Luke 17:5-10. The Unprofitable Servant

The reading for the 27th Sunday in ordinary time is drawn from Luke 17: 5-10. In this passage, Jesus employs the classic analogy of the mustard seed, which occurs no less than five times in the Gospels (Mt 13, Mt 17, Mk 4, Lk 13, Lk 17).  On three occasions the mustard seed is likened to the Kingdom of God. On two occasions, the mustard seed is compared to the faith of a Christian.

Increase Our Faith

Van Gogh. 1890.
Van Gogh’s “Good Samaritan”. 1890.

This is the only instance in the Gospels where the apostles ask Christ to increase their faith. And Jesus responds, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this tree, be uprooted, and it would obey you. 

There is no mystery as to what Jesus is trying to say. Christ is saying that faith in God pays greater dividends and requires less effort than faith in our own ability. Thus the faith of a mustard seed will outwit hundreds of hours of worry or effort, or the work of a hundred men with no faith. Jesus uses the analogy of the mustard seed again in Matthew 17:20; however there he speaks of the faith of a mustard seed moving mountains, rather than trees.

Luke’s Choice of Stories

Then Jesus proceeds to tell the story of the Unprofitable Servant. Luke inserts a cycle of stories in his Gospel- the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16), and this story of the Unprofitable Servant -that feature very generic archetypes. Whereas Matthew and John used the pharisees as direct literary foils, Luke uses these hypothetical everyday figures (the servant, the son) to convey a message. Luke appears to avoid using the pharisees and saduccees as literary foils, choosing instead to use everyday figures to tell a story.

Unprofitable Servants – Or, There is No Profit in Being a Disciple of Christ

On the face of it, this passage is slightly off-putting. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table?’  As if to suggest that – after working all day in the field – a good servant will not eat with his master, but rather will prepare his master’s meal.

Where is Jesus going with this line of reasoning? Far from being sentimental or thoughtful, Jesus seems to be saying to his disciples, do your duty. As readers, we are left wondering why Jesus insinuates that doing the work of the Lord might be a duty, rather than a labor of love.

A book that I recently read, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, might help contextualize the story. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, a pacifist, and friendly to the Catholic and Anglican churches, during the final years of the Nazi regime. He was sent to a concentration camp and executed only two weeks before Germany was liberated. In his book, Bonhoeffer speaks of cheap and costly grace. He says cheap grace is the belief that because Jesus did all the work on the cross, we need not do much besides kick back and thank Jesus for everything he did. Bonhoeffer takes issue with this false attitude about the Christian faith. On the contrary, Bonhoeffer argues that grace is costly. The cross of Christ demands that we take up the cross ourselves, and in fact imitate the life of Christ no matter what that cost might be.

If we understand that there may be – in this life – neither merit nor reward for doing the will of God (that is the cost of discipleship), then perhaps the passage makes more sense. What Jesus seems to say, perhaps somewhat unsentimentally, is that “you may earn nothing in return for doing good or loving others. So don’t consider yourself a profitable servant.”

Service to the Lord is by definition unprofitable – because grace cannot be merited. For that reason, Jesus argues that we should be rather stoic about our discipleship: better to be a good disciple of Christ and to call ourselves unprofitable servants, rather than to pay lip service to the faith and say that we merit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Luke 17: 5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied,
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'”

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