Updated: Oct 4, 2022
September 25th, 2022 |Unprofitable Servants| Luke 17:1-10
We begin with a simple enough statement.
Luke 17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
This we find in our text as a cry of the disciples, and in a first cursory reading, a reasonable thing for a disciple to ask. Not just reasonable, but wise.
But in and of itself, the idea of increasing faith, of needing more faith, has been stolen and mangled beyond recognition from this honest cry of the disciples. Notably by what we call word of faith preachers. The idea there is if we had but more faith, all of our ails would be cured, if we had but more faith, our bank accounts and churches would surely grow, and if we had but enough faith we would see heaven fully come to earth, ushering in the kingdom fully and finally.
How many poor people have been bamboozled into thinking they were still sick because they lacked faith, or that their loved one died because they lacked faith?
We have seen parents who allowed their children to die because they were assured the answer was not to seek medical help, but simply have more faith.
How many impoverished people have been deceived into giving well beyond what is reasonable to sow a seed of faith.
But not limited to word of faith churches, this thinking creeps into many places. If we are not careful we can unconsciously incorporate this error into our own lives. We begin there simply because of the sheer devastation that misunderstanding this request can produce. We need to understand this request, what prompted it, and how Jesus responded to it, if we are going to be on guard against the deception of certain false teachings.
To find what prompted this request we need only back up to verse 1 of chapter 17.
Jesus gives three commands in these four verses, we will look at them under the heading of the demands of a disciple.
The Demands of a Disciple
Luke 17:1-4 (ESV) 1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Since chapter 15 of Luke, Jesus has been both responding to the Pharisees and teaching his disciples. This section concludes this teaching session in the gospel of Luke. He turns to his disciples and issues these three commands.
The first command begins with a simple truth statement, followed by a dire warning, and then an exhortation to his disciples.
Truth statement- temptations to sin are sure to come
Jesus acknowledges the reality that in our sinful word there will inevitably be things that cause us to stumble, that ensnare us. This is what the word temptations means here, literally the trigger of a trap, figuratively, a snare, understood elsewhere in scripture as a stumbling block. It’s comforting to know that Jesus understands the plight of humanity. We will face things that tempt us into sin. He himself was tempted, but did not give in and sin.
He better than any, understands what it means to face temptations.
The way he says it is interesting, translating here as sure to come, it literally reads something like it is impossible that stumbling blocks don't arise.
Here it refers to anything that causes someone to fall down spiritually, to be led astray into sin.
However, just because they are inevitable, we are not released from being the cause, he says it is a serious matter to be the cause of someone stumbling, to be the one by which the snares come.
Warning- woe to the one through whom they come.
Woe is an exclamation of grief, it sometimes is accompanied by specific consequences, but here Jesus doesn't elaborate on why, he just gives us a sobering comparison.
It would be better, for the one who causes the stumbling of another, specifically here, a little one, to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be cast into the sea. Jesus says whatever the reason for the woe it would be more favorable if the person responsible were to die a horrible drowning death.
A millstone was one half of a mill where grain was ground. One stone was too heavy for one person to move so to have a millstone necklace would sink you pretty quick!
Little ones could possibly refer to actual little children, it could refer to the disciples themselves (they are described as such elsewhere), or it is possible that Jesus has in mind the new followers that prompted this block of teaching starting in chapter 15. The tax collectors and sinners that were turning to him.
All point to someone who is susceptible to being snared by your actions.
Exhortation- Pay attention to yourselves
Pay attention, be on guard- the idea literally is to hold the mind. It is to give something your undivided attention, it is to have it before your mind.
Jesus commands his disciples to be aware of the way their lives, their actions, their words affect others. To be watchful of themselves so as to not cause one of these little ones to sin. It is a serious thing to be a stumbling block and Jesus commands us to be on guard against it.
The first command has to do with being the cause of offenses, the next has to do when someone else is the offender.
If your brother sins, rebuke him… let’s stop there because that is Jesus’ second command.
Jesus says on the other side of the coin, when your brother sins, you have a responsibility as well.
In this first instance, Jesus doesn’t offer any context or modifiers, just a simple statement of fact. If you see a brother or sister in Christ sinning, rebuke him.
Rebuke- to admonish or charge sharply
Jesus will have none of this live and let live attitude in the church among believers when it comes to sin.
