The Parable of the Unprofitable Servant
Luke 17. 7-10.
The short story told by our Lord concerned the owner of a small farm. Seemingly, the man had only one servant (literally, ‘slave’), who not only filled the roles of ploughman and of shepherd but who performed all the domestic duties in the house.1
Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century and born less than 40 miles from where the Lord was born, said of Him, ‘He was deemed a carpenter, for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes’.2 It is more than likely that, when working as a carpenter at Nazareth, our Lord had come into contact with many such household slaves.
Though the slave was denied neither the opportunity nor the means of meeting his own needs eventually, he was allowed to do this only after the performance of all his duties. And so, returning from his day’s heavy workload, he was required to prepare for his master’s comfort before he was permitted to see to his own – which he did without question or complaint.
But what are we to make of this story? Does the Lord Jesus mean to portray God as some hard, inconsiderate and ungrateful taskmaster, indifferent to both the past labour and the present weariness of His servants, accepting their toil without any acknowledgement or gratitude?3 To ask the question is, of course, to answer it. No, our Lord certainly didn’t want His apostles, and He doesn’t want us, to get the blasphemous impression that God is some heartless and unfeeling slave-driver. Nor does He want us to walk away with the idea that God will fail to fully recompense any (still less all) faithful service rendered to Him.
We have only to listen to our Lord’s clear and unambiguous teaching elsewhere. We have, for example, His words recorded in Mark chapter 9, ‘whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward’, 4 and in chapter 6 of this very Gospel, ‘Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great’.5 This teaching He later expanded through His apostles. For example, He taught through Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 that ‘each one will receive his own reward according to his own labour … the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work … endures, he will receive a reward’.6
Are we, as many commentators,7 to reconcile such passages by saying that, although we really have no just or legitimate claim on any recompense from God, God in His grace will yet bestow rewards on us? No, that won’t work, because the New Testament is very clear that God’s people are to receive rewards for their faithful and sacrificial service, not as a matter of grace, but as a matter of justice.
Towards the close of his life, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that day’, 8 and the writer to the Hebrews assures us that
‘God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which you have showed toward His name’.9 We serve a glorious God indeed, who, on the one hand, says of His people, ‘their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more’, 10 and, on the other hand, says that He will never forget their service and labour for Him. Make no mistake then – God keeps accurate records of every Christian’s service. And He doesn’t forget, even if we do!
Interestingly, the Saviour had earlier suggested that He Himself will one day do for His servants exactly what He says in our passage that no normal master would ever dream of doing. ‘Blessed are those slaves’, He said in chapter 12, ‘whom the lord when he comes shall find watching. Truly I tell you, that he will gird himself and make them recline at table, and will come and serve them’.11 That is, the extraordinary action of the Lord described in chapter 12 portrays His attitude to His servants, whereas the expectation of the master here in chapter 17 portrays the normal attitude of a master to his servant.
And we note that, in our Lord’s story here in Luke chapter 17, the servant received no thanks12 – not one word of approval or praise – for all his strenuous service, whereas we are assured by the apostle Paul that, when ‘the Lord shall come … then shall each have his praise from God’.13
So, we may well wonder, what does our Lord’s parable mean?
But we need to delve into the preceding context before attempting to answer that question. Indeed, the conjunction ‘But’ with which the parable opens14 indicates that the parable is connected in some way with what passed between Jesus and the apostles in the previous section; namely in verses 1 to 6.
‘It is impossible that no offences (‘causes of stumbling’) should come’, Jesus said. It is a sad fact of life. At the beginning of chapter 15 we were told that the Pharisees and scribes had treated the tax-collectors and sinners who crowded around Jesus with disdain, and in the latter section of chapter 16 the Lord spoke of a rich man who had treated destitute Lazarus similarly. By means of such an attitude, great spiritual harm can be done to those who were poor, weak and despised – to ‘these little ones’, as the Lord tenderly described them.
Jesus warned His disciples against committing a similar sin; that is, not to cause the outcasts who had come to Him for refuge to stumble. For though, in the present world, it is inevitable that, at times, such vulnerable people are going to be tripped up, woe to the person who places the stumbling block in their way.
And the Saviour made His point very graphically, affirming that the fate of the man who causes spiritual harm and ruin to one of His defenceless ‘little ones’ will be so grim that he would be better off if he was hurled into the sea with his head poking through the centre hole of a ‘millstone’. And the word which Jesus used refers, not to a hand-mill, but to the much heavier stone pulled around by a donkey or ox. That is, to have a huge stone hung around his neck to ensure his drowning out in the open sea is, the Lord was saying, too good a punishment for the man who places a stone of stumbling in the path of one of His ‘little ones’.
