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Are we really worthless?

Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? {10} 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 17:9-10

Are we really worthless?

Doesn't God really like and value us? Do we even, as many people believe, have a divine spark within us? Does not our ability to relate to God prove we are spiritual beings like him, and therefore of great value? And if God has told us to do certain things and we do them, can we not expect to be rewarded because we have done what is good? Surely there must be some good in us? What do you think: should we not expect to be valued rather than saying, We are worthless slaves? Where do we stand in the household of God, as slaves or as children of the head of the family? Should say we are worthless slaves or children of God?

St Paul wrote to the Romans:

.... it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Taken by itself that would tell us something which, if it is true, is marvellous indeed: God's Spirit is letting us know that we are God's Children. You might say, if we do have the power to relate directly to our Creator, as a child to a parent, spirit to like spirit, we must have something in common with God, and then it would seem that there is something in our essential nature that is God-like. It would follow, would it not, that we are of great value, and must have a valued place in the scheme of things? Do we not belong in the Kingdom of God?

The disciples often thought they had made it. They looked forward to a special place in the Kingdom and swore that they would always be loyal to Jesus who would rule in the new Kingdom. They thought they understood. Yet, Jesus had to rebuke Peter even at the time when he had the great insight that Jesus is the Lord, the Messiah, a special King:

They did not understand as much as they thought, as he often had to tell them. They often confused human concerns with the divine. In the end they were unfaithful - their allegiance to Christ was not as strong as they professed, and so the unity they had with God through him was denied. Yet they had not been all wrong. It was still true that through their relationship with Jesus they could enter into a new and powerful relationship with God, even as his children. The key point is that it did not follow automatically from being human, or from being creatures in God's creation ready to receive him. As John the evangelist put it in the prologue to his Gospel:

There it is. It was indeed God's world. They were God's people -- even people especially chosen. You would think they would have been glad to welcome him, especially amongst 'his own people'. Surely they would have shared enough of his nature to have recognized him when he came among his own. But they did not! It would seem that they were not, after all, natural children of God, people who could recognize their own nature in the Son of God. No. As a society, as a people, as ordinary human beings, they killed him. He was an unwelcome stranger. The one who came as the Word of God in the flesh was not recognized as sharing their nature or the nature of God. But there were a few exceptions. Some did receive him. They seem often to have been outsiders, unwelcome strangers, too, not the sort you would have chosen as the finest examples of their people. It was amongst them that the power to become children of God was realized: But to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God. Being given power to become something (a child of God or to belong to any valued position) is different from having that power, position or nature already, as a right. It was not a natural possession or something inherent to human nature, but he gave power to become children of God.

Indeed we do have the power to become children of God - but that special relationship is established through faith, through belief in Christ. -- to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. By grace we are saved through faith -

The disciples, had begun to understand at least the need for faith and the possibility of become children of God, by the time he spoke with them about being worthless slaves, although they would not have faith with that understanding until after he had died and been raised to life again, when they began to experience the immeasurable riches in which they would share by the grace of God. Jesus had shown them the importance of having faith, and they knew they were rather inadequate. So they asked him about it. The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5). It seems likely that this request was triggered by what Jesus had just said about forgiving people no matter how many times they might seek it. The capacity to forgive as he expected seemed to demand more faith than they had. But he does not speak about increasing faith. Even a little faith is enough. It is really about the nature of faith. Jesus in reply speaks directly to them in their situation. He is not giving a general rule or talking in the abstract, but challenging them.

Not perhaps the answer you might expect. After all, Jesus did sometimes give them a straightforward sensible and obviously helpful answer, as for example when thy asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). At other times Jesus spoke figuratively, in dramatic images - to increase the emotional impact. No doubt they needed to be shaken out of their complacency. They were perhaps thinking they were asking for something that could easily be done. But he had to show them that they needed to go back and learn something more basic, so the shock tactics.

I think he also used poetic and dramatic images to give people room to move with their imaginations. He used such strong visual images. We miss a lot when we treat it all in a literal legalistic way without humour or imagination. The disciples needed to use their imagination to put themselves into the answer to know what faith was all about. They needed to be shaken up a bit and challenged to think beyond the normal limits of human imagination, as on another occasion when he chastised them for their lack of faith:

But what has this sort of challenge to do with how much we are worth, or whether we should say that we are worthless?

