Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 17:1-10; Titus 2:9-15; Proverbs 14:1-18; Isaiah 13
At first glance, the parable in Luke supports an approach to ethics based on duty. Servants in Jesus’ time were expected to serve their masters, and deal with their own needs later. Those in authority sometimes treat those under them as ‘unworthy servants’ who should carry out their duties and expect nothing further. Doing the right thing may seem like something we must grin and bear, because we just have to do our duty. This seems harsh, especially compared to Jesus’ parable about the master serving his watchful servants (Luke 12:35-40), the example of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17), and Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership (Mark 10:41-45).
Closer examination of Luke 17 reveals that the parable presents an important balancing point. The parable comes after the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, and after he tells them to keep forgiving those who repent. The parable reminds the apostles that while the master serves his people, he remains the master. While we are treated graciously by our Master, we are still His servants. We may grow weary of forgiving others and doing the right thing, but it remains our duty to do so.
The parable has a harsh tone because the servants are told to call themselves ‘unworthy.’ Authoritarian figures often take this approach to keep people ‘in their place.’ The Greek word used here is very difficult to translate. Kenneth Bailey is a biblical scholar who has lived most of his life in Aramaic cultures. His classic study of Jesus’ parables notes that similar phrases are found in Middle Eastern cultures. The idea is that after helping a neighbour, someone may ask if anything is owed. The reply is that nothing is owed. The term translated ‘unworthy’ expresses the idea that the servant is owed nothing. When do what God asks, we are owed nothing. We cannot build up a store of merit with God where he owes us anything. We may feel we have done a lot (worked in the field), and that God should give us something in return (let us sit and eat). Instead, he may ask us to do something else (fix his meal). We may have forgiven many times, and think we deserve a break from forgiving, but forgiving others remains the right thing to do.
Paul brings up something similar when he calls on Titus to teach slaves to be subject to their masters. The grace of God is attractive because it offers the immense gift of salvation and teaches how precious we are to God. But it also teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and wrong passions and to say ‘Yes’ to ethical living (Titus 2:12). The grace of God includes obedience to God.
We obey God because it is our duty, as well as out of gratitude. But in obeying God, we do not build up credit with him that requires him to reward us. At the same time, life with God is not just about doing the right thing, but about becoming people who are ‘eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:14). Such transformation takes time and faith. If we just go to God, like the apostles, and ask for more faith, we may be told to carry out our duty. Faith is often increased by knowing the right thing and then doing it, as Jesus told the apostles after washing their feet (John 13:17). Our trust in the Lord should lead to life lived the right way (Proverbs 14:2). Yet when we do the right thing, we should not think we are owed anything. We are doing what we ought to do because of his grace working within us.