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.

What was ordinary life like in the first century?

Bruce Longenecker is Professor of Christian Origins and W. W. Melton Chair of Religion at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He has a long-standing interest in the cultural context of the early Christian movement, and has just published In Stone and Story, an exploration of the Roman world of the first century, and how Christian faith engaged with, … Continue Reading

Does Jesus treat us as good-for-nothing slaves?

This Sunday’s lectionary reading from Luke 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 … Continue Reading

What was slavery like in the NT world?

The latest Grove Biblical booklet is on Slavery in the New Testament and is by Caryn Reeder, Professor of New Testament at Westmont College, Santa Barbara. It offers a really helpful exploration of the phenomenon of slavery in the New Testament world, and highlights the importance of our understanding since the mention of slavery, both literal and … Continue Reading

Should we extend the boundaries of ‘gospel freedom’ in sexuality?

Will Jones writes: The Bishop of Bangor in the Church in Wales, Andy John, has written an Episcopal Letter outlining a theological and scriptural justification for marrying same-sex couples. The letter is worthy of proper consideration because of its very fair and clear (albeit brief) exposition of both the conservative position and Bishop Andy’s own affirming … Continue Reading

The church changed its mind on slavery. Why not on sex?

Will Jones writes: It rarely takes long in any discussion about a controversial ethical issue amongst Christians for someone to bring up slavery. Slavery is the great exemple of how Christian thinking has changed on a key ethical issue. Christians in the past permitted slavery, practised slavery, defended slavery. Scripture clearly permits slavery in certain circumstances, … Continue Reading