Luke 17:5-10

The Disciple’s Humility and Gratitude
Luke 17:5-10
Intro: After learning a few more of Jesus’ outrageous values, the apostles were getting nervous. When Jesus taught on the blessing of living as God’s children, receiving the remarkable benefits of the kingdom, they were encouraged. It was some of the best preaching imaginable. Even the non-religious crowds sang their master’s praises. They loved it when He delivered sermons like those. But these themes He had chosen for His recent preaching were not like those celebrated sermons. He had gone from noting that God was seeking out what was of value to Him that had been lost – sheep and coins and a wayward son, to a rich man who died and went to hell. Now He was insisting that His followers had to confrontationally rebuke their friends and generously forgive those who took advantage of them. It felt like Jesus’s preaching tour was going off the proverbial rails. A train wreck was now fully in view. They needed to do something. They had to intervene somehow. At this point the disciples decide to interrupt Jesus as He teaches.

Luke 17:5 And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”

Apparently, they think it takes a great amount of faith to be able to generously forgive (7x in a day!). Who is sufficient for these things? Who can succeed in rebuking and forgiving?

Is this even a valid request? What if we don’t need more faith, but we need to activate what we already have?

Luke 17:6 So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Christ uses the mustard seed and the mulberry tree as a combined illustration.

The mustard seed was notable for its miniscule size. The mulberry tree was significant for the strength of its root system.

The rabbis held that the roots of the mulberry tree would remain in the earth for 600 years. They had a rule that a mulberry tree could not be planted within 75 feet of a cistern to protect the water supply.

By contrast, the mustard seed was so small, it often appeared as a single speck of dust in the hand.

How could a tiny amount of faith uproot a tree with such extraordinary strength in its roots? Furthermore, how could it then cause it to be planted in the waters of the sea?

Jesus is not suggesting that faith will give us supernatural powers. Nor is He saying that we should use our faith to do something trivial like transplant a tree. Let us not become so mesmerized with Jesus’ ridiculous illustration that we fail to hear what He says.

Why did Jesus use this imagery? To show that we need to trust God to do what only God can do.

Moving the tree is simply an illustration of something we cannot do, but God can.

If God calls us to do something impossible (like forgiving someone seven times in a day), we need to trust that He will enable us to accomplish it.

This is what it means to have faith: believing that God can do what is impossible for us.

Even the smallest amount of faith will enable us to do the difficult things God has assigned us.

If mustard seed-sized faith can work astonishing miracles, what can regular faith accomplish when forgiveness is needed?


Christ promises to be present in the smallness of their faith! It is not so much great faith that is required as faith in a great God.

By definition, faith clings to God. Faith casts itself on the power of God. Faith rests in God’s strength. Faith relies upon God’s ability.

We must not make an idol out of our faith. Faith was not crucified for us, neither were we baptized in the name of faith.

We are not distinguished as disciples of Jesus by the quantity of our faith. We show that we are His by simply acting on whatever faith we have – it can be as tiny an amount as a mustard seed.

Caution: when disciples possess practical faith and exercise it to bring people together, they may be tempted to spiritual pride.

Jesus now teaches heaven’s humility, and He illustrates it by the common practice of masters and servants (slaves).

Luke 17:7 And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’?

In our technological space-age, with our 40-hour work week, powerful labor unions, and time-and-a-half for overtime pay, the world of this parable seems not only distant, but also unfair.

To our sensibilities, after a long, hard day in the field, hasn’t such a servant earned the right to a little appreciation and some creature comforts and even some rewards?

This is a parable. And in all His parables Jesus appealed to the common knowledge and everyday experiences of His hearers. The master-servant relationship in the world in which Jesus ministered implied accepting authority and obeying that same authority.

We must not get bent out of shape upon hearing Jesus tell a story about a master and a slave.

We naturally react against the idea now because we live 2,000 years and one hemisphere away from the culture Jesus lived and preached in. We immediately fill in the blanks with our own modern context and ideas about slavery.

illus: If we think about the evil institution of chattel slavery that existed in the USA that required a war between the states to end, then we will miss Christ’s point entirely in this parable. We will be blinded by our bias. The American version of slavery was an unspeakable, indefensible evil. It involved stealing innocent people away from their homeland and forcing them into conscripted labor against their wills. They were treated as subhuman, and many were tortured to death. The slavery in the NT must be contrasted to chattel slavery. Most of the time it was chosen by the slave as an alternative to debtor’s prison or even execution. It was indentured servitude. It was not a permanent arrangement unless the slave and master agreed after the jubilee year to resume their deal.

There was security in being the servant of a great man. A fine life could be had under his oversight and authority. It was welcomed, not resented. The benefits were enormous.

Because of this, the master-servant relationship is profoundly appropriate for illustrating the believer’s relationship to God and His unique Son.

Luke 12:37 Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them.

Earlier, He spoke of a master who served His slaves (12:37). Here He speaks of a slave serving his master.

Each time the Lord Jesus introduces an idea with the phrase, “which of you,” He always expects an emphatic answer, “No! No way!”

And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’?

Certainly no one in His audience could imagine any servant expecting special honors or favors after fulfilling his duty in the field.

At the end of the day’s chores, the master does not call the servant to have dinner and take a load off his feet. Instead, he expects the slave to serve him while he enjoys his meal.

Luke 17:8 But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?

The supper that was to be prepared was not equivalent to what we call supper. Don’t get the impression that the master worked the slave to the bone until late in the evening, and then insisted that he come into the house exhausted to resume his domestic chores.

This supper was the mid-afternoon meal that was served about 3pm. Therefore, we are not dealing with long, harsh hours imposed by a heartless slave-driver, but instead the normal expectations of a relatively short day’s chores.

