Let the Scriptures Speak

Unprofitable Servants, Worthless Slaves?

So you also, when you have done all that you were
ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves;
we have done only what we ought to have done!”(Luke 17:10, NRSV)

Translate it how you will—“unprofitable servants” (KJV, Rheims, NAB [1986]), “useless servants” (NAB [1970]), “unworthy slaves” (NASB), “worthless slaves” (NRSV)—as a self-description of the Christian disciple, the phrase does not sound like good news to our North American ears. In a culture that reminds us from every TV monitor and most counseling offices that the point in life is to “feel good about yourself,” who wants to cultivate the self-image of worthless slave? Yet there it sits—that phrase—as the punch-line in a parable whose context suggests that it is supposed to say something about faith.

If we are to hear the Good News in this parable, there are at least two barriers that we who live in the US at the end of the twentieth century need to overcome: (1) our feelings about slavery and (2) determination of the proper translation and meaning of that troubling adjective (rendered in the examples above as unprofitable, useless, worthless, unworthy).

When we have lived out our covenant relationships with God and with one another, have simply done our duty and have “earned” nothing.(1) About slaves we need to face several facts. First, the text really does say “slaves.” Douloi is Greek for “slaves.” Since most servants in the first-century Mediterranean world were slaves, “servants” is an adequate translation, but it loses some of the power of the metaphor. “Servants” bypasses the fact that, in that time and place, such slaves/servants were the property, not the employees, of their masters. Moreover, both Jesus and the early Christian writers were very much at home using slavery as a positive metaphor for one’s relationship with God and even with the members of one’s community. In those cultures, slavery was simply a fact of life, with some two-thirds of the population consisting either of slaves (frequently, people working off a debt) or former slaves. Jesus dared to teach that his followers were to be slaves of one another (e.g., Mark 10:44; same word, doulos). Paul was happy to identify himself as a “doulos of Christ Jesus” (e.g., Rom 1:1). And the earliest extant Christian hymn celebrates the humanity of Jesus as his taking on “the form of a slave [doulos again]” (Phil 2:7). Though it does not sell well in contemporary democratic culture, our ancestors were at home with the concept of subservience—to God and to one another.
(2) Now, about the adjective describing the slaves in the punch-line of the parable—-achreioi. Kenneth Bailey (to whose commentary I am indebted here)* makes a good case that the word can be rendered “to whom nothing is owed.” In other words, the point of the parable is that just as a household slave is not an employee of his master—i.e., never earns anything when he carries out his duties—so we, when we have lived out our covenant relationships with God and with one another, have simply done our duty and have “earned” nothing.

The good news in this image of our life with God is that, in living the life of faith, we come to see that we have a secure role in the “household of God”—an early metaphor for the community of the Church. Like a household slave, we belong in that household even more than an “employee” would. Though our own culture would not lead us to express all this in the imagery of slavery, the parable, properly understood, expresses the same Gospel (Good News) truth that St. Paul communicates when he teaches in his letters that the Christian is saved by our faith. Paul’s teaching on this relationship is powerfully summarized in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God: it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

Even if Bailey is wrong, and the phrase is best rendered with something like “unprofitable servants” and “worthless slaves,” once we get the point of seeing through the eyes of faith that our life is lived out in the honor and security of the “household of God,” the good news comes home. Ironically, recognizing that we are unprofitable slaves in such a situation can help us “feel good about our-selves”—but for reasons very different than the ones preached by our time and place.

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson