When a slave comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, “Come in and eat with me”? No, he says, “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.” And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, “We are unworthy slaves who have simply done our duty.” (Luke 17:7-10)
“Unworthy slaves”? You won’t hear this passage preached in feel-good churches and Prosperity Gospel circles. Our consumer culture cultivates a sense of entitlement in us: “You deserve a break today!” “Obey your thirst!” The government seeks to expand its influence by growing the rolls of citizens receiving federal “entitlements.” The economy tanks, jobs disappear, and a disgruntled man-boy digs out his tent and heads for the nearest Occupy encampment. A teachers’ union, whose members make 50% more than the average worker in their city, goes on strike because a school system mired in debt only offers a 16% pay increase.
Pretty much everyone today feels they deserve better than they are getting, and here is Jesus talking about not just being a slave, but seeing yourself as an unworthy slave!
Slavery was a fact of life in Jesus’ day — and we know it’s a horrible problem yet today. Hebrew culture taught masters to respect their slaves, but slaves had a hard life nonetheless. While everyone thought it would be great to have a slave, no one wanted to be one. Slaves had no rights. They had to obey the master’s commands completely and had no reason to expect praise for doing what they were told. A Roman master could kill his slave for failure to obey.
Jesus’ movement eventually would undermine the culture of slavery in the ancient world, and it’s no surprise his Good News found its most receptive audience among the slaves and poor workers of the first century. They understood how their social inferiority reflected the majesty gap between God and man. When they said, “Jesus is lord,” they understood it in the context of a slave acknowledging his master’s ownership and absolute right of control.
The good news, of course, was that Jesus told his followers he would call them friends, instead of slaves: “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (John 15:14-15 NLT)
It was their obedience that transformed them from slave to friend.
You don’t get to the wonderful status of being Jesus’ friend until you’ve put on the slave’s apron and served him. My generation was told you start off in the Christian life being Jesus’ friend. A new generation starts off singing emotional love songs to Jesus. That’s not just creepy for some of us older guys, it completely ignores a fundamental principle of the Kingdom: Jesus is not just our master, he is the King of Creation. He doesn’t call you friend until you do what he commands.
That sheds some helpful light on what Jesus meant when he said, “Why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) and “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:21)
Many Christians suspect there is more to the Christian life than what they are experiencing. Many churches wonder why their congregations are plateaued or declining. An entire industry has grown up around helping Christians feel better about themselves. A galaxy of consultants promise pastors they can turn a church around, if they just buy into this program or that.
Neither of those is a surprising development in a consumer society like ours. We might make more headway, however, if we just started with a simple principle: Listen to Jesus and do what he says.