So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do (Luke 17:10).
The words of Jesus are not palatable to the self-proclaimed autonomous man. Jesus, to use the vernacular, never gave man a lot of slack. Man is put in his proper place by the teachings of the gospel. Until man knows what he is in the eyes of God, he can never understand who he is. What the best of autonomous men are, Jesus said, are unprofitable servants.
He introduced this message with an example. Assume that you have hired a full-time servant to work for you. One of his tasks is to plow the field. Another is to serve you your evening meal. He knows he is to do both. Which of you, Jesus asks, allows the servant to go eat dinner as soon as he comes in from the field? Will you not rather say to him, “Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shall eat and drink” (v. 8)?
What is His point? Simple: God is the Master; we are His servants. Does the master “thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him?” Jesus asks. Obviously not, He summarizes (v. 9). He has done well only when his work is completed, and his reward is food and drink. But he must finish his work before he gets his reward. The master is not required to delay his feast until the servant has satisfied his desires. He was hired to do a job; the mere completion of the assigned task is not some great achievement which automatically calls forth the master’s rejoicing. How much less cause for the master’s rejoicing and congratulations is the completion of half the assigned task.
Paul used similar language in describing the ethical rebellion of both Jews and Gentiles: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12). What man faces is condemnation: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Both Jesus and Paul were reminding their listeners and readers that man is not washed clean by the good works he performs. There is nothing wrong with good works, just as there is nothing wrong with the servant’s completing the first part of his assigned task. God does not rejoice at our good works, however, just because we have done them. We have already come so far short that our half-completed works do not impress Him. Where is the master’s meal? What are we doing, sitting down and eating our meal when the master goes hungry? Who do we think we are? More to the point, who do we think the master is? Who do we imagine that we are dealing with? A person like ourselves? Another slave who also has not completed his tasks and is equally under condemnation?
The typical response of the man who hears of his own shortcomings before God, and of his need for repentance, is this one: “Well, I’m no worse than most everyone else.” This may well be true. He is no Hitler, no Stalin. But in this case, there is no safety in numbers. He is not going to get lost in the crowd because of his average performance. The whole crowd is headed for disaster.
God’s Bottom Line
It is not so strange that so many of the parables are economic in their format. Men respond to what they understand, and most men understand something about economics. They understand the difference between profit and loss. “More” is preferable to them than “less.”
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