The point is not, “Does the master ever allow the servant food and rest?” but rather, “Does he extend privilege to the servant who fulfills the daily assignment?” The clear answer is – “no!”

The master is the master. Therefore, he cannot be the peer or the equal of his servant. He does not eat with him.

Recall that table fellowship was the single-most important expression for equality and friendship possible in the ancient near east. It is why those with whom Jesus shared meals are so significant in the Gospels.

He ate with His disciples of course. But He also ate with tax collectors and sinners.

The disciples are called “friends” not “servants” (John 15:15), even though the servant is not greater than his master (John 15:20). Jesus even stands at the door knocking, eager to enter and dine with any church or anyone who will open (Rev 3:20).

Whatever this parable means by keeping distance between the master and servant, it is clear we must not treat our relationship with Christ too flippantly or too familiarly.

Despite what some of the old hymns or new praise songs suggest, Jesus is nothing like our imaginary friend who advises us over coffee and gives us pep talks so that we can accomplish our dreams.

He is a gentle, benevolent master to be sure. But He is still our Master. He died for us; we live for Him.

Neither does the master owe a debt of gratitude to the servant after dinner. He has done no more than meet his obligations.

Luke 17:9 Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.

Kenneth Bailey translates, “Does the servant have special merit because he did what was commanded?

The word translated “thank, favor, grace” is the common NT word for grace (charis).

“Does he thank that servant?” = “Does he have any special favor/special grace for the servant?”

In context, it is not a synonym for gratitude, so “thank” is an unfortunate choice by the NKJV.

Far more than a simple note of thanks, Jesus is asking if the master has something extra special for the servant who completed his expected chores. Will there be a token of his appreciation?

Luke uses the word for grace to express favor and credit.

Luke 1:30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Luke 6:32 But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
Luke 6:33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

This special favor or credit was something tangible.

Jesus says, “if you love those who love you, what do you get in return?”

Likewise, the angel told Mary she had found favor with God. What did she get for that favor? A baby!

Luke 1:31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.

The point Christ is making in our text is, “Does the servant receive some special favor from the master for doing what he was supposed to do? Did he earn extra credit for completing his expected chores? Is there anything owed to him? – of course not.”

After all of this work does the servant gain favor? Is the master indebted to him?


Living by faith will produce no thoughts of gaining “extra credit” with the Lord. The same is true for the servants of God.

Luke 17:10 So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”

The question surfaces, “who can say they have done all the things commanded them?”

illus: Pastor Andrew Bonar used to tell the story of a Grecian painter who produced a marvelous painting of a boy carrying a basket of grapes on his head. So exquisitely were the grapes painted, that when the picture was publicly displayed in the outdoor gallery, the birds pecked at the grapes, thinking they were real. The painter’s friends heaped congratulations and praise upon him, but the painter was dissatisfied. When asked why, he replied, “I should have done a great deal more. I should have painted the boy so true to life that the birds would not have dared come near him!” Even if we do all that has been commanded, Jesus tells us our response must be, “We have only done our duty.” But, like Bonar’s painter, we are aware of our deficiencies and are always having to say, “I should have done a great deal more.”

“unprofitable/worthless/unworthy” is another unfortunate translation by the NKJV of a notoriously difficult word to translate.

One of the reasons this translation cannot be correct is because the servant does his duty, therefore he is not worthless or unprofitable to the master.

Literally, the word means “without need.” The servants are those of whom there is no need, people we can dispense with or people who are dispensable. The master owes them no thanks or favor. He can replace them.

There is some ambiguity we must work out. Does it mean the master is “without need” of the servant, or does it mean the servant is “without need” of a special reward for his common work?

The best way to understand this difficult word is to hear the servants in v.10 say, “We are servants, and we have no need. We are servants to whom nothing is owed.”

Bailey translates, “So you, also, when you have done what was commanded say, ‘Nothing is owing us servants, we have only done our duty.’”

This was a common figure of speech in the culture setting of the middle east. One village workman renders some small service to a homeowner and the follow conversation takes place:

Homeowner: fī hāja? literally: “Is there any need?”
meaning: “Do I owe you anything?”

Workman: ma fī hāja literally: “There is no need.”
meaning: “You owe me nothing.”

illus: This happened to me a couple of years ago. We had some water pressure issues in our house. We literally had to turn on the water in our master shower and wait several minutes for the pressure to build up enough to send enough water to use the shower. Some young plumbers came to repair the problem, but they turned the valve too many times and told me they broke it. But they said it should be fine if no one turns it anymore! That didn’t sound right to me, but since I’m not a plumber and didn’t want to argue I let them go. This only proved to irritate us even more, and we wanted our water pressure back! So I called another plumber after some time had gone by. He came to the house and looked at everything and then…turned that valve a couple of more revolutions. Immediately the water pressure was fixed. Problem solved. He did 15 seconds of work. I got out the checkbook and asked him how much we owed him. I was so grateful someone knew how to fix our issue. It was a glorious day. Then he said, “Nothing. I would never charge for turning a valve twice. This one’s on me.” Is there any need? There is no need.

Our best service does not bring gain to God. Neither does it give us a claim on Him.

At best we have done only what was our duty. We are servants to whom nothing is owed.

Simeon the Just (c.300 B.C.) – Be like slaves who serve the master not with a view to receiving a reward and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.


1. The believer is a servant. He is expected to obey and know his place as a servant/slave.

2. Grace/salvation is a gift, not a reward for services rendered.

3. The servant of God labors to fulfill a duty. He does not develop a claim on God nor serve to receive rewards.