The Unprofitable Servant (2)

One of the parables of Jesus that has particularly struck me over the years is one that may be less well known and it is to do with the story of the Unprofitable (ordinary) Servant (Luke 17:7-10). I have already written about this in an earlier posting so offer this by way of a add on giving fresh insights. As a reminder, in the story there is a man that had been toiling hard all day in the fields for his master. At the end of the day, rather than being thanked for his efforts and told to put his feet up (which most of us would consider a reasonable response), he was ordered to prepare his master’s meal. Jesus tells his hearers that even then the servant has no right to expect to be thanked for he was merely doing his duty. The application was clear: we do what we have to do and at the end we declare we are just unprofitable servants merely doing our duty.

I have often come back to this parable in my career as a community activist when, having worked hard and done my best to make the community a better place and help others, I have been misunderstood, misrepresented and unappreciated. Of course, sometimes it is a result of me being a proverbial pain and by venturing “outside the camp” (to cite the title of my book) one exposes oneself and is often found wanting. I have counseled several Christians along the lines: while there are rewards that come from making a difference and helping improve the lives of others, there is often the other side that might lead us to want to give up, go for the quiet option, put our feet up and just enjoy life. But then the words of Jesus come back to us. There may be an eternal reward but for the now we have been saved to serve and that is what we must do. And if the eternal reward is as the Bible says, that also will involve service.

As I reflect on my career as a community worker, starting in the early 2000’s, it was n0t something I had particularly planned. Rather, circumstances, opportunities and needs all met at the same time and I saw the chance to make a real difference. The rest as they say is history, which I have discussed in my book. That is not to say that service is the exclusive domain of community workers or those who follow the teachings of Jesus; all of us whatever our situation are in positions where we can serve. Having been brought up in a setting where service was something highly regarded and was influenced by those who felt the same, starting with our families, it was natural for me to do what I did from the point of view of wanting to serve others, which after all is in essence the great command to love our neighbor as oneself. I make this point as I was later to find that people’s motivation for getting involved with their communities varied considerably. For example, having a son just entering sixth form, I am mindful that one of the ideas his teachers have tried to sell is that by getting so involved this would look good on the CV and may secure a place in one of the more prestigious universities. And while I might take pride in having a purer motive, I have yet to find anyone whose motive is 100% pure and know for sure this is true in my own case. Often people serve on their own terms, working only with those they find agreeable and doing only things they find comfortable and convenient. Too often service is not an end in itself, and other ends like self advancement are mixed in. But if I read Jesus correctly, our service needs to be done solely in order to please our master and that really is the end of the matter.

At this point I could go into a lengthy sermon about service from a theological perspective and, while I want to say something here, I will leave the full version to when I come to preach. Some of my favorite passages in the Old Testament are Isaiah’s Servant Songs, which Christians take to apply to Jesus. We are told he will not shout and raise his voice, will not break a bent reed or put out a flickering lamp, bringing justice to all (42:2,3). He will rise early to hear his Father’s voice so he can strengthen the weary with a word (50:4). He will make the ultimate sacrifice and bear the punishment of many (53:11). When we come to the New Testament, Jesus declares he had come not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. We are exhorted to have the mind of Christ, preferring others to ourselves and following the example of one who came from the highest place (heaven – seated at the right hand of God the Father) to the lowest place (death on a cross) and exalted once again to the highest place from where he will return in glory as King to reign and will judge over us all, before who all of us will have to bow (Philippians 2). His kingdom is not like any other, where the aim is self advancement. Rather it is about self abasement and God being advanced and doing the advancing to accomplish His will.

More than anything, the need of the hour is for people to serve with a serving heart, that will not be sidetracked from their task to serve the one who is their master, the Lord Jesus Christ, humbly acknowledging their motives are often anything but pure but seeking the cleansing power and grace of God to serve acceptably.

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