If I were to ask you to name the major American leaders during World War II, I can guess what names I’d hear. FDR, of course, and Eisenhower. Patton. MacArthur. Someone would probably come up with George Marshall and Chester Nimitz; I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else mentioned Bull Halsey or Raymond Spruance, fleet commanders in the Pacific under Admiral Nimitz, or even Frank Jack Fletcher, who was in tactical command over Rear Admiral Spruance at the Battle of Midway.
I doubt, however, that I would hear anyone mention Ernest J. King, and that would be undeserved. Admiral King was made Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet in 1940, then promoted to Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet after Pearl Harbor. A few months later, he was also appointed as the Chief of Naval Operations, making him the only man in American history to be both COMINCH—the senior operational commander for the entire fleet—and CNO—the senior administrative official for the U. S. Navy—at the same time. He may have had more to do than anybody with how the war was won. However, he didn’t cooperate with the press; one reporter grumbled that if Admiral King had his way, the U.S. would issue one press release for the entire war, it would come at the very end, “and it would read, quote, We won, unquote.”
King was tough, demanding, abrasive, authoritarian, irascible, and fiery. FDR famously said, “He shaves every morning with a blowtorch.” His level of expectations created a certain amount of resentment in the Atlantic Fleet over the course of the war, because it was a lot easier to win medals in the Pacific than the Atlantic. Admiral Nimitz, I gather, was reasonably willing to award military honors to those who served under him, while the Atlantic Fleet under Admiral Ingersoll appears to have followed Admiral King’s philosophy: “Don’t expect a medal for doing your job.”
Now, this might seem an odd introduction to a parable of Jesus, but it has everything to do with this one, because King’s dictum is the lesson of this parable in a nutshell. We don’t tend to think of God as being like Ernie King, and we shouldn’t—this is a man of whom one of his daughters said, “He is the most even-tempered person in the United States Navy. He is always in a rage.” However, we have the pernicious tendency to go too far the other way; we hear Jesus say, “I no longer call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends,” and we start to think of him as being on our level—“buddy Jesus.” Yes, he calls us friends, but we are still his servants. We’re still just human, even with his Spirit in our hearts, and he’s still God, vastly greater, more powerful, more glorious, and more good than we are. Yes, he serves us, but that doesn’t make us masters; it’s by his grace, not because we deserve it.
To get the point of this parable clearly, we need to understand the context. Most people in that culture had at least one servant—in fact, the master in this story is probably on the poor end of the working class, to use our terms, because he only has one. Only the poorest of the poor had no servants at all; they would often hire their children out as household servants as a way of making sure they had food to eat. We might think of the work of the servant as demeaning and unfulfilling, but in a world which was ruled by class and social status, in which mere survival was far harder than it is for us, being a servant was usually a pretty good deal. Yes, it it meant absolute obedience to one’s master, within the limits of the Law—but it also meant security, a place to live, and food to eat; and for one who served a good master, it gave life a sense of meaning and value.
This master is a good and reasonable one. The meal here is not dinner but supper, eaten about three in the afternoon. The servant has done a normal day’s work outside, nothing terribly long; once he makes supper, he’ll have some time for himself. He isn’t being abused, or treated with disrespect; what’s expected of him is fair, and in return, all his own needs are met. He has no reason for discontent, and no cause for complaint.
“But wait,” you might be thinking—“this master sounds ungrateful. He doesn’t thank his servant for serving him?” That’s the standard English translation, yes, but it isn’t a good one. What verse 9 actually says is, “He doesn’t have grace for the servant because he did what was commanded, does he?” When Luke uses the word “grace” in this way, he’s thinking in terms of special favor or credit. The point isn’t that the master doesn’t thank the servant, it’s that the servant doesn’t earn any extra benefits or bonuses just for doing his regular day’s work.
That leads us into verse 10, which has been something of a problem for a long time. The word the NIV translates “unworthy” literally means “without need”; from “unneeded” it came to mean “worthless” or “miserable” in common Greek usage. However, as Kenneth Bailey tells us, the literal translation makes perfect sense for that culture, and was often used when this passage was translated back into a Semitic language like Syriac or Arabic. If someone did something for you and you wanted to ask if you owed them anything, you would say, “Is there any need?” Often, the response would be, “There is no need”—i.e., “You don’t owe me anything.” This was common idiom.
Dr. Bailey suggests, and I think he’s right, that this is what’s in view here. Jesus is telling his disciples, “When you’ve done all that you were told to do, don’t expect a medal for doing your job. Instead, say, ‘We’re your servants—you don’t need to pay us extra just for doing what we were supposed to do.’” And who is their master? Who is it who commands? God, in the person of Jesus Christ the Son. He calls us his friends because he involves us in what he’s doing, but it’s still about what he’s doing. We may not be the Light Brigade—ours not to wonder why, ours but to do or die—we may be free to ask questions, but in the last analysis, it is still ours to obey as we have been commanded. Any faith which doesn’t regard Christ with the awe and submission he deserves as King of creation is false at the core; at its heart is not love for God but spiritual pride.
This is the religion of much of contemporary America, including much that calls itself evangelical: a too-small faith in a too-small God. If we lose our awe at the greatness and holiness of God and the glory and power of Christ our King, then we fail to understand how great is the distance between us and God, and how great was the sacrifice necessary to bridge that distance. Our sense of our own sin and God’s holiness shrinks, and with it shrinks our gospel. That works well enough through the pains and struggles of everyday life, as we tell ourselves we aren’t that bad and it’s really not that big a deal. When we hit something we know is a big deal, when we do something we cannot excuse or defend even to ourselves, we’re in trouble, because we’ve lost the belief that God can forgive and heal what is too big for us to bear.
If we nurture an awareness of the greatness and goodness and holiness of Christ and understand that he’s truly our Lord, not merely our friend, then we recognize that our salvation is a gift, not a reward for services rendered. On the one hand, our service places no claims on God, for it’s his by right; he is the maker and master of all that is, and everything is his by right. On the other, our salvation isn’t dependent on us being good enough and never falling short. God saves us by his grace because he freely chooses to do so out of his love for us, as a gift, no strings attached. He doesn’t give us what we deserve; he gives us far, far more, and far, far better, than we could ever ask or think or imagine.