If you want to be known and celebrated these days you need to ensure that the cameras are focused on you and that you are looking directly into them.

This focus on self stands in stark contrast to the best traditions of British royalty. In theory Royalty exists, not to promote themselves but the interests of others. The Royals don’t look into the camera: the cameras follow them.

Humility is the theme in an often-overlooked parable recorded in Luke chapter 17, verses 7 – 10. Having just spoken about genuine faith amongst would-be followers, Jesus contrasts the role of a master and servant, warning against pride.

Building on a common theme in the first-century Middle East, he uses the typical pattern of a master-servant relationship to illustrate the relationship between God and his people. It is a scene that will seem unfair to anyone who lives in a society that prizes egalitarianism and freedom, for the parable portrays acceptance of authority and respectful obedience to that authority.

However, the late Kenneth Bailey who spent many years in the Middle-East, comments that we need to be aware of ‘the security that this classical relationship provides for the servant, and the sense of worth and meaning that is deeply felt on the part of a servant who serves a great man. These qualities of meaning, worth, security, and relationship are often tragically missing from the life of the… worker today… The servant offers loyalty, obedience, and a great deal of hard work, but with an authentic Middle Eastern nobleman the benefits mentioned above are enormous’ (Through Peasant Eyes: p.119f).

Jesus asks, “Who among you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table?” (17:7) He expects the answer, ‘No one’.

“Will he not rather say to him,” Jesus continues, “‘Prepare supper for me, … and afterward you will eat and drink?’” (17:8) Commentators have noted that the meal envisaged here is not late at night. More likely it would have been at three or four o’clock in the afternoon. The master isn’t a bully, demanding harsh and unfair hours of his servant.

The parable is asking the question, ‘Does the master provide special privileges to a servant who does his/her duties?’ To which the answer is ‘No’.

Jesus uses the parable to draw our attention to the nature of the relationship between himself and his followers – which we also find in other places. In John 15:15 for example, Jesus calls his disciples friends but then qualifies this by noting that the servant is not greater than his master (John 15:20).

Nowhere in the Bible do we find a casual egalitarianism between God and his people that is envisaged in some Christian circles today. God alone is God. And Christ is our Lord.

Verse 9 presses the application. Using a form of question similar to that in verse 7, Jesus asks, “Does he thank the servant…?” – again expecting the answer ‘No’.

Jesus doesn’t use the usual Greek word for thank (eucharisteo). Rather he uses the word charis – meaning grace/favor. Literally he is asking: ‘Does he (the master) have any grace/favor for the servant?’ This is significant, for the theme of grace or favor is dominant throughout the Bible, and not least in the New Testament.

For example, in Luke chapter 1, verse 30 we learn that Mary was told by the angel that she had found favor with God. This doesn’t mean that Mary had won favor with God because of some special action that deserved merit. Rather, the context reveals she was given a gift that was far too great to have been earned. God, of his own initiative had granted her a favor, purely as a gift.

More than just thanks. Here in Luke chapter 17, verse 9 the question is even deeper, for it is asking if the servant now deserves more than just ‘thanks’ for a day’s work well done. Is the master now indebted to his servant? Is his work now worthy of merit – grace/favor? This is the central question the parable addresses. To which the answer is ‘No’: the servant has simply done what he was required to do. He has no grounds for claiming special favor.

The point is wrapped up in the final comment: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (17:10)

The original word translated worthless is difficult to express in English. Indeed, in his book Through Peasant Eyes (p.123f), Kenneth Bailey suggests that we need to review how the word has been translated in Middle Eastern contexts. Following the 11th century Syriac and Arabic versions we can better translate verse 10: “We are servants to whom nothing is owing, we have only done our duty.”

This is truly significant. It underlines yet again a theme Jesus develops: salvation is a gift. It is not merited in any way, shape or form. It anticipates his words about the purpose of his coming – to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

The parable challenges everyone of us who has turned to Jesus and become his follower. We are not employees who can expect payment or honor. Rather we are servants of a master, in a very positive sense, who has committed himself to be completely responsible for us.

We enjoy the benefits of his security as we work in his service from a sense of loyalty and obligation. We don’t work expecting great rewards: we are simply doing our duty.

A prayer. Lord God, you declare your mighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: grant us such a measure of your grace so that, running in the way of your commandments, we may obtain your promises and share in your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

You may like to listen to the hymn, For the Cause from Keith and Kristyn Getty.

© John G. Mason

Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.

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