“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
She got the call right before her shift. It was her dad, they said. All she heard after that was “totally unexpected” and “didn’t make it”. She hung up the phone unable to speak, not knowing what to do. If she didn’t leave for work soon, she’d be late. They’d most likely fire her – she’d been late before. The bills were piling up; the rent was due next Monday; her daughter needed a new pair of sneakers but they might as well forget about those because they would be homeless, anyway.
So she went to work. She arrived at the restaurant with barely enough time to throw on her uniform and make her way to her first table. Her lips trembled as she formed a weak smile, and her voice shook as she introduced herself. The father of the family of four had his head buried in the menu, while the mother was trying, unsuccessfully, to keep their two small children from throwing crayons back and forth at each other. It was going to be a long night.*
Who among you would say to your server who has just come up to your table, “Please, sit down and join us! Let me buy you something to eat”? Would you not rather say to her, “I’ll have the grilled chicken spinach salad, with light dressing – I’m on a diet – a side of fresh fruit, and an ice water with lemon”? Do you thank the server for doing what was commanded?
I imagine most of us do thank our servers. But to invite your server to sit and dine with you? Not only is that impractical – that’s just weird! That’s not how the customer-server relationship works. If I’m at a restaurant, I’m generally not thinking about the needs of my server. I’m probably nice to them and I probably thank them, but I’m focused on my immediate needs. This is likely how the disciples would have understood Jesus’ parable. And I think sometimes we look at this parable, and we really wish it wasn’t there! Jesus says something about slavery… and it doesn’t look like he’s condemning it… it actually looks like he might be supporting it. And just in case we’re not sure whether Jesus was talking about slaves or servants – because you’ll find different translations might use one over the other – the Greek word, doulos, is the same for both. And it means slave, as we would understand it – someone who is ‘owned’ by someone else and does what they are commanded to do without pay. What do we do with this passage? Well, the Jesus Seminar, which was a gathering of biblical scholars back in the 1980s in an attempt to discover the “historical Jesus”, has one solution. They black-line it – “Jesus just didn’t say that”. Well, why? “Because he wouldn’t, that’s not how Jesus is.” Really, what’s he like? I actually want to know.
Well, I don’t think it’s that easy. It’s there, it’s in the text, Jesus says it, and we have to deal with it. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” With the obviously implied answer, no! Of course not! That’s ridiculous; who would do that? I mean this would be the disciples’ reaction. It’s unlikely that any of them owned slaves, but they most certainly would have been familiar with the relationship Jesus used to illustrate his point. Slaves serve their masters, not the other way around. For a master to serve his or her slaves would be unthinkable.
Most studies of this parable pull out the obvious conclusion – it’s the point that Jesus makes in verse 10. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves (again there’s that word doulos); we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Oh, thank goodness! Thank you, Jesus, for adding that, because now we understand that you were just using that earlier part as a metaphor for our relationship with God and you aren’t actually confirming slavery as an acceptable social practice – whew! I get it – as Christians, the works we do, our obedience to God, is just part of the job description. It’s to be done without expectation of any kind of reward. Got it. But hey, what’s with the word “worthless”? Well, the Greek word, achreioi, was normally used to apply to slaves in antiquity who did not do their work well, and if we understand it in that sense, I think we can all agree that, yea, we don’t do our Christianly “duty” all the time. We mess up, we get off track – we are unable to do all that is required of us, according to the job description.
