“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in 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 servant 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 servants; we have only done our duty.’”
(Luke 17:7-10)

If you’re like me, your first reaction when reading these words is to cringe and try not to think too much about them. After all, many of us have given up things to obey Jesus. We might have given up money, prestige, families, friends, time, and many privileges to follow Him—and for all of our sacrifice, we can’t expect even a simple thank you?

You, like me, might try to distract yourself. You might think about that other verse:

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
(Matthew 25:23)

Now that’s more like it! Recognition! Promotion! Happiness!

Clearly Jesus didn’t mean that we won’t be thanked at all when there’s this other verse saying that we will be rewarded for faithful service. Right?

I recently read Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, “The Remains of the Day”. It explores what it means to be a servant bound by duty. The protagonist gave up his youth, the opportunity to be at his father’s deathbed, and even the love of his life in the name of duty. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking that we in the West no longer understand what duty entails.

“We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty,” said the servant in Jesus’ parable.

This passage speaks to an empty space in the heart of the Western church. We’ve lost a sense of duty. Our motivation, these days, is for reward and praise—not duty. If we don’t receive these things, we refuse a task. We’re so caught up in being special, in being recognized, that we forget our place. We elevate ourselves to be almost His equals and then pout when our outstretched hands are not automatically filled with rewards.

We are not God’s equals. We are not His coworkers. We are not even God’s employees, necessarily receiving remuneration.

Employees have:

  • Regular wages
  • Unions
  • Wage increases
  • Rights
  • The ability to negotiate and demand
  • The ability to go on strike
  • Working hours, and times when they are “off duty”

As Christians we often think of ourselves in relation to God along the same lines.

However, we are actually His slaves [1], to whom He has the freedom to give rewards (or not) according to His own reasoning. The Bible tells us that whether we choose to follow Jesus or not, we will always be slaves—either slaves to sin or to righteousness [2]. We don’t get to be free. We just get to choose whom we’re serving.

The irregularity of a slave’s life is the truth of our situation, and it is required for spiritual growth. There are no guarantees. We are dependant on our Master, for everything. We must always behave as Christians. There are no “off hours”. All is subservient to His plans. The rebellion of unions and strikes is ludicrous. There is no bartering or negotiation with God. Submission, not rights, is necessary.

The remarkable thing is that God, in His mercy, promises that He will reward us. [3] But not necessarily in this life. For now, duty is our motivation, and love is our motivator. Love is not self-seeking. [4] Love does not hoard rewards. It seeks to please and bring joy just for the sake of the pleasure received by others, by those we love.


[1] The term “slave” has fallen out of favour in the English language. It now brings with it undercurrents of kidnapping, forced labour, abuse, and so on. It’s not surprising that these days translators choose to avoid the word “slave” in this passage, and the connotation of abuse that might come with it. Our God is not a kidnapper, or abusive. In the Israelite culture, there was no social welfare network as there is today, so slavery was essentially a way to help the poor survive [5]. However, there were certain standards for treatment of slaves. People would sometimes sell themselves into slavery to pay off their debts, but they were still allowed to have spouses, children, and their own money. Slaves could not be abused with impunity. Abusers faced legal consequences. The law required a slave who was maimed (e.g., losing a tooth or an eye), for instance, to be set free. However, slaves did not have the same rights and freedoms as employees. They were still subject to their masters’ wishes, and we should remember this when considering our relationship with God.

[2] Romans 6:16-18

[3] See Matthew 19:29; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26-28, 3:5, 12, 21; etc.

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:5

[5] See https://www.google.ca/amp/s/www.compellingtruth.org/amp/slavery-Old-Testament.html

(Picture source)