I admit that I have found the Gospel passage from Luke which instructs the disciples to refer to themselves as being “useless servant” a bit puzzling during my life. It has taken me years of hearing it again and again, reading it again and again, for some of the sense to sink through my dense cranium. But I have some insights I would like to share to any who might be puzzling over the same section of Scripture.
The verses are from Luke 17: 7-10. I am quoting here from the version from the website Catholic Online (www.catholic.org). Here it is:
7 'Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, "Come and have your meal at once"?
8 Would he not be more likely to say, "Get my supper ready; fasten your belt and wait on me while I eat and drink. You yourself can eat and drink afterwards"?
9 Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told?
10 So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, "We are useless servants: we have done no more than our duty." '
At first glance, it seems, well, a bit less than thoughtful. Here is this arduous servant, ploughing the land, minding the sheep, and after a hard day’s work he has to come in and prepare his master’s meal and wait on him, rather than being able to slip out of his shoes, settle into a recliner, watch a re-run of the Big Bang Theory and wait for his master to feed him.
But let’s shake this a little and see how the words settle. Let’s also consider that Scripture is not a piece of carrion to be picked apart. It is a living organism and as one whole there are parts which fit with other parts that we might not suspect. Kind of like acupuncture. To relieve a headache, you might stick a pin or two in a spine or elbow.
First, Jesus instructs the servants to say “We are useless servants”. He does not say that the master called them that or told them that. He said they should refer to themselves that way.
And let’s tie this to some verses from Luke Chapter 14:
7 He then told the guests a parable, because he had noticed how they picked the places of honor. He said this,
8 'When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honor. A more distinguished person than you may have been invited,
9 and the person who invited you both may come and say, "Give up your place to this man." And then, to your embarrassment, you will have to go and take the lowest place.
10 No; when you are a guest, make your way to the lowest place and sit there, so that, when your host comes, he may say, "My friend, move up higher." Then, everyone with you at the table will< see you honored.
11 For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be raised up.'
It is the Lord, the “Master”, who is capable of raising us up to a higher place. We are not. We are servants.
Further, consider that if we come from the field or pasture and leave our work there and cease to honor our Master at home, we are no better than hired hands. We aren’t in a relationship with our Master. We aren’t serving Him out of love; we are serving Him for what we can get.
Consider as well that a servant was provided for with food and housing and clothing. He lived on the master’s land and as part of his household. Someone who worked for pay only would not be part of the master’s household.
Finally, the central thing to consider is that service to God is not a “requirement”, a “task”, but an honor. All of us have been tempted, when we have done a good deed, to pat ourselves on the back. That’s normal, human, expected, so don’t be ashamed.
But what should keep us in check is the realization that God, as Jesus said in Luke Chapter 3, verse 8, does not need us specifically. If we are not willing to serve He will find another to take our place: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, and do not start telling yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father," because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.”
God doesn’t “owe” us for what we do for Him. It is our duty to serve Him, and it is in His pleasure that we find joy. God is sufficient in Himself. He doesn’t “need” His creation but He “wants” His creation to enjoy life with Him.
We find that life in serving Him, in praising Him for who He is and for giving Him thanks for what He has done, is doing, and will do.