5 September 2015

Luke 17:5-10

“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!’” (vv. 9-10)

Psalm: Psalm 84


So, how do you feel about referring to yourself as a "worthless slave"? Let's try to put that phrase into some kind of context.

Jesus is using a picture that many of his hearers would recognise. He is thinking about an average farmer or small landholder who can only afford to own one slave. A larger household would have some slaves in the field and others doing the household chores. But here one slave has to do it all.

We are often shocked when biblical writers appear to think that slavery is a good thing and use it to illustrate something about our relationship with God. What we do not always realise is how dependent upon slaves ancient life really was. Slavery was widespread and we often estimate that something between a quarter and a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. It is not that the early Christians approved of slavery, but rather that they simply could not imagine what life would be like without it.

So those hearing Jesus would have far less problem than we do with using the image of slaves and they would also understand the idea of a 'worthless' slave differently. The word which is translated 'worthless' actually comes from the idea of being obliged. In the system of patronage, which ruled much of the ancient world, it mattered to keep track of favours that were paid and obligations that were created. Obviously, Jesus is saying, having a slave do their work does not create any obligation on the master. The master does not thank them by inviting them to eat with him. When slaves describe themselves as 'worthless' what they are actually saying is something like 'we are slaves to whom no obligation is owed'.

This is a message about discipleship, Jesus is opposing any suggestion that living as God asks us to live could be a way of gaining a reward, or put God under any kind of obligation to us. Our relationship with God is not one in which we somehow earn God's favour.

To Ponder

  • How do you respond to using slavery as an image for the Christian life?
  • Although we know that slavery is evil, most people in the ancient world simply could not imagine life without it. Are there equivalent institutions or ways of doing things in our world, where we just lack the imagination to challenge and change?

Bible notes author

The Revd Judith Rossall

Judith Rossall is a Methodist tutor at Queen's Foundation in Birmingham. Before moving to Queen's, she was a circuit minister and taught at STETS in Salisbury.