Jesus tells us we have a responsibility to confront sin when it shows its face in the life of the believers around us. To call sin, sin.
If you are like me, this makes you immediately uncomfortable. One of my biggest weaknesses is that I hate confrontation. Even if you aren’t like me and you don’t mind confrontation, the world says we shouldn’t get involved in other people's business, we should let people live their lives. Right?
That is not the way the church is to handle sin. By church, I mean not the organization, but the believers that make up the church. This is every believer’s responsibility.
In Matthew 18 we have recorded for us a more in depth process for handling this.
Matthew 18:15-17 (ESV) 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
The process ends with formal church discipline, but it begins with one brother going to another brother and rebuking him, or as it says here telling him his fault.
The purpose of this command leads us to the next command.
And if he repents, forgive him… Jesus commands us to be people who forgive.
Some people would place the emphasis on the ‘if he repents’, and therefore conclude that they can withhold forgiveness. Not only is that inconsistent with the rest of what scripture teaches, it doesn’t follow the model Jesus gave when he forgave before it was asked and certainly before any repentance was expressed. For example, when he prayed, Father forgive them as they nailed him to the cross.
The emphasis is not the other party but on our responsibility to forgive. It would seem that the if he repents is in reference to whether or not there is need to continue the process outlined in Matthew 18, or whether the matter is done.
As if this wasn’t hard enough Jesus adds the following modifier.
…and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Seven times in a day. This is unthinkable! After the second we would be hesitant to forgive, right? How does the saying go, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on _________?
Jesus here says seven times in a day, but lest we think we have found the limit, listen to the interaction Peter and Jesus have.
In Matthew 18, after Jesus has given the process for confronting a sinning brother, Peter says, Matthew 18:21-22 (ESV) 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Seven signifies completion in the bible, so for Jesus to say seventy-seven times is to say we are never done forgiving.
We are never done trying to restore and mend relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let’s recap what Jesus expects from his disciples.
That we would live in such a way that we would not cause anyone to stumble or be ensnared into sin.
That when we see a brother or sister sinning, to lovingly, but directly rebuke them.
That when we are offended by or sinned against by a brother, to forgive, and forgive, and forgive.
It is in response to these commands that the disciples ask for Jesus to increase their faith. Notice it was not in response to our requests before God, notice it was not to have more faith so that God would act, it was in response to realizing what they were supposed to do as disciples.
The disciples realized that what they had been commanded to do was beyond their capabilities.
We would be wise to realize the same.
They needed faith to believe that God could empower and guide them to live these kinds of lives, they needed faith that God would be with them when they had to confront sin, they needed faith that God is a righter of wrongs and a just God and vengeance is his, they needed faith to trust God and let go of personal hurts and wrongs.
Luke 17:5-6 (ESV) 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
The disciples realized that what they had been commanded to do was beyond their capabilities.
6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
They asked for more faith, but Jesus assured them they needed not more faith but genuine faith in God.
(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) Leon Morris writes, “It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.”
Jesus turned their attention not to a lack of faith, but to the object of their faith. If they believed that he was who he said he was, if they believed that he was the Messiah, the Lord, then the amount of faith wasn’t the problem. This is simply what a disciple is called to do. We, like they, need to realize that if God calls us to it, he will empower us to do it, even when it seems impossible, like Jesus hyperbole about commanding a tree out of the ground and into the sea.
He does not lessen the demands on his disciples and he doesn’t allow them to blame it on a lack of faith. He immediately gives a short parable that paints the picture of what being a disciple looks like.
We are going to look at it briefly under the heading ‘the demeanor of a disciple.’
The Demeanor of a Disciple
Luke 17:7-9 (ESV) 7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?
Here is the main thought of what Jesus says here. Doing what you have been commanded to do does not earn you a reward. After keeping the sheep or plowing the field, there was still work to do.
After doing everything you have been commanded to do by your Lord, should you expect a thank you? Jesus says of course not. He has only done what was required of him.
He does this by asking three questions which each have expected answers.
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?
8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?
9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?
I heard a quote one time that has stuck with me, although I do not now remember who originally said it, "we have become a generation that thinks God swoons when we go to church."
We think he is impressed when we faithfully gather, when we read his word, when we give and serve, when we pray.
We think that he is indebted to us, that he owes us for our obedience.
