Luke 17 - We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.

Monday, October 14, 2013 - 9:30am

In 1960, the Chatterley trial marked a watershed in British culture. Penguin had been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing D H Lawrence’s last novel, and their acquittal showed that social mores had moved on, and that what had been deemed inappropriate was now acceptable. For many, the defining point in the trial was when the prosecuting barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, turned to the jury and asked them dramatically whether this were the kind of book

"you would wish your wife or servants to read"

The jurors, plucked for jury service from their everyday lives, for whom domestic service belonged to a different world, could have been forgiven for being somewhat nonplussed. This was a conflict between an old world of privilege and hierarchy, and a new more egalitarian age.

There is something of the same quality to the passage from Luke’s gospel today. We are asked, with the apostles, about how we would behave towards our slaves, and what we might expect from them. And we too might be forgiven for feeling somewhat flummoxed. It is a question that belongs to a different age, with different expectations and assumptions.

It is interesting, though, isn’t it, that in our more democratic times we have not ceased to call Jesus ‘Lord’. That we do not feel offended by this frankly feudal title. And this, I would suggest, is because the Lordship of Jesus is central to our faith. He has called us friends for sure. Indeed he showed us how to love by coming among us as one who serves, and washing his disciples’ feet. But he remains the ‘Lord’- he is one with the Lord God, and for that reason we worship him.

However loving and intimate our relationship with God may be, it is not a straightforward relationship of equality. It is vertical not horizontal. It is the relationship between creator and created, between Father and child, between King and subject, between Master and servant.

If this is difficult to swallow, then perhaps it is because we are forgetful of what it means to say that God is God. Perhaps we imagine too much that God like us. Perhaps we think of the limitations of human parents and the failings of earthly rulers, and we fear thinking of God as a tyrant, or a bully, or an arbitrary maker of inexplicable rules. But that is not, and cannot be God.

Rather if we believe in God at all, he cannot be anything other than Love reigning supreme, or he is not God. He cannot be anything other than perfect justice, and beauty, and truth, or he is not God. To place ourselves under God is simply to accept that what is whole is greater than what is broken- what is complete is greater than what is partial.

And yet, most often unconsciously, we do this all the time. Our imagination fails us, and we find ourselves resentfully feeling that God owes us something.

A friend of mine who is a doctor once complained to me that the people who came to his surgery wanted to be treated like children. I asked him what he meant. ‘Well,’ he said

‘They come to me, and they just want me to make it all better- they don’t want to do anything for themselves. If I tell them that they will get better when they stop smoking, cut out drinking, and go for a run now and then, they look all disappointed, and ask if there isn’t just a pill or an injection they could have. When I say no, and they go off and do what I said, and get better, they come back, and expect me to be grateful, or give them a pat on the head, as if it wasn’t entirely for their benefit.’

In the same way, I remember as a boy hearing about my friends at school who were given pocket money for doing chores around the house, and thinking that this was a splendid idea. I went home and proposed it to my mum, who was altogether less enthusiastic. ‘Hmm,’ she said (never a good sign)

‘I suppose I could pay you for doing the washing up and putting the bins out, but then I suppose you would have to pay me for cooking your dinner, cleaning your room, making your bed, shopping for you, washing and ironing your clothes, and driving you about… and you haven’t got any money.’

Both of these mirror, in their own way, the attitude that we sometimes take towards God. On the one hand we may feel that we may deserve rewards and bonuses for our faithful service- turning to God with and offended ‘Why should I?’ when we have been invited to do something which is entirely for our own good, even if not exactly to our taste.

‘Why should I forgive my enemies? Why must I give to the poor? Why must I love this awkward character?’

Why? Because God already has. Because in Jesus, he came amongst us as one of us ‘taking the form of a slave, he humbled himself and gave himself up to death’. Because in following his example we will be healed.

On the other hand we may feel that our faithful lives of spotless conduct deserve a certain amount of recognition. That if we have sacrificed time to prayer and good works, then God should jolly well come up with the goods when we expect it of him. And we forget that everything was his to give in the first place.

One is reminded of Milton’s remarkable poem On His Blindness. In which he begins by railing against God for blessing him with the gift of poetry, and then robbing him of his sight, and bringing his life as a writer to a premature end. But, ruefully, he concludes with this:



"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need

Either man's work or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o'er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait."


Though expecting gratitude from God is out of place, this does not mean that are lives are to be without praise. Simply that we must wait until our work is done and we have presented our account. Then we will hear the blessed words ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant.’ Then, he will say ‘Come. You blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.’ A kingdom that is not ours by right, nor ours to earn, but a kingdom we receive because it is God’s good pleasure that it should be ours.