A while back NPR did a short bit on a man who was pulled over for a traffic violation. When the police officer ran the man’s ID, it was flagged as a stolen identification.
The officer went back and asked the man for another form of identification. The man then proceeded to pull out various government approved documents proving who he was. He had things like a military card, social security card and the like.
As the story turns out, when the man was young he stole this identity. He had lived for years under this false name. He had developed a whole life under a mistaken identity and it had come to define everything about him. Really, he was no longer who he was really supposed to be.
In the Christian life we can experience a similar kind of thing. We often identify ourselves in a way that is not in keeping with who we really are. We live, so to speak, with a false view of ourselves. And that, of course, ends up shaping the whole course of our lives.
But in Scripture we are told that we are to identify ourselves in certain ways. And certainly this text is one good example of this. In this passage Jesus talks about our identity. He recognizes that we tend to take on a false persona. But if we are going to be one of his disciples, we have to view ourselves in a particular way. We are to be identify ourselves as Unworthy servants.
And this morning, I would like to take a few minutes to unpack this parable. I want us to get the right perspective on ourselves so that we are not living under any false pretenses.
And really, I want to do two things this morning. I want to look at the principle that is asserted here, and then seek to apply. I think that there are two very practical ways this passage applies to us.
But of course, let’s start simply by unpacking what Jesus says here. What is the principle that is being laid out in this text?
I. The principle stated
This parable is about the spirit of humility that ought to characterize a Christian. Jesus wishes to paint in exaggerated terms what our attitude ought to be when it comes to our service to God. And that attitude is supposed to be one of humble duty.
I mention this because it can be easy to get distracted with some of the other details in the parable. For instance, you might be tempted to think that Jesus is comparing God to the master in this parable. And if you do that then you are going to have a rather warped view of God.
God is going to become someone who is cold and demanding. That’s the way the master is presented. He seems rather unloving and does not have the same tenderness and warmth that we’ve seen expressed in the past (like, for instance, in the parable of the Prodigal son).
And you might get the feeling that God is something of an indomitable ogre. He’s one who is not really all that different from Pharaoh and his taskmasters, demanding nothing but raw service.
So, make sure you don’t try to glean anything more than this parable is trying to say. This parable isn’t saying anything about God, necessarily, and neither is it trying to say something about how much we do.
Just as you could get the wrong idea about God, you could get the wrong idea about what really counts to God.
Someone might say, “Well, I will only be something in God’s eyes if I do as much as this slave here does.” Of course, this slave works sun up to sun down. He has no time for frivolity or laxity. It is only work, work, work. And, you might be tempted to say, that is the only thing that makes God satisfied.
But that’s not biblical. That is the greatest lie ever told. God doesn’t relate to us on the basis of how much we do. If that were true, then we wouldn’t even be allowed into the house. If it were up to our performance, then God would have nothing to do with us because our performance cannot keep up.
We have to remember the teaching of all of Scripture. Scripture says that God relates to us, not on the basis of how much we do, but on the basis of his grace. It is based in his covenant and his pledge to love us even when we are unlovely.
So let’s be clear about that. This parable is not trying to teach us anything about the nature of God or the nature of our acceptance with God. It is merely trying to point us to the way we are to view our service to God.
The parable is telling us that we are to recognize that all that we do for God is to be kept in perspective. We are to recognize that God never owes us anything. He is never indebted to us. Instead, our service is simply a response to what he has allowed us to become.
He has made us his servants. And you have to understand that such a thing meant something to the average Israelite. In Israel, most of the slavery that existed was voluntary slavery. If you didn’t have any means to provide for yourself or your family, you could become someone’s slave. And that person who takes you into his home becomes to you a savior. Your options were to either die, or to receive this person’s generousity whereby you enter his home and begin to serve him. When you do that you get life.
And that’s what’s being said here. God has become to you a Savior. You deserved to die in your sins, but God has bestowed upon you a great deal of generosity and allowed you to become his servant. And as you serve him, what you do is nothing but a kindness to him. You can recognize that you are an unworthy servant who is only performing the right duty that such generous grace deserves.
That’s what this parable is saying.
And now that you understand that—now that we understand the principle—let’s think about the practical implications. How is something like this applied?
II. The principle applied
I think what is said here addresses two specific areas. I believe, on the one hand, it addresses a lot of what we find in pop psychology today.
A. It flies in the face of pop psychology
This passage tells us that we are to see ourselves as “unprofitable servants.” Now, to our contemporary society, this is anathema. This is a vulgarity that is considered to be something that grates against a healthy self esteem.
