Does Jesus treat us as good-for-nothing slaves in Luke 17?

The Sunday lectionary reading for Trinity 16 in Year C offers some serious challenges to our understanding and practice.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17.5–10)

The passage contains some basic textual challenges, in that the subject appears to switch suddenly from the question of ‘faith’ to being servants. The parable about servants itself has a sudden switch, in that Jesus begins the story by putting his listeners in the place of the master, but then concludes by putting them in the place of the servant.

But there are wider theological issues too. Only two chapters earlier, we have been told that those who are lost are loved and sought after, as a shepherd seeks a sheep, as a woman seeks out her lot coin, and as a father looks and longs for his lost son to return. How, then, are we merely ‘unworthy servants’. Are we not the ones whom Jesus ‘has loved to the end’, for whom Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and stops and is servant to us, as he washes our feet (John 13)? Are we not the precious ones who have been bought at a great price (1 Cor 6.20)?

And how might this read to those who have struggled with self-esteem, for whom God’s affirmation of their value has been the most powerful healing? Should we tell them that, in reality, they are ‘unworthy’? The same tension is found in the Common Worship liturgy for Communion, where the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP (‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table…’) has been shoved in abruptly immediately before the distribution of the elements without the assurances that it originally came with. I never use it.

Part of the answer to this comes from noticing the context of the passage in Luke; once again, we need to recognise the shortcoming of dicing up the gospel text into lectionary portions, when it was written to be read continuously. (This might be a good reason for, alongside weekly preaching of these portions, finding time together to read the gospel through in one sitting; it would take less than two hours, and could be eased by the addition of breaks for coffee and biscuits!)

The journey motif, present since Luke 9.51, has dropped out of view for the last few chapters, and instead there has been a focus on who is in the kingdom. In fact, the journey motif will be revisited in the next verse where, in Luke 17.11, we have a reference to Jesus journeying ‘along the border between Galilee and Samaria’ which (if taken in order) means he hasn’t travelled very far in 9 chapters! (Failing to recognise the theological, rather than chronological, order of Luke’s material here can lead people into making daft claims about the identity of Martha and Mary…) So we need to read all this material as reflection on discipleship, and it turns out that the cluster of sayings grouped together here are directed ‘to his disciples’ in Luke 17.1 and then even more specifically to the ‘apostles’ (Luke 17.5), who haven’t been mentioned since returning from their ‘missionary journey’ in Luke 9.10.

So this teaching is directed to those already committed, those on the inside. And it is directed to them in the context of warnings not to be like the Pharisees ‘who loved money’ and status according to Luke (Luke 16.14). In this context, Jesus has just urged his close followers ‘Don’t become a stumbling block’ and ‘Don’t hold on to bitterness and resentment’ but forgive your brother or sister who sins against you and asks for forgiveness. The former was brought home to me sharply when I read the news that a local clergyman, someone whom I taught during his ordination training, has been convicted of defrauding a old woman and conning her into including him in her will before she died, after which he conducted her funeral.

The latter is illustrated by the stunning grace shown in a US court room as a man embraces the woman convicted of murdering his brother.

No wonder that the Twelve plead with Jesus ‘Increase our faith!’ (or perhaps ‘Give us this kind of faith!’) If not, how can we live to these exacting standards?

The phrase here is πρόσθες ἡμῖν πίστιν, using the verb prostithemi, meaning to add to something that is already there. They have faith, but it is not this kind of faith, so there needs to be a dramatic change in the kind or degree of faith or trust that they have in God. The verb here is used in a mundane sense elsewhere in the gospel; Herod ‘adds’ to his offences by locking John the Baptist up in Luke 3.20, and Jesus points out that we cannot ‘add’ to our lives by worrying in Luke 12.25. But in Acts the verb is most often used in Luke’s periodic summary statements showing how the power of the Spirit at work amongst the believers leads to many being ‘added to their number’ (Acts 2.41, 2.47, 5.14, 11.24). Is there a connection between this kind of faith, and the growth of the people of God through people coming to faith themselves? Does faith beget faith?

Jesus’ surprising rebuke offers an insight into the issue linking these apparently disparate themes. It is not about you. When you focus on your own needs and agenda, that is when you become a stumbling block. When you focus on your rights and concerns, that is when it is hard to forgive. When you think that ‘faith’ is all about the strength of your inner convictions, that is when you get into trouble. The best analogy I have heard is that faith is like a tow rope used by one car to pull another car up a hill. If the second car won’t move, then it is no good attaching a stronger rope; what matters is the vehicle the rope is attached to! In a similar way, it is not the strength of our faith that is the issue; the question is, who is our faith placed in?

