Duty (Luke 17:5-10)

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For anyone who identifies their love language as affirmation, this story of Jesus could be a nightmare!

Put yourself in the story: you have spent all day in the paddocks, plowing the rain-soaked earth or trying to look after the cold, wet sheep. When you come in to the warm, dry house your boss tells you to get the dinner on and then wait until he has finished his before you can sit down to eat. And then, at the end of the long, hard day of work, instead of getting thanked for your effort, you’re supposed to say, ‘No worries boss – just doing my duty.’

If that was you, how long do you reckon you would last in that job?

We all like to recognized, affirmed or thanked for what we do. In fact, one of the things best things about helping others can sometimes be what we get out of it– those warm feelings that come with doing good and helping other people. In a culture that often encourages us to do good because of what we can get out of it, this story can be pretty confronting.

This can say something about our motivation to do good. When Jesus taught us to love God and love others, the kind of love that he talked about was all about looking to what was in the best interests of the other person, even if it comes at a cost to us. When look to get something out of the good things we do for others, are we doing them for their benefit or our own? I know that God blesses us when we help others, but if we are doing good to get thanks, affirmation or to feel good about ourselves, then we really need to ask whether we are actually acting in Christ-like love.

Maybe that’s why this story sits a little uncomfortably with us.

Instead, Jesus says that faithful servants, after they have done everything they have been told to do, will say, ‘We have only done our duty’ (v10 NIV). The word used here for ‘duty’ means something that is owed. In doing his duty, the servant in Jesus’ story is repaying a debt to his master. Often when we hear the word ‘duty’ we can think of obeying a set of rules because we have to. ‘Duty’ can imply unwilling compliance to someone else’s rules or expectations.

However, it is important for us as followers of Jesus to think about duty through the words of Romans 13:8 which says,

Owe nothing to anyone — except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbour, you will fulfil the requirements of God’s law. (NLT)

The word Paul uses for ‘owe’ is the same word Jesus uses when he talks about ‘duty.’ In this sense, ‘duty’ means repaying someone for something that has already been given to us. Serving God and others without any thought of thanks or affirmation becomes our act of self-giving, Christ-like love for others to repay God for the grace he has already shown us through Jesus’ death on the cross. The Apostle Peter writes,

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. (1 Peter 1:18,19 NLT)

Jesus paid the ultimate price to redeem us and make us God’s children – his own precious, priceless life. In the same way, our Father in heaven paid the greatest price we could imagine, the life of his own Son, in order to rescue us from the power of sin, death and the devil so we can live in his kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy. We can therefore understand the words of the dutiful servant from Luke 17 to mean that his life and service of the servant are his or her gift to the master out of thanks for what the master has already done for the servant. Instead of looking for thanks for what we do for God or for each other, ideally what we do to serve God and others in our lives will be done in thanks for the price God paid to make us his own.

This is a life of faith. Earlier in this reading, the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith (v5). Faith is first and foremost about trusting in Jesus’ work for us on the cross, where he sacrificed his life to give us identity, value and purpose. Imagine having such as strong faith in Jesus and his love for us that we can find of our sense of identity, value and purpose in him, instead of looking for is in the thanks, praise or affirmation of other people. This is the kind of faith Jesus points to as God’s gift to us by the power of his Holy Spirit.

The idea of duty we find in this story is not about doing what we’re told or trying to live up to some set of rules or expectations. Remember: God want us to give cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7)! Instead, this sense of duty grows out of a deep and strong faith in the extreme love of God which he shows by sacrificing everything for us on the cross. When we trust in what Jesus has done for us to make his people, serving God and serving the people around us isn’t a chore. It becomes an act of love for the God who gave everything for us, and for others as we serve each other for Christ’s sake, whether they thank us for it or not.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘duty’? How might the idea of ‘duty’ being about giving back what we owe help you think of ‘duty’ differently?
  • If you’re honest, what is your main motivation for doing good for others – the way it benefits them, or what you get out if it? How does your motivation fit with what Jesus seems to be saying in this story?
  • This story comes out of Jesus’ disciples asking him to increase their faith (v5). How do you understand the connection between faith and duty?
  • Do you think it is possible for a person to do good for others with no thought of what we get back in return? Why do you think that?
  • Jesus seems to be contrasting the disciples’ request for a greater faith with the small, everyday things the servant was doing in the story. What do you think is more difficult to do – ‘big’ things for God? Or the ordinary, everyday ways in which he calls us to serve each other? How can this story give purpose and value to the little ways in which we can serve others every day?
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