Faith is interpersonal: it is a matter of knowing the other person, of knowing God, of union with the will and purpose of God. It is about trust -- trust in God rather then in our own power and nature. The message is that we cannot rely upon how much we are valued, on our own worth, and certainly not on own nature and power. Above all we cannot presume to bargain with God or to manipulate God, as Jesus himself demonstrated.

That is a long way from being manipulative. We don't like people manipulating us. Neither does God. As we grow by trusting, so we grow in our spiritual life and strengthen our relationship with God by trusting him. We are eager then to listen to him and know his way. Again as Jesus showed:

Jesus prayed not so as to turn things to his advantage or to manipulate. His will was to do the will of his father in heaven. So in faith we begin to see the purpose God has for us - that we should be his children, not as a natural right, but to become his children by adoption. When Paul wrote of God's spirit telling our spirits that we a children of God, he said we entered that relationship by adoption -- you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" {16} it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. [Rom. 8:15b-16]. He had just been contrasting this new state they were in as believers with the state of slavery. They who were now led by the Spirit of God were set free and adopted as children, having the same rights as if they has been natural born members of the family.

The slaves then become children of God - by adoption, not by natural right, but as a free undeserved gift of love - by an act of grace. What then are they worth, these worthless slaves? Adopted children are not worth any less than natural children - of course not - indeed they are special signs of love, of being chosen - such was his purpose - hidden for a long time, but later revealed. (1 Corinthians 2:7; 4:5; Ephesians 1:9-12; 3:8-12.)

How then do we understand the saying about the master and the servant who has been out in the fields doing his normal work. Let us not be distracted by the fact that relationships of employment are different today. Slavery has been abolished, but we still do not expect special rewards for doing no more than our duty. When the slave or servant in the example Jesus gave comes in having done nothing more than it was his duty to do he does not expect to be invited to sit down and eat with his master as if he were a member of the family - certainly not in those days. The difference in status between the master and his servant is yet as nothing compared with the difference between us and God. We cannot expect to be treated as member of the family just for doing what we have been told to do. Another way of saying it is that we cannot earn our place with God by the work we do for him. No special privilege comes from just doing your duty. Our attitude and expectation of God, when we have done our duty, should then be "We are worthless slaves; we have done only done what we ought to have done!" But having faith is a different matter. Through faith we rely not on what we have done for God but on what he has done for us. That is the basic thing the disciples needed to know about the nature of faith, before they could have any faith at all, let alone seeking to increase their faith. It was to be accepted as a free gift, quite undeserved.

It is a difficult thing for people to accept today as it was in the time of Jesus. We often hear talk of the value of self esteem. Teachers try to increase the self esteem of the children in their care. It is often stated as one of aims of a school. Managers in business find it is helpful to encourage workers and so to increase their self esteem for the sake of the company. If you are applying for a job you are expected to value your own worth highly. Confidence is all the go. If you don't have it there is something wrong with you, it seems. There are courses of training in assertiveness to overcome such handicaps. Yes, I know that is for good reason in a political sense. But you see the point: it is contrary to our culture to have people say in Western society today, "We are worthless." If we say that who will listen? It sounds irrelevant and stupid.

There is even the possible charge that we Christians would be doing great harm to some people by talking of us humans as worthless. How about the suicide rate? It is a terrible thing to see anyone and especially young people feeling so deeply that they are worthless that they take their own lives. Increasing self esteem is one of the things social workers and psychologists are expected to do in suicide prevention programs, such as the one that has been running in Victorian schools, where efforts must be made to increase the sense of self worth in those children who may be in danger. Similar needs are seen in programs aimed at overcoming sexual abuse. Would we not be doing harm by encouraging people to day "We are worthless slaves?" Would it not be better to emphasise other messages from the gospels such as:-

Of course we can say that. We are greatly valued by God. People need to know that. Did he not sent his Son into the world because of his love for us? But it was not because we were divine or free from sin. It was not because we deserved it, and certainly not because we were godlike:

Are we then worthless slaves?

Yes, we are if we think we can work our own passage and we try to manipulate God into accepting us.

No, we are not if we have faith and can accept his purpose of making us his adopted children.

We who have no right to expect any status with him may yet inherit, as adopted children, the immeasurable riches of the Kingdom of God. Then we are indeed no longer slaves, but children of God set free from bondage to enjoy the freedom of the glory of the children of God [Romans 8:21]. This is what he has accomplished for us and in us through the work of Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever, Amen.

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