Q & R: Beloved Children or Worthless Slaves? Brad Jersak
I am discovering that God is a loving Father and I’m experiencing the joy of knowing I’m his dearly loved child. I am basking in his goodness and mercy, I’m rediscovering my true identity in Christ and I’m finding real belonging in his family and at his table.
I’m also taking Jesus more seriously than ever. But some of his teachings are difficult. For example, how should we read Luke 7:7-10? Doesn’t this completely undermine the way Jesus sees us?
7 “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’? 8 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’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 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.’”
On first reading, this passage is very triggering, especially to those who’ve been wounded in religious contexts where our humanity was constantly belittled and where spiritual abusers treated congregants as unworthy servants of their own agendas. The dehumanizing theology and practice from which we fled make us cringe as we read these puzzling words of Jesus. His analogy is alarming to sensitive hearts and ears that are still just waking up to God’s unwavering love and seeing how Abba adores us.
The temptation to a knee-jerk, revulsive reaction is both powerful and premature.
- Some might read these words and be tempted to return to the yoke of slavery and self-loathing, whether in defeat or worse, imagining themselves to be super-spiritual in our faux-humility.
- Others might read these words and quickly reject them, unable to perceive what the Rabbi is up to and imagining that even Jesus is too religious for their new-found understanding of grace.
- Others will race to “solve” the problem by recasting Jesus’ words to mean something he obviously didn’t mean, squeezing them into their own doctrinal convictions at the cost of truly hearing him.
- Most, it seems, just move on, wishing so strongly they had not seen these verses that they quickly forget they had. Gradually, their knowledge of Jesus’ teachings is reduced to only those passages that don’t provoke them.
Honestly, I don’t believe these responses are faithful to the Jesus Way. Taking up our cross and following him requires us to first hear and undergo the emotional impact his words intended, then seek to understand how his most jarring messages serve to free us so we may flourish and enjoy the abundant life of being his children. I’d invite you to prayerfully walk with me through this process, because understanding Jesus requires surrender rather than resistance, an open posture of the heart rather than resistance, and the difficult willingness of allowing the Great Physician to use his scalpel where necessary. If you can at least simulate openness, you’ll have a chance at hearing Jesus’ words aright.
First, YES, you are Abba’s dearly loved child:
Before we grind away at this obscure and bewildering passage, let’s reassure our hearts with the blazing clarity of the New Testament’s overtly gospel verses. Two unambigous identity texts spring to mind at once and provide a well-cured foundation on which to build. First, from St. John, apostle of Love:
“Look at the remarkable love the Father has given us – that we should be called God’s children!
That indeed is what we are” (1 John 3:1 NTE).
That’s our ontology–a fancy philosophical word for “the truth of our being.” The truth of your being is that you truly are God’s child and that Abba conferred this identity upon you, not through your own meritorious service but out of the depth’s of Abba’s “remarkable love.” We are God’s children by grace as Christ is by nature–sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
Similarly, Paul will say,
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children” (Eph. 5:1 NIV).
Not to nitpick, but there’s some debate about how this word “as” is to be understood here. Does it mean, “be imitators of God like dear children” (NTE) or is it “because you are his dear children” (NLT). Is it an analogy (“imitate like children do”) or a corollary (“imitate since you’re God’s children”). Grammatically, that’s uncertain. Ontologically, I’d say it’s completely certain: AS dearly loved children means we ARE dearly love children. That’s the truth of our being. Paul is calling us to make the truth of our being the way of our being through imitation.
But are we really God’s “worthless slaves”?
Of course not. That’s not the truth of our being. Then why would Jesus tell his disciples to posture themselves that way? Is there some important reason that he might employ such rhetoric in his analogy? When Jesus pokes us with sharp words, if we could assume he’s the Great Physician and that the sharp pokey thing is a scalpel, what type of person might need this surgery? What condition might require these cuts? Is our discomfort a sign that the words are meant for someone else? Or is our defensiveness signaling our own need for (and aversion to) spiritual surgery? We’ll come back to that.
Let’s first double-check the words used. Jesus says,
“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 17:10 NIV).
N.T. Wright, an English gentleman, tries to dial it down a little:
“‘That’s how it is with you. When you’ve done everything you’re told, say this: “We’re just ordinary slaves. All we’ve done is what we we were supposed to do” ’ (Luke 17:10 NTE).
The words in question are:
- achreioi: which can be translated worthless, useless, unprofitable or unmeritorious.
- douloi: which can be translated servants or slaves.
Douloi need not be a great problem, since Paul and especially Christ knew the truth of their being as Abba’s beloved sons yet the way of their being was true servanthood. Certainly, Christ was never in doubt about his sonship, nor were the N.T. authors who proclaimed him as Son of God. Who can forget the baptism of Christ, when Abba himself announced Jesus as his beloved Son!
And yet Paul not only self-identifies as a doulos of Christ but also tells us in Philippians 2:7 that Jesus Christ, the co-eternal Son of Abba, set aside privilege to take the form of a doulos, humbling himself even to death on the cross. In nature (the truth of his being), he was God, but in the way of his being, in surrender to his Father and in service to humanity, he functioned as the quintessential servant. “Servant,” then, is a function, an analogy, a picture of the loving submission behind Christ’s infinite authority. Hardly something to despise or deride!
