“In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are worthless servants; we’ve only done our duty.” – Luke 17:10
My wife told me of having an ‘ah-ha’ moment ( I love those!) while reading Luke 18 yesterday. She has often experienced frustration with her actions being inconsistent or deficient compared to her perception of how she should be. She’d read this chapter many times before, but as these things happen, God revealed something new in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Suddenly, things began to look differently and make sense.
We all know what this feels like; it comes with being human. We can’t see ourselves as others do, and especially as God does. So our pride and ego tend to over-inflate our self-perception. We like to give ourselves a whole lot more credit than we really deserve. The 17th and 18th chapters of Luke are a good antidote for inflated egos. There are two sections in particular that establish the way we need to see ourselves.
In Luke 17:7 Jesus tells of a master and his servant. The servant has been busily working the farm all day. When he comes in the house, does the master praise him for all his hard work? Nope. Now it’s time to fix supper and serve the master. The servant can grab something when the master is finished. The passage concludes with the verse above.
In chapter 18 Jesus tells the parable of two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee proceeds to give God a laundry list of all the good things he’s done, and thanks God for making him a cut above all those greedy, unrighteous, adulterous sinners (‘like, for example, that tax collector over there”). The tax collector ‘stood far off’, which seems to indicate he didn’t enter the main court of the temple. He was ashamed to even look to heaven; he stood there beating his breast, a sign of sorrow for his sins. His prayer to God? “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Jesus concludes by saying it was the tax collector who went home justified, “because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself with be exalted” (v. 14).
As Christians, we know we’ve been saved through God’s grace because of what Christ did by dying on the cross for us. But we want to think that means we won’t mess up any more. We think being Christ’s possession makes us a cut above all those “sinners” out there. When we find ourselves doing the same things we’ve always done, it discourages us and makes us question who we are.
The problem is in how we see ourselves. We sometimes think of ourselves the same way the Pharisee did. “Look at all the great stuff I’m doing for you, God; I’m not like all those sinners out there!” Some of the older versions of the Bible say the Pharisee was praying with himself. His primary concern was telling God how wonderful he (the Pharisee) was. What he’s looking for is not forgiveness but justification; bonus points for extra credit work. The tax collector recognized who he was, and more importantly, who God is. His was a humble heart, recognizing his own unworthiness in comparison to the God of creation, of justice and mercy, love and grace. When measured against that standard, we are all tax collectors; sinners in desperate need of mercy.
Yes, we are saints, saved by the blood of Christ, and his possession. But we are also saved sinners. As long as we live and draw breath we are still beset by the problem of sin; every day, every hour, every nanosecond. We are travelers in a sinful world where we used to be residents. We have to come to terms with this seeming contradiction; we enjoy all the blessings and power of heaven in Christ, but still struggle with life in this world and all its temptations. If nothing else, we’re recovering sinners who are empowered to become what God intends us to be.
It’s when we think we had something to do with our salvation other than just accepting it, and start feeling like an MVP that heaven can’t do without, that we need to go back to Luke 17. Jesus’ story is about a servant; a very good one, in fact. He was a hard worker, he was obedient, he did everything he was instructed to do. If anyone had the right to a little recognition, it was this guy. But what he understood, and what we need to understand clearly, is this: all the things he did, no matter how commendable, were exactly what he was supposed to do. His master had commanded him to do them. He was just being obedient. That’s why Jesus told his disciples to consider themselves unworthy servants, because whatever they might do in His name was a poor reflection of what God had already done.
God has given us the tremendous gift of His grace through the sacrifice of His son, because it was impossible for us to do anything to save ourselves. We can never do enough or be good enough to deserve that, much less outdo it. When we compare ourselves to the right standard we’ll always come away looking deficient. But through grace, submission, and obedience we gain our value. And that’s when we begin to get our relationship with God right.