Unworthy Thankful Servants

Sermon preached on Luke 17:7-19 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 08/28/2022 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

We have two different scenes but complementary messages. The first scene, verses 7-10, speaks to how servants shouldn’t expect reward. In context, we remember how Jesus has been admonishing the Pharisees who loved money and thought their acquisition of money was God rewarding them for their supposed faithful service. The second scene, verses 11-19, speaks to how servants ought to thank their masters when their masters show mercy and kindness to them. In context, we remember how Jesus has been showing us the quality of mercy as something that we should be showing to others and so we see that theme picked up here again. So then, two scenes, that taken together express a sort of common truth about masters and servants. A master is not obligated to thank faithful servants, rather it’s for servants to thank merciful masters. These are the truths we find taught in our passage for today. Let’s us dig into them and think further on how they apply to us and our relationship to Jesus and our pursuit of godliness.

We will begin in our first half then to consider scene one in verses 7-10. Notice that it starts out with a parable. The parable is told by Jesus in verses 7-9. Verse 10 is then the application of the parable. The parable is about the relationship between a master and his servants. In the parable, Jesus begins by asking if a master would ever invite his servants who have been working hard in the field to then afterwards come and sit down and join them together at the dinner table. We see that this is a rhetorical question. The answer is no, as verse 8 goes on to express. Jesus continues by saying that instead the master will have the servant first attend to making and serving a meal the master. In fact, the parable says that the master will even require the servant to first dress properly. In other words, this servant spends all day working hard in the field, out in the hot sun, getting dirty, probably stripping off clothes in the process. But when they came back into the fields, the master would expect to them to get properly dressed and assume the role of serving him his meal. Only then, after the master has enjoyed his meal, would the servants finally get a chance to rest and eat a meal themselves. That’s a rough summary and explanation of this parable by Jesus.

Now, at first glance, this parable might be harder to appreciate because our society no longer has any institution of slavery. Our society has gotten rid of such slavery due to the many historic abuses that happened. Too often in history masters have treated their slaves harshly and inhumanely, which the Bible condemns of course. Also, too often in history, people were forcibly made slaves by manstealing, which again the Bible also condemns. So, it is hard for us nowadays to see past such historical abuses and to imagine any scenario where people might have entered into such a master-servant relationship. But we need to be careful to read a passage in its proper historical context. This passage doesn’t commend masters treating their servants harshly. Nor does it do us any good here to miss the point of the passage because we today don’t practice this form of servitude anymore. But this institution of the master-servant relationship was commonplace back then and so let’s look for what Jesus teaches here.

So, Jesus’ parable makes the simple point to say that there is an authority structure involved in the master-servant relationship which meant servants owed obedience to their master. Masters were in charge and the servants are supposed to render a faithful service to their master. When servants fulfilled their obligations to their masters, they had performed their duty. So, the concluding explanation of this comes in verse 9. Jesus asks about the master, “Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” Again, this is a rhetorical question. The answer is no. In the strict sense of justice and obligation, a master isn’t strictly obligated to thank their servant or otherwise reward them. A servant’s job is to serve and so they aren’t doing anything extra when they serve.

Again, since we don’t have this exact institution today, it can be hard to understand this. But let me describe this same point using the more familiar example of an employer-employee relationship today. In that relationship, the two parties will negotiate some compensation package where the employer will compensate the employee for some agreed upon form of work. When the employee fulfills those duties to the employer, the agreed upon wage is then due. Now in customary courtesy and in friendliness, maybe the employer will thank the employee when giving them their paycheck. Or in reverse, maybe the employee will thank the employer when he gets the paycheck. Such thanks might be appreciation for a good worker or respectively for a good job, when it can be so hard nowadays to find good workers and good jobs. But the actual work performed and the actual compensation given is not strictly something to be thanked. Again, strictly speaking, it was an agreed upon transaction. The employee isn’t gifting his time to the employer – if he was, then the employer ought to thank him. Likewise, when the employer pays the employee, he’s not gifting that money to employee, the employee earned it. So, you can see, we can imagine a similar point that Jesus makes using a more familiar example. Philip Ryken gives a similar example. It’s not normal when you go out to a restaurant, order food for your family from the waiter, and then expect that the waiter brings the food and sits down with you and your family and enjoys it together. That’s just not how it works. Instead, he serves you because he is doing his job and you are paying him to do that.