This couldn't be farther from the truth.
Jesus reminds us here that in the relationship between Lord and servant, faithfully service is simply what is required.
The servant could plow the fields faithfully and perfectly, he could cook a fantastic meal, and be the best server, literally anticipating his master’s needs, and at the end of the day, he has simply done what he has been commanded to do.
The demeanor of a disciple is just that, the demeanor of a servant.
Once we point it out, it’s kind of obvious isn’t it?
A disciple is a follower of Jesus, they seek to live like Jesus, the one who humbled himself, became totally obedient to his Father’s will, all the way to the cross.
It’s why Paul’s most common designation concerning himself was a servant, or slave of Jesus Christ.
If your walk with Christ is in any way leading you to believe that you are anything other than a servant, a slave of Christ’s, I’m afraid you are on the wrong path. We have been bought with a price and our lives are not our own.
This is the attitude of the Christian, this is the demeanor of a disciple.
If your walk with Christ is in any way leading you to believe that you are anything other than a servant, a slave of Christ’s, I’m afraid you are on the wrong path.
After Jesus describes the demeanor and attitude we should have as disciples, he gives us a simple statement that we should take to heart, memorize, and regularly rehearse if we are going to be followers of Jesus. We are going to look at it under the heading of the declaration of a disciple.
The Declaration of a Disciple
Luke 17:10 (ESV) 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
When you have done all that you were commanded. Let’s just limit this to what Jesus commanded in the immediate context, laying aside for a moment all of the other commands.
Cause no one to stumble, call out sin where you see it, and have a spirit of forgiveness.
If we did all of that perfectly, we are to declare, I am an unworthy servant, I have only done what was my duty!
This immediately makes us a little defensive, doesn’t it?
One commentary said it like this.
(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) The truth is that God does not owe us anything. If this sounds harsh, it is because in our self-righteous pride we think that we have really done something for God. In fact, we may secretly hope that the good things we do will gain us some kind of leverage with the Almighty. But even if we did everything he ever wanted us to do—even then we would only have done our duty. We should not think, therefore, that we have merited any favor with God. God is not moved by our obedience. Not one of our best works—or all of our good works put together—give us a right to the household of heaven.
Some translations use the word unprofitable instead of unworthy, which gets a little close to what the word here means. God does not gain anything when we obey him, as the creator and sustainer of the universe, he deserves our unending obedience and love already.
God does not profit having spent his own blood to redeem us, even if we lived up to his commands for his children.
Here Jesus is warning us against an attitude that seeks to endebt God to you.
How do I know if I have this attitude?
Do you think God owes you anything?
Do you think God is impressed by your religious obedience?
Do you think God chose you because you are somehow special, or he knew you were worth it?
If you answer yes to any of those questions, you have missed it.
What is the answer?
When you begin to feel a little pride well up in you because you came to church, gave your tithe, helped someone less fortunate, forgave a hard to forgive person, when you prayed, when you read your bible, when you served, when you feel yourself begin to pat yourself on the back, say, I am an unprofitable servant.
When you begin to compare your obedience to others around you. When you begin to think you are better than them because you are more faithful, say, I am an unprofitable servant.
Whenever the thought crosses your mind that God will surely answer your prayer because you are a good little Christian, say to yourself, I am an unprofitable servant.
This is the declaration of a disciple.
From one unprofitable servant to another.
We obey God, not to earn our salvation, not to prove that God made the right choice in saving us, not to endebt God to us, and certainly not to earn God’s gratitude.
We obey God because he is God and we are not.
Jesus warns us here against supposing that God owes us anything for our service.
But here is the surprising truth the scripture teaches. There is coming a day, when God returns for his faithful that we will be ushered into the kingdom of God, we will be brought to the great supper of the Lamb, and it will not be because we deserve it, but because we have put our faith in Jesus who paid the penalty for our sins and secured our place in heaven.
Jesus describes it in Luke 12:35-39 (ESV) 35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39
Jesus says that he will one day do what no earthly master would ever do. He was teaching them that even though he was the master, even though they were servants, he would one day welcome them to the table.
And when he does that, it will not be because the servants deserved it but because of his amazing grace and love.
On that day, I pray that the phrase that leaves my lips will simply be a culmination of a lifetime of understanding it, Lord, I am an unprofitable servant.