Jesus calls the slaves in this parable “worthless.” How can this be?

There are two parts to today’s Gospel reading from Luke, which readers sometimes struggle to connect. In one, the apostles ask for faith from Jesus (17:5-6); the other is a parable about a master and slaves that is found only in Luke’s Gospel. They are connected by more than just proximity, but understanding each of these passages on its own terms allows us to understand how the two parts fit together.

In Luke’s Gospel, much of Jesus’ teaching of the apostles takes place while they are on their way to Jerusalem to fulfill a destiny the disciples struggle to comprehend. As they are on the road, the apostles grasp that they are lacking something, and they ask the Lord, “Increase our faith!” At least that is one possible rendering of their request. The Greek (prosthes hēmin pistin) can be translated literally “add faith to us,” which could indeed mean “give us more faith than we already have” or “give us faith, since we are lacking it.”

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Jesus’ answer implies they lack faith, since he says that all they need is a little faith, a mustard seed-sized amount, to perform astounding feats. But François Bovon, the late Swiss biblical scholar, says in his commentary (Gospel of Luke, Vol. II, pg. 496 ff.) that what Jesus wants is a “living and active faith (resulting from faith),” for “to have faith is tantamount to entering into God’s domain—and everything is possible for God. What is more, when divine power is given to human beings, it is always tied to a mission.” What is at issue is not so much “a little” faith or “a lot” of faith but a genuine faith that is in tune with the mission of God’s kingdom. If the disciples would allow their faith to grow, the things that could be done for the kingdom would be miraculous, momentous and mind-blowing.

What seems like a sudden shift from a discussion of the nature of faith to the parable of the master and slaves actually makes sense. If Jesus’ disciples have faith, it will grow to do miraculous things, and this faith is enacted in God’s kingdom by what the disciples do. What they do seems far from miraculous, but Bovon sees this parable as having “allegorical coloration” grounded in the life of the church.

Bovon notes that the verb diakoneō (“to serve”) calls to mind table service, while the verb poimainō (“to tend sheep”) describes a major function of Christian ministers from antiquity to today. The word agros (“field”) denotes the world, the missionary field of the disciples, and plowing “refers to the spreading of the word of God.” The “allegorical coloration” does not stop there, for Bovon sees the tasks of the slaves in the house, who care for the food and the drink, as suggestive of the Eucharist and service within the church.

“The tasks carried out inside the house (for the edification of the community) are, moreover, the indispensable complement to activity on the outside, in the fields (the evangelization of the world).” Their service to the church and the world is modeled on the service that their master Jesus offers to them and to the world. The apostles are expected to carry out their tasks, plowing and serving, without expecting admiration or adulation. Yet even when this service has been completed, Jesus calls the slaves in this parable “worthless” (achreios). This Greek adjective can also be translated as “useless,” “unusable,” “good for nothing” or “dispensable.” How can this be?

The shocking language of “worthless” disciples—I find it shocking every time I read it—might indicate that performing one’s duty does not guarantee salvation. But it is more likely that we are being instructed that we cannot save ourselves; regardless of what we do and accomplish, it is God who saves us. Faith is essential to enter into “God’s domain,” as Bovon puts it, but it is God who graces us with faith. Once we enter the kingdom, we respond to that faith through the work that we do, but it is God who has empowered us to accomplish our tasks. Boasting is excluded: “We have done only what we ought to have done!”

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