Achreioi is more difficult to swallow. If we want to play it safe, we can follow Wright’s suggestion and minimize the offence by translating it “ordinary” as in “I’m not worthy of special honor above anyone else.” Similarly, we could render the word “unmeritorious,” as in, “My obedience doesn’t earn me a special seat at God’s table.” As sons and daughters, we are honored to sit at Abba’s banqueting table (as in Psalm 23), but as servants of the Master, we remember that our place is not to usurp the Master or imagine ourselves as the master. That will work … if we play it safe.
Of Broken Hearts & Drama Queens
For the broken-hearted, for those whose personhood has been beaten down by the condemnation and judgments of the accusing voices of religiosity, legalism, perfectionism–whether through systems, individuals or their own nagging, inner voices, I am inclined to say that Jesus was not addressing the broken-hearted in this passage, any more than when he used pejoratives such as “brood of vipers” for the religious elite. He’s going after someone else and something else. Don’t imagine that he’s looking to kick the wounded while they’re down. These words aren’t for the broken souls who already suffer from slave-mentality. Take a momentery reprieve from thinking he’s assaulting you as others have. Remember, you’re a dearly loved child of God!
But I’d rather not just put a bandage on cancer if surgery is necessary. Even the broken-hearted may discover that their ego is an inner perfectionist that punishes them from the inside for failing to measure up to its standards. What if Christ is not rebuking our precious hearts at all but instead, fighting for our hearts by putting our self-abusive and entitled egos in their place? What if rather than stomping us down, he’s freeing us from the crushing, heavy foot of ego-centric mastery and ambition? This isn’t about crucifying the ego (we all have and need an ego!) but rather, demoting the ego as master over us to God’s servants for us.
Merely bruising my ego is not sufficient when it seeks to supplant Christ from his seat in order to enthrone itself. A deep incision may be in order. So, even the sick of soul shouldn’t flee the scalpel of Christ’s words. He desires to liberate us from the oppressive voice of our inner drama queen.
To get to the heart of the matter, we might ask when and to whom the more dramatic labels (yes, Jesus is being dramatic!) such as “unworthy servants” or even “worthless slaves” are necessary? We can do this in a three-stage thought experiment:
1. First, imagine someone who is so haughty, so proud, so entitled that they actually think they are God’s master and that their agendas are wiser and greater than God’s. Can you imagine this person swaggering into God’s banquet and claiming to be the most important person at the table, deserving to be fed first and imagining they earned the right to sit on the Master’s throne? Can you picture them brazenly insulting the divine Host and treating the other guests as their slaves, even using you as their footstool because they can? Take a moment to feel indignant! Can you conceive of someone so snotty and entitled that you just wish the Host would dress them down and put them in their place? Can you feel the satisfaction of seeing Jesus show them that their actions are so out of line as to be worthy of the title “unworthy”? Allow yourself a grin. And what if such a rebuke were done without malice but as true righteousness, a hard and liberating truth for everyone in the room, including the offender? How amazing … and I actually have someone in mind! I want them to hear Luke 7–for Christ’s sake, for my sake and even for their own sake. It would honestly be good news for everyone if Jesus did that and they took it to heart.
2. Second, understand that my ability to visualize that special someone unmasks my amazing capacity for projections. I.e., my instinct for externalizing judgments onto others that some part of me seeks to avoid. Who or what is showing me that “unworthy slave”? My ego! The very part of me that most needs to undergo Jesus’ words and wants to slither away from hearing them myself!
Seeing that truth and desiring to be free, how does Jesus’ teaching help me? What if I were to literally do what he recommends. What if I were to simply said the words, “I’m an unworthy servant. I’ve only done my duty.” Don’t know it until you watch the fruit of trying it! Here’s what Jesus is up to:
I do NOT say, “I’m an unworthy servant” to deny my true identity as God’s beloved child! Never. I only say, “I’m an unworthy servant” as a practice that assaults my entitled ego, the part of me grasping for recognition and demanding honor as a way to earn the identity I already have … the true self of my sonship which it’s constantly sabotaging by striving!
To that part of me, Christ says, “Stand down!” By humbling myself, by making myself least and last at the table, I side with him against my slavery to haughty egoism. And guess what happens! Something quite remarkable! Jesus tells us in another parable in Luke 14:
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
3. The finale of this exercise is NOT to say, “I’m unworthy” and leave it there. Jesus has us say it to the Master and then listen for his response. If we declare, “I am worthy,” maybe he’ll say, “If you say so.” Or maybe not. But if we say, “I’m unworthy” to him, my experience of seeing hundreds of people say this over the last 30 years is that Jesus knows exactly what their heart needs to hear. First of all, they don’t need to hear a theological rebuttal. They need to hear the voice of Jesus. That’s everything.
Second, depending on the person’s needs, he normally responds in one of two ways: Either, “Of course you aren’t! It’s not about worthy. It’s about grace! You need never earn that!” Or, “Of course you are! You’re my child and I love you.” In both cases, he invites them to sit with him at his table. What pride could not achieve, humility receives freely.
Is his intent to belittle us? No, he tells you outright. The plan is to exalt the humble! That’s the end-game in both passages!
When Abba’s dearly loved children know their true nature as sons and daughters, they can take the low place as servants of all. Thus, they become so beautifully Christlike that they are freed from bondage to egoism and its abuse of self and others. By siding with Jesus in humility as douloi who serve at the table, we become like Jesus in self-giving love rather than perpetually starving cravers of grandiosity.
Yes, those who’ve been beaten into servitude by religiosity and the demands of a self-loathing ego will need to beware of taking these words as further dehumanization. Rather, see how Christ might release us from the demands of earning our worth rather than promoted as sons and daughters.