The Obedience of Gratitude
Text: Luke 17:7-10
Jesus had just finished explaining to his apostles how they ought to organise their lives as his followers. The stakes were and are incredibly high: heaven or hell.
Jesus came into the world in order to be its Saviour and to grant eternal life to all those who placed their trust in him. I hope that all of you listening to me this morning will one day put your trust in him and in him alone if you have not already done so.
The kind of trust that Jesus has in mind is not the trust of words only but a trust that evidences itself in persevering and sometimes demanding activity. It was about some of this demanding activity that Jesus had just been speaking. Followers of Jesus were to realise in the light of eternity just how serious sin was and take appropriate action. They were to watch out for themselves but also for others being careful not to cause others to trip up along the way and ready to help those being led astray by confronting them over their sin.
As soon as we begin to think about what we are called upon to do it is very easy for us to imagine not simply that our performance is important but that it is the all important thing. If we begin to take that sort of thinking on board we will be tempted sooner or later to imagine that our obedience somehow puts God in our debt and that he owes us because of it.
Jesus’ words that follow tell us that that is not the case at all. All of the disciple’s obedience is to be the response of gratitude for what God has done for us and not to be seen as a means of putting God under an obligation to bless us. The Lord himself delights to be generous towards his people and deals with us according to his wonderfully rich free grace – we don’t have to convince him to be generous towards us – he already is because that is his very character and nature.
In order to make this clear to his disciples Jesus told another short little parable. Let’s turn to it now.
The Parable of the Obedient Servant.
The picture that Jesus draws is of a small farm or smallholding. The owner has just one servant to do all the necessary work be that ploughing the land, tending to the sheep or the more domestic chores of preparing the food and waiting at table.
This scenario would have been an easy enough one for his hearers to envisage. And even if most of us have never worked on a farm I don’t think that it is too remote from our everyday lives for us to readily picture the scene as well.
A Series of Questions
As Jesus tells his story he repeatedly asks rhetorical questions – he wants his hearers to engage with him and to think about the situation he is presenting them with for themselves.
In our English translations of this particular story we find a series of three questions are posed – one in v.7 another in v.8 and the third in v.9. We will look at each one in turn.
v.7 "Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?"
The question being rhetorical doesn’t expect an answer to be given rather it is an invitation to think and here Jesus fully expects his hearers to respond negatively in their hearts.
None of them in this sort of situation would expect to wait upon their servant and to serve him first – this just wasn’t the way things were done between master and servant!
Well if that wasn’t what they would do how would they more likely conduct themselves? That is the second question that is posed in v.8.
v.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’?"
A second question and this time Jesus expects the answer "Yes". That is much more in line with the nature of things. Yes, the servant had been doing some work out in the fields but that didn’t mean his work was over for the day – he had other responsibilities to fulfil before he could expect to finish for the day and sit down to eat. The Master was well within his rights to expect his servant to wash and change his clothes for something more appropriate so that the servant could bring the Master his dinner!
So far Jesus had not caused his hearers to do anything other than to think normally about situations they were familiar with or could easily envisage.
The same is true too for the third question though at first sight the way this whole question has been translated may cause us a little more difficulty.
v.9 "Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?"
I imagine that most of us do say something like "Thank you" to a whole host of people who do things for us. In the UK politeness is still very evident in everyday life. So we thank the receptionist at the doctor’s for doing the job she is paid to do in giving us an appointment. We thank the person operating the cash till at the supermarket for selling us goods that don’t belong to her and we know all the while that she is getting paid for it in the process. When the waiter in the restaurant brings the food we’re going to pay for to our table we generally don’t ignore him/her but say thank you.
What then did Jesus mean when he asked his question:
v.9 "Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?"
Was he discouraging the very politeness we so seem to value in our own society by intimating that the Master in his story was acting in a totally acceptable manner by not saying thank you?
Well, the answer is, of course, "No". Jesus is not telling his followers that they are to be rude or that they should stop expressing their thankfulness to one another and this is why.
According to Gordon Keddie in his book He Spoke in Parables this particular verse would be better rendered as follows:
v.9 "Does he count himself especially obligated to the servant because he did what was commanded?"
The answer Jesus expects to this question is once again a negative one.
Jesus’ story does not tell us that the Master was unappreciative or discourteous. What it does tell us is that the behaviour of the servant was utterly unremarkable – indeed so ordinary in fact that no special thanks were due to him at all! By carrying out his functions as he did the servant was doing no more than his duty and so should not imagine that he had done anything deserving of special approval – by doing his duty he did not place any obligations at all upon his Master. And once again Jesus fully expected his hearers to understand the situation he was describing and to agree with him.