It is not clear exactly how common slavery was in first-century Israel. The Talmud does have regulations about the keeping of slaves, but there is a clear concern that Jewish practice should be seen as distinct from wider Roman practice, in part because of Jewish memory of being freed from slavery in the Exodus, and in part because of the humanising regulations in the Torah. In fact, there is a good case for not using the word ‘slave’ at all to translate OT language here; Peter Williams makes the case in this video that what is being described here is debt bondage, so we ought to read this as a discussion about servants, not slaves. (Josephus appears to believe that Jews were obliged to release all slaves after seven years, in line with the teaching in the Torah). Slaves are mentioned quite frequently in the NT, and slavery is assumed as a social phenomenon, but the lack of reference to the slaves of Jews in the gospels is striking. (The man going on a journey has slaves (douloi) in Matt 25.14, but the father of the prodigal has ‘hired hands’ (misthoi) in Luke 15.17.) This story would be much more powerful in the context of Luke’s readers, who it seems are largely gentiles outside of Israel—and it is striking that this is found in Luke alone.

The story envisions a master who has one servant, and that servant is both pastoral and domestic, working in the field as well as the home. Perhaps, though, we should not press the model here too far: Jesus’ points is that (as Luke’s readers know well) being a slave is hard and often thankless work, and the slave does not have rights or privileges.

The story disabuses the disciples of any claims to entitlement based on service (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia, p 253).

The analogy is not surprising, given that Luke frequently uses the slave/master relationship as a teaching point in his account of Jesus’ ministry. And, characteristically, Luke calls Jesus the apostles’ ‘Lord’ in introducing this section (Luke 17.5)

Luke’s audience might also, in the parable, have heard fairly loud echoes of the duties of leaders within the early Christian communities. Ploughing (in 1 Cor 9.10), tending the flock (in 1 Cor 9.7) and serving at the meal table (in 1 Cor 11; compare the debate in Acts 6) were all metaphors for aspects of Christian leadership (Parsons, p 254). This connects Luke’s theology with that of Paul, who consistently describes himself as ‘slave’ of Christ, and defines disciples as those who confess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Romans 10.9, 1 Cor 12.3).

But what kind of ‘Lord’ are we ‘slaves’ to? For Paul, he is the ‘Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2.20). He is the one who has ‘poured the love of God into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5.5). He is the one who cried ‘Abba, Father’ to God, and having justified us freely (so that there is no condemnation), gives us his Spirit so that we too might cry out ‘Abba, Father’ as he did (Rom 8.15). He is the one who, on the cross, dealt with our sin and in his resurrection gave us new life, so that in baptism we died to sin and live to him (Rom 6.4). This is no ruthless master!

And it seems that for Paul, knowing the love and kindness of his master is precisely the thing which sets him free to submit to him as ‘slave’. So it must be for us.

Neither Christian discipleship nor Christian ministry are a means to privilege and power. They cannot be a means to prosperity—though can and should be a means of living, since ‘the worker is worthy of his or her hire’ (1 Tim 5.18 quoting as scripture Luke 10.7)—nor can they justify creating a culture of deference, in which leaders parade around in fine clothes and expect others to bow to them.

There is a radical egalitarianism assumed here, for if the service of Christ does not lead to exaltation, it follows that all in the community of faith are of the same status. Jesus makes this explicit in his criticism of the Pharisees in Matt 23.8–11:

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.

If that happens, then we have succumbed to the temptations of the Pharisees, and we are in danger of exploiting our position by taking advantage of others. Worse than that, we have received our reward now and are in danger of forfeiting our reward from God (Matt 6.2, 6.5). And perhaps these things are a sign that we have forgotten the love and grace of God.

It turns out that the call to be humble servants offers just the liberation that we need.

(Video discussion of this passage and its issue will follow in the next post and be posted on the Psephizo YouTube channel.)

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7 thoughts on “Does Jesus treat us as good-for-nothing slaves in Luke 17?”

  1. The question I’m wrestling with in sermon prep is whether verse 6 is best translated:
    “if you HAD faith” (the assumed answer being no)
    “if you HAVE faith” (the assumed answer being yes)

    David Garland in the ZECNT argues for the latter and I think that translation helps make sense of the whole.

