7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10 ESV
These verses, if taken out of their context, will leave the reader scratching their head in confusion. Yet, it almost appears as if they have no context. Even when read as part of the overall narrative of chapters 14-17, they can still come across as shocking in tone and perplexing in terms of their meaning. The disciples have just asked Jesus to increase their faith. But He informed them that their problem was not the size of their faith, but the source of their power. They were thinking that it all revolved around them. With more faith, they believed they could accomplish more good works for God. And this mindset was not far from the attitude of the Pharisees, who believed their right standing with God was based on all that they had done for Him. They viewed themselves as faithful sons of God who diligently observed all of His laws and, therefore, deserved His blessings.
Throughout these four chapters, Luke has been faithfully chronicling Jesus’ ongoing lessons regarding the self-righteous and self-promoting mindset of the religious leaders of Israel. They were glory-seeking grand-standers who loved to parade their superior spirituality in front of the common people. They lived for the praise of men and were obsessed with social status and material gain. Luke described these icons of moral virtue as “lovers of money” (16:14 ESV). And Jesus accused them of caring more about the approval of men than the righteous appraisal of God.
“You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God.” – Luke 16:15 NLT
They lived with their eyes focused solely on the rewards of this life. And those rewards took the form of praise, respectability, power, and prominence. Their lives were a living example of Jesus’ words in His sermon on the mount.
“Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 NLT
Jesus went on to say that those who “toot their own horns,“ calling attention to their acts of charity, will receive the reward of human praise, but will end up forfeiting their eternal reward. Jesus made it clear that His followers were to give without seeking a pat on the back or any other kind of earthly recognition.
“Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:4 NLT
And Jesus continued to reiterate this seemingly aberrant admonition.
“…when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6 NLT
“…when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:17-18 NLT
The Pharisees lived for earthly, temporal rewards. Their focus was on the here-and-now, and they expected to receive divine compensation for all their tithing, praying, and obeying. And Jesus knew that even His disciples had a difficult time accepting the idea of delayed gratification. They had each made the decision to follow Jesus, hoping that He might be the long-awaited Messiah. And they were eagerly anticipating the day when He would set up His kingdom on earth and reward them with places of prominence and power in His royal administration. They continued to maintain that hope right up to the literal end. In fact, after His resurrection, Jesus gathered His disciples together on a hillside to give them one last set of instructions before He returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But even at that momentous occasion, they couldn’t stop thinking about the one thing they desired more than anything else.
So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” – Acts 1:6 NLT
They were still waiting for Jesus to set up His kingdom on earth. This question expresses their collective hope that Jesus was finally going to do what they had been longing for Him to do all along: Re-establish Israel as a major force in that region of the world. They were longing to see Israel regain its former glory and power. And Jesus assured them that they would receive power, but not in the form they were expecting.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 6:8 NLT
They would receive a power far greater than anything they could have ever imagined or conceived, and it would be the key to their future success as the apostles of Jesus.
So, as we come to verses 7-10 of Luke 17, it is important that we keep all of this in mind, because Jesus is dealing with the expectation of rewards. Look closely at the question He poses:
“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’?” – Luke 17:7 NLT
This question was meant to be rhetorical. The answer is obvious. No servant or slave would ever expect to be rewarded with a seat at his master’s table just for doing his job. The very idea posed by this question was meant to be preposterous. No servant in his right mind would ever dream of being offered a place at his master’s table. Even if extended the invitation, he would likely refuse it, solely out of humility and an understanding of his own unworthiness.
Jesus answers His own question by describing what everyone knew would be the right and expected response of the master: “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later” (Luke 17:8 NLT). The servant’s work was far from done. He may have completed his tasks in the field and among the flocks, but that did not mean he deserved a reward. And no servant would have expected one. His job was to serve his master. His needs came second. His reward, if any, would not come until his work was completed to the master’s satisfaction.
Then Jesus asks another rhetorical question: “And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do?” (Luke 17:9 NLT). Once again, no servant would have expected a thank you, let alone a word of praise or commendation. That would have been ridiculous. And Jesus affirms this when He answers His own question: “Of course not” (Luke 17:9 NLT).
But, just so His disciples don’t miss the point, Jesus clarifies it for them.
“In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” – Luke 17:10 NLT
Unlike the Pharisees, the disciples of Jesus were to obey, not for the sake of reward, but out of respect for their Master. During His earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly expressed His own willingness to fulfill His God-ordained role as the servant of God the Father.
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” – John 4:34 ESV
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” – John 8:38-39 ESV
“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV
Jesus was asking nothing of His disciples that He was not willing to do Himself. And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus fulfilled His servant role all the way to the end.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-11 NLT
The religious leaders of Israel wrongly viewed themselves as somehow deserving of God’s rewards. They would have never considered themselves to be “unworthy servants.” But that is exactly how Jesus expects His disciples to see themselves. And the apostle Paul would reinforce this humble mindset when he wrote to the arrogant and puffed-up believers in Corinth.
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.