After posing his three rhetorical questions Jesus concluded his little story with a few words of explanation as to how it applied to his disciples:
v.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.’"
The only way in which a person can respond to God with the kind of obedience he looks for is for them to have experienced God’s grace in their life. Such obedience, emanating as it does from God’s free grace, can never be considered as grounds for putting God under obligation to reward us. The Christian then should acknowledge that God owes him nothing instead it is the Christian who owes God everything including their very life.
It is indeed very true that God is good and generous towards us. He delights to pour blessings into our lives and to add grace to grace. But that is a very different thing to saying that we somehow put him into our debt by something that we might have done. Even the best of our service adds nothing to him – the ability to serve him is a great honour and privilege which we must not demean by regarding it as a means of currying favour with him. Even the very best of our deeds fall short of his holy standards. I wonder have you realised that it is not just those mistakes and failures in your life, which you might be prepared to recognise as sin, which would keep you out of heaven? Have you understood that the very best of your acts, those of which you are most proud and confident, that they will keep you out of heaven too if you place your trust in them?
The Christian must seriously consider Jesus’ words when he tells us to see ourselves as we really are: "unworthy servants".
That is precisely how the apostle Paul was later to behave. When we read the NT among Jesus’ followers none seems to have been as active, nor as influential, as the apostle Paul. He was involved in at least three major missionary voyages which are described at some length in the Acts of the Apostles. He made it his goal in life to preach about Jesus and him crucified throughout the known world and in particular to do so in areas where no-one had preached before he got there. He wrote 13 out of the 27 books that constitute the NT in our Bibles.
Paul was an impressive man. His judges recognised his great learning and his opponents feared his influence but were unable to effectively oppose him as he relentlessly spread the good news of Jesus beyond the confines of the Jewish world.
Surely, if anyone might look to God with some expectancy of reward for all his years of sacrificial service in the cause of Jesus Christ it would be the apostle Paul. But when we turn to consider what he actually thought about his own track record this is what we find:
1Cor.15:9 "For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God."
When he became a Christian Paul reviewed his life up till that momentous point and dismissed all those things that might have been considered as being in his favour as rubbish, animal dung, if only from then on he might know Jesus Christ.
Then as a Christian Paul similarly refused to place any confidence in the service he had offered to the Christ who had saved him – we have already read about that as he had to defend himself against the charges of the false apostles who were troubling the church at Corinth. As a servant of Christ Paul had plenty of things that he could have boasted about but he preferred to make his boast in the Lord and that meant boasting not of his strengths but of those things that served to demonstrate just how weak he actually was:
2Cor.11:30 "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness."
In the next chapter of his gospel Luke will recount another of Jesus’ parables that touches on just this theme. There Jesus outlined two opposing and contrasting attitudes. One character showed that he thought that his life set him apart and he wasn’t averse to telling God all about what he did and what he had done. His whole attitude suggested that God must be really pleased with him, indeed that God was fortunate to have such a one. Yes, God would be sure to reward one of his calibre.
The other character had nothing to boast about and instead cast himself wholly upon the Lord for mercy knowing that he was a sinner and whatever he did he couldn’t change that fact.
Which are you most like deep down inside?
Jesus gave his seal of approval to just one of them. Would he give you his seal of approval? It was the second who went home right with God. Are you right with him too?
The good news of Jesus Christ is all about what God has done for sinners in and through the life and ministry of his Son. It is good news because it tells us that by trusting in Jesus we will be saved from our sins not by our efforts or by our resolutions but by what Jesus has done in giving his life upon Calvary’s cross. There he dealt once for all with the problem of our sin and he invites people just like you and me to believe in him.
When we do he begins a wonderful work of transformation in us as he sends his own Spirit to live in us – but this work of transformation begins only in those who have already been saved by God’s grace. The progress of that work of transformation is the evidence that his saving work has truly occurred in our lives and that progress comes about as we with a deep heart-felt gratitude begin to carry out the commands our Lord has given us in his word. In other word our progress is seen as we fulfil the duties he has entrusted to us.
We’re not to imagine that by carrying them out God will be obliged to bless us – we know that we are "unworthy servants" but we know too that we have all of our blessings freely in our union with the Lord Jesus – the honour and the glory is all his and our attempts to obey him are simply the way we seek to express our thankfulness to him for such wonderful favour shown to us.
What do you know of this?
If you are a Christian then rejoice in your salvation and express your thankfulness in speedier and more complete obedience.
If you are not a Christian then what holds you back from calling out to him today asking him to forgive you your sins and to take you to be one of disciples? Be ready to follow his acceptance of you with the obedience of gratitude.
And to God be the glory.