So then, the point Jesus makes here is that masters don’t, strictly speaking, thank their servants when they do the job that they are supposed to be doing. Jesus then turns to apply that to us humans in verse 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.’” Realize what he’s doing there. Jesus is saying we are servants. God in Christ is our Master and Lord. If we did the full of our duty, as the parable describes of the servants, we don’t deserved to be thanked. Remember, we only live, because God made us. We only continue to exist, because God sustains us. Every good thing we have, is ultimately the provision of God in our lives. We owe everything to God. If we were to but do all our duty to God, we shouldn’t expect, let alone demand, that God would thank us for it. We would just be doing our reasonable service.

Of course, there’s that big “if”. If, we were actually to do everything we were supposed to be doing in service to God. But we don’t even do that. We all have sinned and still sin and thus fall short of the glory of God. We all are unworthy and unprofitable servants in our different ways we fail to do all our proper duties toward God, and in all the ways we do things we should be doing as his servants. In this first scene of today’s passage, we are called to humility. We are to recognize how much we truly do owe to God. Ours is to humble ourselves before our great Master and God and we should be looking to obey him in all things.

Let us now turn the second half of our sermon today turn to consider this other scene in verses 11-19. Here we are reminded that Jesus is in that period of Luke’s gospel where he is on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Verse 11 draws our attention to a time when we has along the border between Galilee and Samaria. Naturally, there would be a greater chance to find both Samaritans and Jews here. There he runs into ten people with the contagious skin disease of leprosy, of whom one we learn later was a Samaritan, and presumably, many, if not the rest, were then Jews. They come as a group and at a distance. That reminds us that as lepers, they had to live a life separate from the rest of society. They lived “social distanced” because of their disease. Here, they appear to be living as a cohort, since they all had the same disease, which interestingly seems to be a connection of Samaritans and Jews that surely would not have existed had they all not been leprous. Given their sad estate, they all together cry out to Jesus for help. They say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

And Jesus shows them mercy. Here again we see more concern of Jesus for the sick. We remember that the context in Luke has been showing Jesus’ heart to come as the Great Physician to heal the spiritually sick like the tax collectors and sinners. But he also mercifully comes to aid these people who are physically sick. And of course, their leprosy would have also cut them off from the religious life of God’s people as they would not have been able to join God’s people for worship, etc. We see some of that implied when he tells them to go show themselves to the priests because that was the scriptural requirement (Lev. 13:49) in order to be restored back into society and be deemed ceremonially clean so you could resume practice in the religious life of God’s people.

Realize that when he tells them to go show themselves to the priests, that it was a test of faith. They were not yet healed when he told them to do that. It’s kind of like how in the Old Testament the prophet Elisha told Naaman to go wash seven times in the Jordan River in order to be healed of his leprosy. It would be simple enough to do, but it would require exercising faith. Well, each of the ten exercised faith in that instruction of Jesus and each of them are healed as they are on the way to go see a priest. Now, for the Samaritan in question, we are told that when he sees that he was healed, he gets super excited. He is full of joy and he turns back. He returns to Jesus, praising God, and especially to give thanks to Jesus.

Notice Jesus’ initial reaction in verse 17. “Where are the rest of the ten who were cleansed?” By the way, see the supernatural knowledge of Jesus being used there. Jesus knew the mercy that he had shown these by himself healing them all as they went on their way to the priests. But Jesus notes how nine of the ten failed to come back and give thanks. Jesus says this was wrong of them to not have proper gratitude.

Jesus then notes exceptionally how the one who did return was a foreigner, he was a Samaritan. Remember that the Samaritans claimed to follow the same God as the Jews, but they practiced an impure form of the Jewish religion and there was much animosity between them, given how the Jews had ostracized them from worshipping with them. Ironically, the average Jew would have thought a Samaritan as less godly, yet this Samaritan outdid the others in terms of the basic godliness of gratitude to God. An interesting thought here is that what kind of priest was this Samaritan on his way to see? I think it most likely he was on his way to one of the Samaritan priests, because the Jewish priests surely wouldn’t have received him as a Samaritan. But here the healed and thankful Samaritan comes and lays down at the feed of Jesus in thankfulness. And Jesus receives him and encourages him. Notice that Jesus then tells the man he can go his way because his faith has made him well. In other words, after Jesus commends his faith, he doesn’t say “Now run along to the priest like I told you.” No, he says “go your way”. In the Greek, it is just “Go.” Maybe Jesus meant, go on now to the priest, but that’s far from clear. It seems instead he is saying that Jesus himself is declaring that the man is healed and that he is free to go now wherever he pleased. But of course, that would make more sense anyways. Which would be of more value, for the healed man to go and show himself to some Samaritan priest? Or for what he has now done, shown himself healed to the High Priest of Heaven, Jesus himself! Of course, this in Luke’s gospel is another foreshadowing of how the gospel of Jesus Christ would ultimately be going out to the nations, showing God’s mercy and grace to peoples of all tongues, tribes, and nations, to all who would hope in Jesus!

