Friday, July 13, 2012

Faithless, Unworthy Slaves

On our path through the Gospels, we recently studied how Jesus said that if any two believers pray for the same thing together, God will make it happen, but we know that is not true. Mixed in that same study we observed the difficulties in Matthew's policy of forgiveness, and the adjustments made by Luke in that regard. Following Matthew from there, Matthew 18:23-35 uses a parable to emphasize the fact that if you do not forgive your brother (a.k.a. a fellow believer) from your heart, then God will not forgive you. Following Luke leads us to this unthankful study...

Faithless, Unworthy Slaves
In a recent study, we examined Luke's episode where Martha had invited Jesus, and at least the Twelve Disciples, into her home while they were on their way to Jerusalem. I had suggested that Jesus insulted Martha's generous efforts of hospitality when He effectively told Martha that her sister Mary, who had been sitting around listening to Him talk instead of helping Martha with the preparations, was doing the only thing which was important to do. This perceived slight to Martha sparked on a great comment-debate with a Jehovah's Witness, and prompted me to write a post on my other blog, asking the question "would God thank you?" Little did I know, the definitive answer was chapters away in the same Gospel.

Yet before we get to that, let us proceed from where we left off; after Luke's Jesus clarified that you should always be willing to forgive, no matter how often, as long as the transgressor repents each time.

From there, Luke 17:5 has the Disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Apparently, despite the witness of John the Baptist and the many miracles, such as exorcising demons who announce that Jesus is God's Holy One, giving the Disciples the power to cast out demons themselves, calming the storm, resurrecting a girl, the miraculous feedings, Peter identifying Jesus as the Christ, and a few of them witnessing the Transfiguration, the Disciples still needed a little help believing that Jesus was the Messiah, or perhaps believing that God was really in control.

In Luke 17:6, Jesus replied, not with some miracle or proof of the power of God, but by saying that if they had just a little amount of faith, they could uproot and relocate trees with a mere command. Just like what was pointed out in the previous study, preachers have difficulty strategically saying that this is true, when they know it to be false. When, ever, in all recorded history, has anyone ever commanded a tree to be planted in the sea and then had it actually happen? Forget trees. When has faith ever worked with such instantaneous and absolute power on anything? Never.

Then, Jesus provides an illustration in Luke 17:7-10 which you just need to read for yourself:
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would [you] say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would [you] not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would [you] thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' " NIV
This. Speaks. Volumes.

First, we get a sense that Jesus condones slavery. (While the NIV uses the softer interpretation of "servant," the Greek word "doulon" means a slave with no rights of their own.)

Next, Jesus considers that the treatment of slaves should be as inferiors. So your slave has been working all day for you? So what? He is a slave. Have him make you dinner and serve you before he gets the chance to eat. And a slave's labor is not worthy of thanks.

Finally, obviously Jesus thinks that you should behave like a slave to God, an idea supported in Romans 6:15-23, 1 Corinthians 7:22, and Ephesians 6:5-6. You are not going to receive thanks for your efforts. Instead, you are to consider yourself an unworthy slave; a slave who is just doing what a slave is supposed to do.

So, no, Jesus did not offer thanks to Martha for her volunteer work. She was just acting appropriately as a slave to Him.

Given our modern sensitivities, this is an uncomfortable message at best. From the worst aspect, God comes across as, well, a pompous slave-driver. Yet that is not the real issue here.

The real issue is how this approach shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the human mind. This is a God who knows nothing of the beauty and strength and drive of an empowered human.

But then, we never were really dealing with God here, were we? This is a message of subjugation, and it is the kind of message that a leader of the early church would have been all-too-happy to use to manipulate the will of the believers. This is not to say that such a church leader would have necessarily ordered people around with evil intents, but we can understand how such a leader would have benefited from self-enslaved masses who were ready to take any instruction and follow any commands without asking questions, like slaves unworthy of exercising their own wills.


  1. Who was it that said, "Gratitude is the origin of all morality"? It seems odd that a holy man, such as Jesus, would be portrayed as without gratitude -- unless you are correct in thinking that he was portrayed that way in order to benefit the church leaders.

  2. A jarring message for believers, for sure. AND, it's not the only time that Jesus uses harsh master-and-slave metaphors to describe the relationship between God and believers. If Christians revere a book that condones slavery, they need to reexamine their moral priorities.

  3. I like that expression, Paul, and I think I may have heard it before, but I am not sure of its origins. But, yes, it sure does seem exceedingly odd that Jesus would not show gratitude, and I think that lends more credibility to this tidbit either being made up completely or originating from a terrestrial, non-divine Jesus.

    If only it was that easy, Ahab. :-) Some Christians were actually using verses from the Bible to support the abolition of American slavery. It is amazing how people can selectively ignore parts of the Scriptures to meet their better moral judgement. But then, I am kind of happy that they can do that in some cases. ;-)

  4. "Some Christians were actually using verses from the Bible to support the abolition of American slavery. It is amazing how people can selectively ignore parts of the Scriptures to meet their better moral judgement." I so agree! It was a great article, but I didn't find the "share" button! I am an avid facebook networker, and I'm lost without being able to share to it. . .can you change that? Pretty please? I would be very grateful:)

  5. Thanks Angela!

    I just changed the template to include the share buttons, but I do not know if it will retroactively change this post or not. I guess we will see. :-)