But that’s not the end of the parable! That’s not the only thing Jesus is trying to say here, at least in my humble opinion. The previous verses are too much, too hard to be justified by verse 10. The master’s treatment of the slave, while completely in line with the expectations of the day, seems rather heartless. Why would Jesus seemingly confirm the appropriateness of this relationship? I mean if it’s a relationship that can be used as a metaphor for our relationship with God, then that just gives all kinds of authority to it being a good human relationship to have. At least, that’s the conclusion you would draw if you only read Luke 17:7-10, without ever reading any of the rest of the New Testament. We have to look at the broader context of Jesus’ words and actions in order to understand what Jesus is really saying here about this relationship. Because while Jesus is using this every-day human relationship to illustrate what our relationship with God should look like, Jesus is also living out his Godly relationship with us to illustrate how we should be in relationship with other human beings. And what does Jesus do over the course of his life? Jesus, the Master, serves. You don’t have to look far to see an example of Jesus completely overturning social norms and serving others who, in his culture, should rightfully have served him – John 13:1-17 is a prime example, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. In fact, this aspect of Jesus was so recognizable, that we see it expressed in what many scholars regard as one of the first Christian hymns, reproduced in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”. And he did that so that we might read this passage in Luke today and provide the answer to his question – “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” Jesus does.
And so don’t you find it strange that Jesus is calling us here to be completely obedient to our Creator, and to not expect any reward for being “good Christians” (no, not even heaven!), and yet, despite our “worthlessness”, our achreioi, our inability to completely fulfill the job description, our Creator consistently invites us to take our own place at the table? So if we are called to be Christ-like, then it seems to me that we should take on that same attitude in our relationships with those who serve us – whether they are our waiters, waitresses, cashiers, ushers, customer service representatives, teachers, flight attendants, custodians, mailpersons, medical providers – indeed, anyone with whom we come in contact. Jesus’ deeper challenge to us in this parable is to subvert the master/slave, or customer/server, relationship, to exchange it for a servant/servant relationship, and to approach each other always with an attitude of mutual servanthood. We are to be like Jesus – a servant of servants.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Well hold on, Chris! Just how do I go about serving my mailperson? The cashier? The waitress? I mean you can’t seriously be suggesting that the next time I’m out at a restaurant I should ask the waiter to sit down at the table and have dinner with me! That’s still an absurd request, especially for the waiter who has no idea who this person is that’s just asked them to dinner! It’s like ‘Hey, umm, thanks for the offer and all but uhh, we just met – I know I have that effect on people sometimes, but… I think we should just keep this relationship professional.’”
No, I’m not saying you should do that. So how should we treat those who serve us with an attitude of servanthood? How do we subvert the customer/server relationship? How do we make it understood that this is about one human being relating to another human being in a way that reflects Christ?
You know, our culture today is heavily based on rewarding people for a job well done or a good product. We say what we like – and what we dislike – with our dollars. In this consumerist culture, we tend to treat people like commodities – and I am just as guilty of this as anybody. When we look at people, instead of considering their entire personhood; that they have lived and loved and struggled just as we ourselves have, more often than not I think we consider how they might contribute to the continuation of our own lives. “I need the cashier to ring up my groceries so I can get home and fix dinner. I need the mailperson to deliver my mail so I can pay my bills on time. I need the teacher to get my kid to pass the test so he or she can get into college. The doctor is running late – I need her to see me so I can get back to work on time.”
Perhaps one way we can start serving each other is to change this understanding. Rather than seeing people as commodities, we need to see people for who they are – normal (that is, not supernatural), messy (no matter how much we try to clean ourselves up), sinful (for all fall short of the glory of God), imago Dei (made in the image of God) human beings. If we make that our basic understanding of people, then we may truly begin to be servants of servants. And, my friends, this is when the love of God shows up.
The young waitress made many mistakes that night, understandably. She couldn’t concentrate; she kept playing that phone call over and over again in her head. The tips she received reflected these mistakes – a few of her tables didn’t leave a tip at all. But there was one customer – an elderly woman out with her grandchildren – with whom she’d made a connection. After they left, she noticed a $100 bill on the table with a note written on a napkin next to it. It simply said: “Whatever is on your heart tonight, know that the One who created you, gave birth to you, and walked beside you is also there now, struggling through it with you.”*
*This is a fictional story I created for the purposes of this sermon; however, I believe it is entirely believable as a true story and therefore the truth it exposes about this issue is not diminished.