What kind of servant are we to Christ? What do our works really accomplish?
If you’re familiar with the teachings of Jesus you’ve likely heard Luke 17:5-6 and the famous quote on the power of faith.
And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.
We have often used this verse as an encouragement to those with little faith. “Don’t worry,” we might say, “your faith is so powerful that even an amount as small as a grain of mustard seed can move mountains.” This is well intentioned and admirable, but in a recent reading of this passage I noticed that our typical reading isn’t only misguided but entirely contrary to the point Jesus was making. Immediately following, Jesus says this,
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’? 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’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. 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.’ ” (Luke 17:7-10 NKJV bold mine)
The apostles had asked Jesus for an increase in faith and this is how Jesus describes them. Not as mere servants, but unprofitable servants. Other translations translate the word “unworthy,” but I believe that tends to emphasize the sinfulness of the servant more so than his ability and necessity. Once we enter the covenant relationship with Christ we are no longer identified by our sin, however, that also means we are no longer identified or justified by our works. Jesus was telling His apostles that no matter what they did or how much faith that may have had, everything they did by their own hands was ineffectual. Unprofitable. Adam Clarke puts it beautifully,
The nature of God is illimitable, and all the attributes of that nature are infinitely glorious: they cannot be lessened by the transgressions of his creatures, nor can they be increased by the uninterrupted, eternal obedience, and unceasing hallelujahs, of all the intelligent creatures that people the whole vortex of nature. When ages, beyond the power of arithmetic to sum up, have elapsed, it may be said of the most pure and perfect creatures, “Ye are unprofitable servants.” Ye have derived your being from the infinite fountain of life: ye are upheld by the continued energy of the Almighty: his glories are infinite and eternal, and your obedience and services, however excellent in themselves, and profitable to you, have added nothing, and can add nothing, to the absolute excellencies and glories of your God.
What did Jesus mean when He said, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you”? He meant that it was never about their faith. Even if they had so little faith that it was the size of a grain of mustard seed, that would in no way affect the ability and work of Christ Jesus in their lives. Jesus was the one who moved the mountain, not them.
And so this gives us an incredible freedom. I can find joy in coming to know God and being fully known by Him. I can serve Him with a grateful heart in response to His abounding love and gratuitous grace towards me and not because I can earn it or deserve it or that there is anything in me that calls for it. And along the way, as I witness His wonders and work in my life, my faith in Him will grow ever deeper. I am an unprofitable servant to a mighty, infinite, and glorious God.