The Parable of the Obedient Servant

The Parable of the Obedient Servant

Thoughts on the parable of the Obedient Servant – Please read Luke 17:7-10.

THE CONTEXT. In chapter 17 of Luke, Jesus is talking to the disciples, and then his apostles, about a number of topics related to discipleship… the perils of being a bad influence; ongoing forgiveness; the quality not quantity of faith; and then obedient servanthood. His parable about the Master and Servant is short but powerful. He is on his way to Jerusalem following the parable, and he fully knows what that means… fulfilling his role of Suffering Servant.

JESUS. There is no uncertainty here. Jesus is making it clear that he is the Master in the story. He lets his disciples know that there is a divine line of authority, and it runs through him.

THE MASTER. There is no debate about who was the boss in your typical master-servant relationship during this time. The master has expectations, and the servant’s job is fulfill them. The master would not owe the servant anything special for doing his duty. The master is not particularly thankful to the servant for doing his job. The servant is at his master’s disposal.

THE SERVANT. a. He owes the master loyalty, obedience, diligence. He does not perform his duty for merit pay or to earn special rewards. He should not expect to be thanked or worthy of praise for doing his job. He merely wants to do his “bounden duty,” as the Book of Common Prayer says.

b. The servant in the story is suitably modest, saying he is “unworthy,” even “unprofitable.” He realizes he owes everything he has to the master, and is not owed a thing. The servant can’t earn special graces, he just does what the master commands and leaves everything else with the master. Competent service  should not lead to self-righteousness, but to deepened humility.

c. It’s clear that the disciples are the servants in the story. Read the prior comments above with that in mind.

JESUS. a. He makes it clear that salvation is pure grace. One can’t earn God’s rewards on sheer hard work for the Master. The Master’s gifts come unearned. The Master’s blessings of salvation are not due to our fine efforts. It’s all grace.

b. He is drawing a clear dividing line of separation from the Pharisees with this parable. They work hard at earning their salvation, at getting special heavenly blessings because of religious effort. Disciples of Jesus are not to be motivated to keep the commandments in order to gain reward. We are never worthy of God’s gifts, except through Jesus. The disciple is motivated to serve God because that’s his duty as a lover of the Master.

FINAL THOUGHTS. a. A little later Jesus makes an astounding statement, in 22:27, that he is “in your midst as one who serves.” The disciples must have wondered at the depth of God’s love. Jesus made it clear in this story that he was the boss, clearly asserting his authority over them. Yet, through his later words and his washing of the disciples’ feet, he says that his style of authority is servanthood. Amazing. The servant in this parable turns out to be Jesus!

b. “Jesus promises rewards to those who are obedient without thought of reward.” (Bultmann).

c. “The primary reward for service is the joy of being called by the King of the Universe into His work; it is primarily spiritual satisfaction, reward, and contentment; it is a humbling delight that comes through the consciousness that one is unworthy, yet the Master has named you one of His servants.” (Marvin Wilson, Exploring our Hebraic Heritage).

d. “I cannot say, ‘I am an unprofitable servant,’ until I am a redeemed man; and when a redeemed man, I am no longer a mere servant, but a son, working for love, and not simply from a sense of duty.” (William Taylor)


  1. The Big Question: What is it that motivates us to serve God? Spiritual competition? Fame and accolades? A good reputation? Pride in appearance of piety? Pride in work well done? Or, subtly, maybe even salvation itself? Is purity of motivation even a possibility, knowing our own hearts?
  2. It’s ironic that only those who serve without thought of reward are those who receive reward. What exactly is the reward?
  3. In what way is faith its own reward?

Resources: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes; Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus.