What Does Jesus When He Calls Us Unprofitable Servants?

The Gospel for Tuesday of the 32nd Week of the year records Jesus as saying:

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” (Luke 17:6-10).

This teaching of the Lord’s can irritate us and even seem hurtful if we misunderstand grace and seek to understand this text by the flesh (i.e. our sin nature). Our flesh is self-centered and thinks we deserve praise and good things from God in return for the good things we do. The flesh expects—even demands—rewards, but God can never be indebted to us, never. Our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us.

All our works of charity and faith, for which our flesh wants credit, are God’s work and His gift. This is made clear in this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

If I think that I did something deserving of praise and reward, I am thinking in terms of the flesh, not the Spirit. When I have done something good all I can really do is to say, “Thank you” to God. His grace alone permitted me to do it. God may speak elsewhere of rewarding us, but that is His business. He is not indebted to us in any way. When we have done everything we ought, our one disposition should be gratitude. We are useless servants in the sense that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We can only do what He enables us to do.

That said, it is clear that work is a pillar of faith. The text from today’s Gospel and the text from Ephesians above both make clear that work is something God has for us. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17). Likewise, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me. It was I who chose you that you should go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). Yes, work is a fundamental of faith.

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