Historical Cultural Context
Not long ago, Americans discovered “mentors.” In general, a “mentor” helps a novice to enter or progress along a certain path toward a specific goal. In the academic world, a “mentor” guides a doctoral student through the requirements of earning a degree. In the business world, a “mentor” helps a promising person to achieve excellence, success, and often a high administrative position in a corporation.
In the Mediterranean world Jesus is not a “mentor” but rather a “faction founder” who builds his “faction” around himself by gathering “followers” or “disciples.” Here is what Jesus the faction founder expects of members of his faction, often called his “disciples.”
The word usually translated “faith” in the New Testament is better translated as “loyalty” or “reliability.” Jesus, the founder of a faction devoted to the renewal of Israel, demanded loyalty to himself and his project. Recall Jesus’ expectation that, faced with a choice, a disciple should prefer him to one’s family of origin (Lk 14:2, 5-26).
Good servants do what they are told.The words “sin” and “forgive” in Luke 17:3-4 remind Luke’s readers of Jesus’ parable of the lost sons, which, having been read or heard just two chapters earlier in this Gospel, is still echoing in their minds and hearts. Disciples must be compassionate as the Father is compassionate (Lk 6:36). They must forgive as often as a sinner repents.
In the ancient Middle-Eastern world every family, even relatively poor ones, had at least one servant. The very poorest families gave some of their children to other families as servants to ensure that they would be fed.
The master in this parable apparently has only one servant who both tends the fields and does the cooking. The thrust of the story is clear and straightforward. Good servants do what they are told. A master never has to thank a servant for doing what was expected.
Most translations cause confusion with their rendition of Jesus’ final advice to disciples: “When you have carried out all your orders, learn to say: we are worthless servants; we have only done our duty” (v. 10). “Worthless”?
Literally, the Greek adjective means “without need.” The New English Bible captures this sense in its rendition: “We are servants and deserve no credit.”
The neologism that I propose (“due-nothing” servant) reflects the pun-oriented sense of humor that Jesus exhibited (in Aramaic) on many occasions. While this servant clearly is not a “do-nothing” person, it is also clear that a servant is “due nothing” for services rendered.
Jesus’ demands of forgiveness, loyalty, and the surrendering of an entitlement mentality still challenge his American disciples.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University