We live in a culture that has made an idol of self and self esteem. Everyone deserves a trophy because we don’t want anyone feeling bad about how they performed. We don’t want anyone thinking they are dumb.
There are movements in education where teachers are no longer allowed to use red pens to correct papers. As a matter of fact, they are not to make any marks at all! That might damage a child’s self esteem.
Instead, we need to build that self esteem. We need to maximize their potential, so it is said. We need them to view themselves in a positive light and help them think that they can do or be anything.
And this is just magnified by the smartphones and the ability to carry cameras in our pockets. We live in a “selfie culture.” You pull out your phone and you take a picture of yourself. Then you upload it to your favorite social media outlet for all the world to see. And you do that not because you have any particular memory that you want to capture, but because you know that you are so wonderful. And of course all the world wants to see you and your “duck face”. I mean, how are they going to make it through the day without seeing a picture of you sticking out your tongue?
Why is this phenomena so rabid in our culture today? It is because people today have an overly inflated view of themselves. It is vanity. And much of this is due to the fact that we’ve had teachers and psychologists have ramped us up on having a high self esteem.
But these trends in psychology are nothing more than getting us to trick ourselves. It is a study in what the Bible calls self-deception. They are trying to get us to believe things about ourselves that are not really true. They want you to believe that you are prettier than you are. You must tell yourself that you are smarter than you are. By gum, the world loves you and would be at a loss without you.
As one pastor put it, “Our culture is all about promoting inaccurate self-assessment; assessing yourself, but doing it in a way that is not accurate.”
And in the face of all this Scripture says that we are to view ourselves, not as a Royal Fairy Princes, but rather we are to view ourselves as “unworthy servants.” The word unworthy there can be translated, “Useless; good for nothing.”
That will change how many selfies you take. But that’s the way we are really to see ourselves. We are not to take an inflated view of ourselves. We are to take a lowly view, because, ultimately, we are nothing because we are sinners.
And that brings us to the second realm of application. This parable not only flies in the face of pop psychology, it flies in the face of personal merit. It not only is a deadly blow to false claims to self esteem; it destroys any notion of self righteousness.
B. It flies in the face of personal merit
What Jesus says here is simply a reminder that is nothing that we have done to merit God’s favor. No matter what we do, there is no way God will be indebted to us. We should not think that God owes us any thanks for anything that we ever do in his service.
You remember that Jesus is always battling that Pharisaical spirit, which is nothing other than a theological selfie. It is that spirit that says, “I’m just so good. Look at how good I am! Look at all that I’ve done for the Lord.”
You remember what we said last week. Jesus was teaching this idea of forgiveness. He said, when a man repents forgive him. If he sins against you seven times and comes to you seven times and repents, then you must forgive him. And we said that this was far beyond what passed for real spirituality among the religious leaders.
And you might be tempted, after you’ve done this forgiving thing to say, “Well, I’ve got it going on now! Look at just how spiritual I am!”
We all are susceptible to this. We are ever in danger of that spiritual vanity where we think we deserve some sort of recognition.
I like how JC Ryle puts it. He says, “Seldom will a man be found who does not secretly flatter himself that there is someone worse than he is. Seldom will a saint be found who is not at seasons tempted to be satisfied and well pleased with himself.”
In the face of this Jesus says, we are to view ourselves as unworthy servants. In other words: Remember that we are owed nothing.
Any adoration or recognition that is given is to be the Lord’s, and his alone.
Some of you might know the story of Narcissus. Narcissus is a Greek myth and it is where we get our word “narcissism.” Narcissus was said to be a boy who was overly infatuated with himself. He thought he was so beautiful and so glorious that he couldn’t stop gazing at himself. One day he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a pond. He was mezmorized by how grand he was. His reflection was so beautiful that he bent over to kiss it. As he did so he lost his balance, fell in, and drowned.
The moral of the story, of course, is to shun that kind of vanity.
That story gets at something of what this parable is all about. We are all spiritual narcissists by nature. And we need to resist that temptation to glory in how glorious and grand we think we are.
Ultimately, we need to be like Christ. What Jesus says here is really in keeping with his own identity. Jesus is calling us to follow himself. For you know that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant.
All that he did was a turning away from himself. It was all done for the purpose of serving the Father.
May we seek to emulate Christ in our own lives. And may we glory only in the Cross that he bore, which allows us this opportunity to be his servants.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.