“And which of you who has a slave who’s plowing or tending sheep will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come quickly, sit down at the table’? Won’t he rather say to him, ‘Get me something for dinner, get yourself ready and serve me till I’m done eating and drinking, and after that, you can eat and drink’?
He doesn’t thank the slave because he did what he was told to do, does he?
In the same way you, whenever you’ve done all the things you were told to do, should say, ‘We’re worthless slaves, we’ve only done what we were supposed to do?’”
I suspect this parable bothers others as much as it does me. I can only recall hearing one sermon on it and that was so long ago I can’t remember anything about it.
The first problem I have with it is that it seems to be in contradiction with what Jesus says in Luke 12:37 (using many of the same words):
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master (or Lord) will find awake when he comes. Amen, I’m telling you that he will get himself ready, and sit them down and come and serve them.” And then Jesus Himself, in a sense, acts this out in His washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13.
And it seems to go against all those other parables and sayings where the master commends his “good and faithful servant(s).”
I can also see how cruel slaveholders might have used this parable to justify mistreatment of slaves (even in our own history).
And how does this fit in with our modern teachings about self-esteem? We certainly shouldn’t tell our employees or those under us that they’re worthless – should we? We wouldn’t like that said of us, would we? Doesn’t the Golden Rule apply here?
A few thoughts are in order here, on the parable and its interpretation.
The context (17:5) is a teaching time with the apostles – Jesus’ 12 closest disciples. These are our examples of followers or imitators of Christ. We’d like to find Jesus telling this to the Scribes and Pharisees. We’d like Him to be telling them they are “worthless,” but He’s not. Through the apostles, He’s telling this to us.
A parable is usually either an extended metaphor, or, as in this one, an extended simile – a comparison between two (usually) unlike things. The words “In the same way,” show us this. In this parable, the apostles are compared to slaves.
Jesus usually uses stories drawn from real life in the culture around Him and His hearers. He is not advocating slavery or even speaking to labor practices; He is simply telling a story about matters as they are.
The word translated “worthless” (Greek, achreios) is a difficult word to translate. It has been translated by “unworthy,” “good-for-nothing,” “unprofitable” and numerous other words. I believe that in this context it doesn’t mean that the slave is of no use or value; obviously he is. He farms, shepherds, cooks for and serves his master; but he brings no further benefit to his master. So with the apostles.
Perhaps this is what the apostle Paul had in mind years later when he said (1 Corinthians 9:16, 17): “For if I preach the gospel, it’s nothing for me to brag about; for there’s a necessity laid on me; for woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel. For if I do so willingly I have a reward, but if unwillingly, I (still) have a stewardship entrusted to me.” Paul seems to be repeating the “worthless slave” idea in different words.
The hypothetical person in the parable apparently owned one slave, who did all the work – shepherding, farming, cooking. We might imagine that one or more of the 12 had at one time owned a slave. James and John were involved in their father’s fishing business, which was large enough to have hired men (Mark 1:19, 20). Matthew (or Levi) was a tax-collector in the service of the Roman government and was wealthy enough to throw “a great feast in his house,” which must have been quite large (Luke 5:27-19).
While in our “enlightened” day we might be repulsed by the idea of owning another human being, this was a common enough practice in Jesus’ day. We might suppose that even those who did not own slaves dreamed of the day they could afford one, just as we today desire the latest gadget, appliance or tool to make our life a bit easier.
So how does this parable apply to us? To me in particular?
I believe it’s a reality check. Just as the 12, we who are involved in the work of the ministry can become convinced of our own importance, or at least we struggle with that tendency. I do!
We constantly evaluate our own performance. I am troubled when I see little positive response to my teaching, or when an intense counseling session seems to go nowhere, or when a new believer fails to grow, or even when only a few show up for a Bible study. I believe that there’s nothing wrong with being troubled over these things. I believe evaluation is necessary.
But the danger of self-evaluation is when I appear to be doing well – when I see positive results in my ministry. My hat seems to fit a bit tighter. I may feel that I’m going beyond what is required, that God needs me, that the results I see are all to my credit.
And then there are all those nice people who give my inflated ego “positive reinforcement.”
Whether I am up or down, whether I feel that I’m “succeeding” or failing, I need this parable. I need to be reminded that I’m only doing what is required of me. I am doing no more.
In a sense this can be a great relief.