Clearly, a stone ‘necklace’ of that great size and weight would rule out any possibility of the body rising again to the surface and of being given a decent burial by friends or family, a consideration which, to our Lord’s disciples, would have increased the horror of such a death. And I understand that a similar method of execution had actually been employed by the Emperor Augustus.15
Our Lord then advanced from (i) warning His disciples against leading others into sin, to (ii) warning them against neglecting to assist those who sin against them. The disciple’s responsibility in such cases, He made clear, is twofold: first, the admonition and rebuke of the offender, and, second, the generous forgiveness of the repentant person. For in the Christian life there is not only the danger of offending others; there is also the danger of harbouring grudges and of refusing to forgive when the offending person apologizes.16
Our Lord’s ‘seven times in a day’ is not, of course, to be understood as a literal limit; the Lord Jesus was teaching absolute and unlimited forgiveness. Nor is the offended party, He made clear, in a position to judge the genuineness of the offender’s repentance. If someone sins against me seven times in a day, asking me to forgive him each time, I may well question whether his professed repentance is really sincere. But the Saviour commands me to accept the word of the offender and to continue to forgive him.
Reeling under the impact of this double requirement (namely, on the one hand, to avoid causing others to stumble, and, on the other, to be always ready to forgive), the apostles appealed to the Lord, ‘Increase (‘add to’, literally) our faith’. ‘Lord’, they gasped out in effect, ‘we are going to need a special “faith supplement" to give us sufficient spiritual strength if we are to avoid offending others and to always forgive the repentant!’
‘No, you don’t’, Jesus replied, ‘The active exercise and use of the faith you already have is more than adequate to meet any need you face … If you have faith as a mustard seed, you would say to this sycamine tree (at which point He perhaps gestured towards some nearby tree), “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”, and it would obey you’.
As is well known, the mustard seed is proverbially small, about the size of a pin head.17 It was, as Jesus said elsewhere, ‘the least of all seeds’, 18 in all likelihood meaning that it was the smallest cultivated seed in the land of Israel.19
By way of contrast, the ‘sycamine’ tree (that is, the mulberry tree20) was large, growing to a height of 30 foot, with dense, spreading branches often reaching wider than its height. And the roots of the mulberry tree were reckoned to be exceptionally strong, on account of which it was thought by many Jews of Jesus’ day that the tree could stand for 600 years.21
And we should note that Jesus spoke in terms, not of the mulberry tree merely being thrown into the sea (as the millstone-carrying person who caused someone else to stumble), but of actually being planted in the sea. He spoke, that is, of the further miracle that this large tree would stand firm and erect above the sea with its entire root system held in place by nothing more than the flowing waters.
Not, of course, that our Lord expected His apostles to understand His words literally. He was, as often, using a hyperbole, a deliberate overstatement to make a point. But there is a whole world of difference between not taking a statement literally and not taking it seriously. And the smallest amount of real faith, the Saviour wanted His disciples to know, can accomplish mighty tasks; always assuming, of course, that this small amount of faith is directed to almighty God.
In the context here, the Lord may well have been teaching the disciples that a small measure of real faith was sufficient to give them all the power they needed to gain (the humanly impossible) victory over their deep-rooted natural selfishness and unforgiving spirit, against which His earlier commands had been directed.
And then comes the parable, introduced, as we noted above, by the word ‘But’.22 For faith, the Lord was saying, wasn’t the only thing which mattered. And He now drew their attention to the issues of obedience and humility.
So what does the parable mean? I suggest that the key lies in the nature of a parable. It is important to note that in several of the other parables in the surrounding context the Lord drew just one main lesson from His story, and that the other details of the parable were not meant to be applied. Indeed, the other details often stood in deliberate contrast to the application which He made of the story.
For example, the point of the parable about the friend at midnight at the beginning of chapter 1123 was that, in praying, when we ask we are given, when we seek we find, and when we knock the door is opened, and not that God is in any way a selfish and reluctant benefactor as was the man in bed at midnight who needed to be pestered and cajoled into giving the much needed loaves.
Again, the point of the parable about the dishonest steward at the beginning of chapter 16 was that we should imitate the steward’s shrewdness and wisdom in making diligent use of resources (which really belonged to his lord and were at his disposal for a short time only) to secure some long-term benefit for himself when the inevitable day of reckoning came, and not that we should imitate his dishonesty and the fraud he practised.
And again, the point of the parable about the godless and unjust judge at the beginning of chapter 18 is that, just as he eventually vindicated and avenged the widow who had been wronged, so God will assuredly vindicate and avenge His chosen ones, and not that God needs, like that judge, to be worn down and exhausted by somebody’s persistent nagging before doing so. And here, in chapter 17, the Lord Jesus made the point and purpose of His parable very clear. It is that, if and when we have done all that is commanded us, we must yet regard ourselves as ‘unprofitable servants’, having done only what we ought to have done.
Our parable tells us nothing either (i) about the view which God takes of our service, or, for that matter, (ii) about the motive out of which we should perform our service – which ought to be with alacrity, in a spirit of love and gratitude, and not, as was the case with the slave, because we have no choice in the matter. The application of the parable centres exclusively on the view which we, as God’s bondservants, must take of ourselves and our service, highlighting the humble spirit in which we should serve the Lord and banishing all thought of self-satisfaction or self-congratulation.
