In teaching His disciples, Jesus commented on the subject of the attitude they should possess when it came to doing their spiritual duties.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Luke 17:7-10; ESV)”
Jesus was not trying to teach us that God is unappreciative of those who obey His commands. Jesus said concerning Himself that He always did those things that were pleasing to the Father (cf. John 8:29) and that this was why God was well pleased with Him. God, confirming this truth, testified concerning the Son: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (cf. Matthew 3:17).”
Likewise, in the Parable of the Talents, Jesus depicts the lord and master of the house commending his servants, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant (cf. Matthew 25:21, 23).” There is a reward awaiting those with whom God is pleased, and we should not expect such a reward if God is not pleased with us. The unprofitable servant from the same parable is pictured as being cast into outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth (cf. Matthew 25:30). We don’t want to be unworthy servants.
What, therefore is the point of what Jesus is trying to convey to us in telling us that when we have done all that we have commanded, we should feel that we have done no more than what was our basic duty?
One obvious application is that Jesus is teaching us not to feel self-righteous satisfaction in obedience to God’s word.
Man was created for the purpose of listening to, and obeying God. The Scriptures teach us: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; ESV)”
Man makes many machines to do our bidding and our work. We seldom feel the need to praise such machines when they do exactly what they were made to do. On the other hand, when our tools and machines break or refuse to work right, we grow very unhappy with them.
Man is more than a machine, being made in the image of God, but a similar principle is going to hold true for us. If God made us so as to do His will, then failure to do that will reveals a defect in us, whereas doing what He commands is simply us fulfilling our function. We don’t take great pride in breathing or eating or sleeping, because we take such functions for granted. In a similar way, however, Jesus is saying that we must recognize there is nothing more basic or integral to who we are meant to be then serving God faithfully. And if this is the case, then where is there room for pride in merely performing our most basic of duties?
A second application of what Jesus teaches is the reminder of the role of Grace in our reward. Grace, which simply means the favor of God, is God’s gift to those who are pleasing to Him. The apostle Paul reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9; ESV)”
There is a tension of sorts between the need to do our duty before God, and the realization that no matter how much of our duty we perform, we will never have done sufficient so as to earn our salvation. If we fail to perform our duty, we are truly an unprofitable servant, destined to be cast out, as already noted in the Parable of the Talents. If we do our duty, however, we have only done what we were supposed to do. However, doing what you are supposed to do is what will cause God to be happy with you. Yet, even when God is happy with us, there is no room for boasting, no room for pride, and no room for self-righteous self-congratulations. God’s grace, acting through our faith, is not our own choice, nor under our control, but is instead God’s generous gift to those who listen to Him and obey Him.
No matter how much we do for God, we should never feel that we have done too much, or even enough; rather if we do everything we have been told to do, we have only done the bare minimum of what is expected of one who was created to fear God and serve Him.
The church of Christ invites you to learn about God’s expectations for you, by studying and worshipping with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.