    • Good to wrestle. The Greek text followed by most modern versions has present indicative in the if clause (protasis) but imperfect indicative in the consequent clause (apodosis). Literally: “If you have faith … [then] you said …” which is odd in English and in Greek. An indepth Wikipedia article has a useful table setting out the tenses you would expect to see following the protasis.

      But as I have often had occasion to observe, the readings followed by the ESV, NIV etc are often poorly attested, and this may be another instance where the KJV gets it right. There is an alternative reading here, ἔιχετε (imperfect) rather than ἔχετε (present), and that then accords with normal usage. The table characterises the imperfect in both clauses as ‘unreal present’. Though the ESV works from a bad text, it nonetheless gets to the right sense: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you would say … .”

  2. Zac

    Need ‘if you have faith’ assume a yes answer? What is noticeable is that faith if present is employed in an act of judgement. Elsewhere Jesus speaks of a mountain being cast into the sea – a description of the dispersion of Israel among the nations in judgement, I think.

  3. Regarding the description of the followers of Christ. I think that just as Jesus chooses his time to bring truths to his disciples so we have to know ourselves and decide that at certain times a text though true is not the one we need to hear. We require discernment the Lord can give us.

  4. Could it be the case that faith is one of those things where a full understanding of what it is and how it works lies on the eternal side of the invisible boundary that separates our earthly understanding from what, one day, we will come fully to see and know?

    A grain of mustard seed has no conscious faith: it simply does what it is designed to do without question; and that’s amazing enough. When Peter walked on the water towards Jesus his subconscious faith enabled him to do it but, as soon as his consciousness took control of his actions, faith departed and he started to sink. Clearly, if we are minded to take this story as fact, that kind of faith is the expression of a power beyond our earthly imagination; and it’s not our place to ask or expect for it to be enhanced, not least because it’s already more than adequate to achieve everything necessary and more besides.

    In the parable of the master and servant, the relationship can only work when obedience is an unquestioning assumption of how things are. So for us Christians, no effort of will or ambition to do better is necessary for beefing up our faith. The hard part is simply sticking to our side of the obedience arrangement and not getting above ourselves in terms of what we might achieve if we could tweak it a bit as we see fit.

    I do so agree when Ian says ‘Neither Christian discipleship nor Christian ministry are a means to privilege and power.’ And his comment in the video version about the ostentatious (and frankly eccentric) dress of some C of E clergy is very apt. I would go so far as to say that such self indulgence must carry the real threat of causing some Christians or potential Christians to ‘stumble’ and even be lost – about which a severe warning is given by Jesus in the preceding verse 2 to the reading in question.

  5. I am more inclined to think that there is irony in Jesus’ sayings about faith, and mountains or mulberry trees. It is not about an amount, like petrol in the tank, it is – as Ian says – about in whom is our faith / trust. Given the seed is so small, yet that amount of faith is enough to get trees flying around (and we can’t make the trees fly), then our faith must be deemed even smaller.
    When Jesus was doing miracles / signs, and the culture was one where the miracle worker, the wonder-worker was admired, I think Jesus is teaching us that faith is something completely different.

  6. My take on the passage is that it is about covenantal status, and I think the key is Luke 12:37. The disciples asked for more faith because they understood that they needed to add something to what they had to be able to obey the commands of Christ. But as the post and comments above say, the point Jesus is making is that they need to have faith in him–the issue is not the amount of faith but the object of faith. A small faith is not the problem, because the smallest faith can move a tree (or a mountain). The problem for the disciples is, who Jesus is, and consequently, who they are.

    Jesus then tells the story of the unworthy servant. If the disciples see their ability to obey in terms of how much (of whatever) they have, then they will never be able to present God enough of it, ergo they are unworthy. It’s about them trusting their own works, seeing religious observance as capable of satisfying God’s standard of righteousness, as the Pharisees did. But if the disciples will trust and identify with the true worthy servant, Jesus, then they, covenantally, become worthy servants, free now to do good works from the position of having been reinstated into right relationship with God–restored to the black side of the ledger, as it were. This also means that forgiveness is now possible—if we are forgiven, we must also forgive. This change of perspective is what the disciples really need, not more faith mustered up from who-knows-where. Finally, the once unworthy servants will be served by the master: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them” (Luke 12:37).


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