Knowledge of the show Downton Abbey or the house elves of the Harry Potter universe would help us understand this passage. Luke’s Jesus compares the life of discipleship to work as a servant in a small manor house.
Mr. Carson, the proud butler of Downton Abbey, might be the best example in the show. He self-identifies as a servant. He has given his life to service. He takes great personal pride in his hard work and asks for nothing in return for exceptional work. Perfection in all he does is simply his job. The Lords and Ladies of the house own him noting extra and are in no debt to Mr. Carson when his work is well done. It is simply his job. The relationship stays the same: one is Lord, one is servant. Each knows their place and expects nothing when their role is fulfilled.
The house elves of the Harry Potter universe operate in much the same way. These creatures are servants and (with a few notable exceptions) happily live in their right place: hard work with no extra reward or praise when the job is done. It is simply their job, their place in the world, to serve their master well. The House Elf’s reward is their work, not any debt the master will owe them.
With this idea of service in mind, read the passage again.
“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!’”
When we understand the mindset of people “in service” (people like house elves or people like Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey), this passage makes all kinds of sense. We, disciples, are merely servants. We have hard work to do. When we do that hard work, we do NOT place God in debt to us and we deserve no special gratitude or payment. The demands of discipleship are hard. We are expected to do that hard work.
Try not to get hung up by the idea that disciples are “worthless” - a word that the NRSV uses (we know that God greatly values each of us). The Common English Bible translates verse 10 a bit better:
10In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’”
It is not that we are without worth, but that we deserve no special praise (or other reward) for doing our job. We’ve simply done our work.
But what is that work? Verses 5 and 6 are the link. They point back to verses left out of the lectonary reading: 17:3-4, verses about the unusually lavish levels of forgiveness expected of his disciples. After Jesus describes how generously forgiving disciples are to be, they respond by exclaiming, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus says, “even a little bit of faith is enough.” Somehow, God will give us what we need to do the hard work of discipleship.
Part of that hard work is forgiveness.
And even when we have been forgiving – in ways that seem beyond any normal expectations – we are to expect no particular thanks or praise. “We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.”
We live in a polite society where we say “thank you” to almost everyone. We tip the wait staff at restaurants when they do their work well – even when they do not. Our culture differs greatly from a culture where servants do their work expecting neither praise nor reward. But that is exactly the kind of followers Jesus expects us to be.
This passage acts as a stark corrective to a spirituality that we all want: good reward for good service. We want to hear “well done, good and faithful servant.” We want a reward for good work. But that is not the word here. The word here is to do your (extremely hard!) work without looking for reward. Without expecting thanks. Without the promise of repayment.
For those of us who are pastors, we must remember that we are servants amongst servants. Our position is more like the lowly kitchen maid than the mighty butler; we are humble creatures who serve house elves. This week we will be tempted to tell the congregation that they ought to get to work and stop complaining or looking for reward. Which is true. But it is also true for you and for me. We pastors make a good habit of getting together and noting how we are under-appreciated and under-paid and so on. Perhaps we clergy people are looking for reward when we should become better at saying, “We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.”
There is hard work to be done. We best get to it.