The Duty and Joy of Service

Ages ago, when man lived mainly off agriculture and cattle-breeding, and slavery was legitimate, a religious teacher told his followers: “Suppose one of you has a slave plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the slave when he comes DSC04764-optin 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 slave 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 slaves; we have only done our duty.’”

Today these words may sound repulsive. “We are unworthy slaves”? What kind of self-description is that? Thankfully, most slavery was abolished a long time ago, so this parable is largely irrelevant for people in the West. We are not slaves, but free men and women entitled to a life of dignity and respect. And whoever told the parable was, apparently, a merciless slave-owner with no heart for his workers—some pagan who’d never heard of the God who made man in his own image and set the Jewish slaves free. My Jesus would have nothing to do with this inhuman austerity.

Such a reaction is not improbable. But it was, of course, none other than Jesus himself who told this parable to his disciples (Luke 17:7–10)—the only Jesus there is to believe in, the Jesus that won’t be divorced from the totality of his Word. So what are we to make of this parable? And why does it offend us?

Taken out of the biblical context, it does present us with a bossy and uncaring God. But instead of doing that injustice to Jesus, let us face our own context: democratic, hedonistic culture. We are all equal, so it’s easy to think of our humble and loving Lord, who took upon himself human flesh, as equal to us, his creatures. We are created with certain needs, which the Lord our Good Shepherd wants to meet, so it’s easy to think that he exists for us.

The parable might be a typical Eastern484_8440-opt exaggeration, just as hating one’s parents is presented as a condition for following Jesus (Luke 14:26). But the point is nonetheless clear: just as a slave is bought for a specific purpose, which is service, and nothing else, so we are created by God for a life of servanthood, not self-indulgence. We exist for him, not vice versa. Loving God and doing his will is, for a human being, what swimming is for a fish, and flying for a bird. And since our culture is all about give-and-take, we are easily tempted to think that service to God should be rewarded by him, like any other service. Yet Jesus is telling us just the opposite: our obedience is not a basis for laying a claim on God.

But doesn’t the Scripture speak of God rewarding his faithful servants? It sure does. However, there are two vital truths about these rewards. First, they are signs of God’s pleasure that are given to assure us: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Second, they are, in essence, a promotion to a new level of responsibility: “You have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things” (Matt. 25:23). Yes, the reward for faithfulness is not a higher pension, but more challenging service—because that’s what we were made for!

But doesn’t that give us a picture of a God who wants mere slaves? What about his love that reaches out in desire for fellowship and unity with us? Well, listen to Jesus once again: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Pay attention: not “fulltime ministry,” “overtime job,” “duty,” “responsibility,” or “fate,” but “food”: that which gives our body new energy, strength, and life! Furthermore, a good meal is a meal shared with a friend—so food is also about the joy of fellowship. And since the Spirit of Jesus, who we usually call the Holy Spirit, is in us, we can indeed, as the psalmist says, “serve the Lord with gladness” (Ps. 100:2).

Thank you, Jesus, for this amazing privilege!

Alexander Goldberg