That is, the parable is not meant to illustrate the proper attitude of the servant’s master, but to exhort us to adopt the proper attitude of the servant. The Lord Jesus isn’t suggesting for one moment that God is ungrateful for His people’s obedience. Rather He is forbidding us to pat ourselves on the back because of what we have done and achieved.
And it is important therefore that we note the change in focus, from (i) the attitude of the master in the parable itself, to (ii) the attitude of the servant in our Lord’s application of the parable … that we note the change in focus, from (i) the ‘which of you, having a servant ploughing or tending sheep’ of verse 7, to (ii) the ‘so likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants"’ of verse 10.
The spotlight, that is, falls not on the master’s attitude (taking his servant’s constant and faithful service for granted, without so much as one word of thanks24), but on the servant’s attitude when he has wholly performed his work.
And we must ever remember that we are simply stewards, for a time, of the abilities and opportunities which the Lord gives to us, whose duty and privilege it is to work ceaselessly25 for our Master. And ‘privilege’ it most certainly is. There is no higher service.
In the days of Ezra, Tattenai, the governor of the region beyond the River, and the other civil authorities asked the elders of the Jews who had given them authority to build the Temple and the walls at Jerusalem, they specifically asked them for their names.26 I note that the elders simply responded, ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth’.27 To these good men, that was all that mattered and that was how they wanted to be known.
I note also, that, when James and Jude, who were ‘the Lord’s brothers’ according to the flesh,28 wrote their epistles, they each introduced themselves as ‘the bondservant’ (the ‘slave’) of the Lord Jesus Christ.29 Clearly to them also there was nothing higher. And it is our privilege, as well as our delight, to work for the same Master.
It isn’t then that we do God some great favour by serving Him, but that He most certainly shows us great favour in permitting (and, indeed, enabling) us to do just that. And how grateful we should be for such an immense privilege.
But what are we to understand by the servants’ description of themselves as ‘unprofitable’?
The word which the Lord Jesus used normally carries the meaning ‘useless’ and ‘good for nothing’, 30 which is certainly its meaning in the only other place where it occurs in the New Testament. In the parable of the talents, speaking of the ‘wicked and lazy servant’ who hid his talent in the ground and put it to no use, his master says, ‘cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness’.31 That is, this slave was ‘unprofitable’ in that he had brought no gain to his master. And this may well be the sense in which Jesus used the word here. For, even if we do everything required of us, we do no more than we ought. We give to God only what He is owed.32
There may also be the idea that God gains nothing from us, because, in the end, He doesn’t need our service and is in no way dependent upon us. And I note that some scholars have suggested that the word is to be understood here, not so much as ‘unprofitable’, but as ‘expendable’.33
Painful as the discovery is, we must face the fact that God can equally well use others as He can use us. Consider the confidence which Mordecai the Jew expressed to Queen Esther when he, she and all the Jews through the 127 provinces of the Persian empire were effectively under sentence of death; ‘if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’34
For, although we unquestionably need Him, God doesn’t need us. And we can only respond in amazement and gratitude that He ever deigns to use us.
And the Lord is still looking for the man or woman who will say, ‘Though I may be (and, indeed, I am) an unprofitable servant, I am determined to do that which is my duty’. As the decisive Battle of Trafalgar between the British and the French was about to commence, with the nearest enemy ships less than two miles away, Admiral Lord Nelson hung out his motto to the breeze, ‘England expects every man to do his duty’.35 The following naval engagement was one of the most significant naval battles in history, eliminating any possibility of a French invasion of the British Isles.
This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version (KJV). One of the major influences on the language of the KJV was the earlier translation work done by WILLIAM TYNDALE (1494-1536), who, on a charge of ‘heresy’, was strangled and burned at the stake.36
In the prologue of one of his works,37 Tyndale noted that some people asked him why he had bothered writing the book since his Roman Catholic opponents would burn it, seeing they had very recently burnt a significant quantity of New Testaments. Tyndale’s response was characteristic of the man: ‘In burning the New Testament they did none other thing than that I looked for: no more shall they do, if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall so be. Nevertheless, in translating the New Testament I did my duty’.38
‘England expects every man to do his duty’, Nelson said. ‘I did my duty’, said Tyndale. And God expects no less of us!But, as our Lord made clear, He also expects that, if, with His help, we succeed in doing it, we then acknowledge that that is all we have done – our duty – and that we are therefore no more than ‘unprofitable slaves’!
I was struck many years ago by the words of JUAN ORTIZ, ‘Can you say you have done everything the Lord told you to do? If so, we can have a graduation ceremony for you. We will give you a diploma which reads, ‘… unworthy slave’!39 And, whether I like it or not, that is my honorary title.
With his eyes (i) on the servant in our parable who did what was commanded him, and (ii) on the servant in the parable of the talents who did not do what was commanded him,40 JOHN WESLEY wrote, ‘Happy is he who judges himself an unprofitable servant: miserable is he whom God pronounces such’.41 Well said, Mr Wesley!