Now what I think is especially helpful to do then as we look at this second scene, is to look at it in light of the first scene. The first scene is about the interaction between masters and servants. Given the second scene’s orderly placement right after it, I believe it invites some comparison. Notice how in this second scene with the lepers and Jesus that the lepers call Jesus, “Master”, verse 13. So, if the lepers call Jesus, “Master”, then that makes the lepers the servants. So, scene 1 spoke hypothetically about how masters and servants interact. But the next scene shows Jesus himself as a master how he treats some servants. Then notice how that these lepers ask Jesus for mercy. As servants, these lepers are acknowledging that the master doesn’t owe them anything. That’s putting into practice what the first scene taught. The servants owe service to the master. The master doesn’t owe the servants anything, strictly speaking. So, the lepers are right to petition Jesus as master not in terms of entitlement but in terms of mercy. As servants for them to appeal for mercy is to acknowledge that they are unworthy servants who can at best do their duty. So, they appeal to the master’s mercy. Jesus, wonderfully, marvelously, grants them such mercy. Strictly speaking, Jesus doesn’t owe them healing, but Jesus merciful heals them, because Jesus is a merciful master.

But do you see then why when most of them don’t come back and thank Jesus, it suddenly makes you wonder if they really appreciated it as act of mercy by Jesus? When something is owed, a thank you is not strictly necessary. That’s why in scene one, we said masters don’t owe a thank you to their servants. But in scene two here, when the lepers don’t thank Jesus for his mercy, it’s like they thought this was owed to them. But when a master shows you mercy, since it is not an entitlement, a thank you is necessary to the master. So then, while the first scene taught us that masters don’t need thank laboring servants, this second scene teaches us that servants do need to thank merciful masters.

So then, in summary, what I want us to truly appreciate then in this passage is the kind of master we have in Jesus Christ. We’ve talked a lot about strict obligations today. Masters don’t strictly owe their servants thanks or rewards. Servants do owe thanks to their masters when their masters give them something that is not owed. But do you see how rich in mercy our master Jesus is? Strictly speaking, God doesn’t owe us fallen sinners anything. Too often, humans can act like God exists to forgive them and that God owes them something. But that’s a wrong attitude altogether. God doesn’t owe us anything. After the fall into sin, God would be perfectly just and righteous to cast all humans into hell and save none of us. Everyone one of our lives is a proof of that, that if God owes us anything, strictly speaking, it is his judgment. And yet how great is the mercy of God. As our Master and Lord he is merciful upon merciful. He is abounding in grace and lovingkindness. He has shown such to us by sending Jesus to us as our master to extend God’s great mercy to us.

We see that in Luke’s gospel. It’s what the context of these last few chapters have really been about. That God in Jesus is seeking and saving that which was lost. That he is pursuing the likes of tax collectors and sinners to show them mercy. We see it right here with the Samaritan leper. When the leper comes back to thank Jesus, he rightly assumes the position of a servant to his master by bowing at Jesus’ feet. As master, Jesus is rightly owed that honor and didn’t need to do anything more. But what does Jesus then do as master? He commends the servant for his faith, verse 19. And he tells the bowing servant to “rise”. Do you see how merciful master Jesus lifts up this servant? In the same way, I point us back a little farther in Luke. Flip back to Luke 12:37. Remember the parable that merciful master Jesus taught there. Luke 12:37, “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.” That was a surprising parable back then, but it is an even more surprising parable in light of the parable we’ve studied today. Today’s parable taught that in strict justice the typical master doesn’t thank their servants and certainly doesn’t invite them to join them at the dinner table, let alone serve them. But Jesus spoke back in chapter 12 of a merciful master who would turn the tables and reward the faithful servants when he returns and finds them faithfully waiting.

Jesus is not the ordinary master. He is the abundantly merciful master. So much so, that he has already served us by dying on the cross for our sins, that whoever would believe in him would receive mercy and eternal life. In that eternal life, we will recline with him and dine with him. We have a foretaste of that every time we have the Lord’s Supper. We, slaves and servants of Christ, dine with him in a table he has prepared for us, every time we take communion.

So then, as Christians saved by grace, it is for us to seek to do our duty to God and say we are unworthy servants, who in fact yet need so much mercy and grace from God. Yet, Praise be to God that Jesus as our master shows us such mercy and grace, even to commend us in the different good works we do by his grace. So then, it is for us to thank God, not the other way around. Yet it is Jesus’ good pleasure to nonetheless commend and reward us, even though it is not strictly owed to us. So then, while we will be unworthy servants, let us be thankful unworthy servants. What a merciful master we have!


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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