worlds: the world of merit, and the world of grace; the law contrasted with the gospel." 4

Our human reaction would likely be to side with the argument of those who labored through the heat and dust of the twelve-hour day. We might argue that if the master made this his regular practice, no one would come to work first thing in the morning.

This parable is not given as an example of Christian economic practice. Jesus is explaining that the divine economy works differently than the earthly one. God rewards us not according to our desserts but according to his grace. God does not give us what we deserve; he delights in giving us more than we deserve. The master was not being unfair to the twelve-hour workers since they had agreed to work for a denarius a day, and they received the fair wage they had agreed upon. The master simply exercised his prerogative in giving more than that amount to those who worked less.

While Jesus' parable implies the attitude of the grateful workers who came later, it would be highlighted more if we should make the contrast between grateful workers who come early versus hireling workers who come later. If the order were reversed, the hireling workers would gloat over the fact that they received the same pay even though they worked only one hour. They would point their fingers at the grateful workers and call them suckers, that is persons who were so easily tricked. He would say, "Look what we got. The poor guys worked all day and got no more than we did and the stupid master doesn't know what he's doing." Even though the hireling workers would gloat and taunt and ridicule them, the grateful workers would not feel cheated or become hostile toward them. Instead they would feel sorry because they did not have the privilege of serving their loving Master the whole day.

In Jesus' parable some of the grateful workers work only for one hour. What kind of response would they make? Surely they would first recognize that they don't deserve what they receive. Second, they would feel very fortunate that they were selected at all. Third, they would regret that they could only work one hour for their beloved master who chose them to work in his vineyard. They would not boast that they received a whole day's wages for one hour of work but would regret that they could not have spent the whole day, endured the heat of the day for their beloved master who gave them an opportunity through his act of grace in choosing them to be his laborer.

The parable contrasts the spirit of the hireling with the spirit of the grateful worker. Peter, who believed that he and the other disciples had earned a reward for their faithful service, exemplified the hireling spirit of the first workers. The thief on the cross, who became a disciple for a few short hours, epitomized the grateful spirit of the workers who accepted the denarius they had not earned. "Not the amount of labor performed, or its visible results, but the spirit in which the work is done, makes it of value with God." 5

When Christ abides in the soul, the thought of reward is not uppermost . . . We should not be so anxious to gain the reward as to do what is right, irrespective of all gain. Love to God and to our fellow-men should be our motive. 6

The disciples of Jesus serve with joy and gratitude and do not begrudge salvation to those they have spent a lifetime working to save, particularly those whose lives are changed by the grace of God only moments before death. These grateful workers consider themselves privileged to have served the Lord from "the beginning of the day".

Alas, that I so lately knew thee,
Thee, so worthy of the best;
Nor has sooner turned to view thee,
Truest good and only rest!
The more I love, I mourn the more
That I did not love before!
Johannes Scheffler 7

The Norwegian writer, Jens Peter Jacovsen, tells the story of Nils Lyhne, a man who, in the last hours of his life, chose not to make his peace with God. He did not think it fair that having professed atheism all his life that he should now turn to God in his last moments. He wanted and needed a pastor, but he steadfastly refused to ask for him. His family physician who knew his thoughts and respected him for his sense of fairness and integrity, said of him, "If I were God, I would far sooner save the man who does not repent at the last minute." 8 Perhaps integrity is valued more highly in God's eyes than Nils Lyhne imagined, and he will be able to personally testify to the truth of the parable of the Gracious Master in the Earth Made New.

Peter's question at the beginning of the parable showed that he completely misunderstood the spirit of Christ. He thought only of himself and what he had done without realizing that anything he did was due to the original act of grace in choosing him as an apostle. He put himself in the center and asked, "Lord, what do I deserve?" when he should have instead put God in the center and exclaimed, "What has the Lord done for me?" If he had done this, he would never have asked the question at all. He could see that the privilege to labor for the Master was reward enough for him.

One can conclude from the first parable that God is a thankless slave driver. He expects us to be constantly slaving away for him without expecting any respite or gratitude. The focus is on the responsibility of the bondservant. Basically, the parable teaches what we cannot argue against. It is obvious. That is, if we only do what we are obligated to do, we deserve no thanks or claim to a special reward, but apparently that was not something possible for a bondservant.

Yet for those who serve diligently and lovingly without thought of gifts, such service in itself brings great satisfaction and sufficient reward. This is in fact the attitude of the grateful workers in the accompanying parable. If those who worked less than a full day had in fact worked a full day, their attitude would have been the same. They would have been grateful for the privilege of working for such a gracious master. Their regret was that they were not able to do more.

This is also, in fact, the explanation of the first parable. The privilege to labor for the master is reward enough for the bondservant. He doesn't ask, "What do I deserve?" but instead, "What has the Lord done for me in selecting me to be his servant." Thus these two parables need to be looked at together to get the total picture of God's relationship to his servants.

As grateful servants at the end of a life of service, we do not ask, "What shall we have therefore?" but instead humbly say, "We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do." (Luke 17:10)

1. In the parable of the lost sheep, he began by asking "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?" In the parable of the lost coin, he began, "What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?"
2. W. O. E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (London: Society for the Promoting of Christian Knowledge, 1936), p. 103.
3. Oesterley, p. 108.
4. Jeremias, p. 139.
5. White, p. 397.
6. Ibid, pp. 389-399.
7. Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father (London: James Clarke; New York: Harper & Bros., 1959), pp. 116-117.
8. Thielicke, p. 121.

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