“Will any one of you who has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the slave because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”—Luke 17:7-10
Like all great communicators, Jesus uses examples drawn from the lived experience of the people he’s talking to. If he’s talking to fishermen, he uses fishing metaphors. If he’s talking to farmers, he uses farming metaphors. If you’re a city boy like me, with little or no experience of farming and fishing, you might have trouble understanding these passages. But it’s doable. It’s much harder to make sense of passages like Luke 17, which draw upon the lived experience of people living in a slave society. Because the institution of slavery isn’t just foreign to us; it’s repellent.
The Bible is a fascinating fusion of foreign and familiar. This is what makes it at once comforting and confounding. There are times, when you’re reading The Bible, that you stumble upon a passage that’s so timeless, or topical, that you shake your head in amazement and mumble: “My God, that could’ve been written yesterday!” But there are other passages, like Luke 17, which have precisely the opposite effect, passages which force you to remember that the past really is a foreign country. Reading them is like witnessing the birth of a canyon. The earth shakes and splits and a mighty chasm opens up between you and the author. This ancient, long-dead man, who seemed, just a moment ago, so close, and but a whisper away, now stares at us from a distance; this man, suddenly small and strange, now stands on the other side of History’s Grand Canyon.
Like most of you, I imagine, I grew up in a world without servants, a world without masters and slaves, a world devoted, at least in theory, to egalitarian principles, a world that’s largely transcended the Game of Thrones world the author of Luke’s Gospel lived in. Whenever Luke starts talking about servants or slaves, I feel History’s Grand Canyon spreading out between us. To bridge the gap with understanding, and make sense of this passage, we must first translate it into terms that make sense in the twenty-first century West. To that end, I think it’s good to recast the servant and master as an employer and employee. Because we all know how tedious it can be to work with someone who needs constant praise for work they’re paid to do, but few of us realize that this problem’s origins are to be found in our self-esteem obsessed child-rearing methods.
In “The Perils of Praise,” Andrew Miller maintains that “constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function. If the praise ever dries up, the recipient goes into withdrawal. This is talked about most often in regards to rearing young children, but it applies just as well to older children and youths in high school and university. Deprived of praise, the addict becomes anxious and emotionally fragile. Rather than try new things or practice new skills, she prefers to retreat into fantasies of power and control. Unfortunately for them, while the school system is a great place to get constant praise from one’s superiors, outside of school it’s much harder to come by. Employees receive much less feedback from their employers in general, especially for those working entry-level jobs. Often, the only time an employee gets feedback is when she screws up; good work isn’t singled out for praise, but rather is expected and taken without comment.” Employees are paid to do their job. It’s their duty. And this is precisely why we find it more or less obnoxious when they expect extra credit for it.
In one of the funniest parts of Bring the Pain (1996), comedian Chris Rock chides: “Niggers always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do. For some shit they just supposed to do. A nigger will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigger will say some shit like, ‘I take care of my kids!’ You supposed to, ya dumb motherfucker!” What Jesus is saying in Luke 17 is of a similar stamp. There are times when Jesus sounds like a thoroughly Roman guy. And Luke 17 is one of them. What Jesus says about duty here was a Roman Stoic commonplace. Like Chris Rock, the Romans had very little patience for people who wanted extra brownie points and a gold star for doing stuff they were supposed to do. For instance, in The Enchiridion, the Roman Stoic Epictetus admonishes: “Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the divine order by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties. Our duties naturally emerge from such fundamental relations as our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, our state or nation. Make it your regular habit to consider your roles—parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader—and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.”
What’s the lesson of Luke 17? What’s our Christian duty? What does Jesus expect of us? Well, he expects us to care for the people around us, and to do so without the need for constant credit and praise.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)