Serving Without Thanks

Luke 17:7-10

July 6, 2013 | Brian Bill

About four years ago our daughter Lydia and I visited the campus of Olivet University.  We arrived early so we decided to just walk around on our own.  After a few minutes we spotted a guy who was riding a bike.  He looked older than a college student and had huge calves.  We immediately surmised that he must be a member of the Chicago Bears because they hold their preseason training camp at ONU.  

Later, while we were on our official tour of the campus, I kept looking for more guys who played for the Bears, wishing that I would have worn my Packer hat and Aaron Rodgers jersey just to antagonize them.  About half-way through our tour, a custodian greeted us on the sidewalk with a big smile on his face.  He introduced himself and told Lydia that he hoped she would attend ONU the following year.  I gave him a fake smile and kept looking around for more superstars.

As we neared the end of our tour, we saw a bunch of sports reporters and then this gigantic guy walked into the building we were in.  I was excited by the possibility of meeting an NFL player.  I didn’t recognize him but he looked like Goliath – maybe 6’ 8” and 350 pounds.  I tried to make eye contact but he simply ignored us and just walked by, like we didn’t even exist.  I almost told him that the Packers were going to beat the Bears again but thought better of it.

As I reflected on this, it hit me that I was more interested in meeting an overpaid superstar than I was in talking to a sincere overlooked servant who kept the campus clean.  As we kick off our summer series today called, “Practical Parables,” we’re going to learn how we can keep serving even if no one notices.

The word “parable” literally means to put things side by side using a short narrative that commands attention in often surprising and unexpected ways.  A parable is a story or saying that illustrates a truth using comparison, hyperbole or simile.  One of the most helpful definitions I’ve heard is this: “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  There are more than 40 parables recorded in the Gospels, with Jesus using them in over 1/3 of His teaching times.  

As we look at one of Jesus’ favorite teaching methods we’ll discover that parables are extremely practical to our lives today.  This series will also celebrate that Edgewood has always been about Jesus…and it will always remain so.

Parables make us pause and ponder and yet they also can be difficult to comprehend.  After teaching on the parable of the soils, Jesus said it like this in Mark 4:9-12: “‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear!’ But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables so that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand…’” 

Are You a Servant or a Volunteer?

Let me ask you a question.  What’s the difference between a servant and a volunteer?  Turn to the person next to you and see what you come up with.  

Here’s a good summary of the difference between the two: “A servant has a master; a volunteer doesn’t.” 

A servant serves no matter what. 

A volunteer picks and chooses when and even whether to serve.  A servant serves no matter what.  A volunteer serves when convenient; a servant serves out of commitment.  Someone said it well: “The servant does what he is told when he is told to do it.  The volunteer does what she wants to do when she feels like doing it.”  

We live in a “me-first” culture that encourages us to think of ourselves first and others…well, rarely.  We’re told to focus on our self-image, to be involved in self-actualization and to be self-reliant.  There’s even an entire magazine called “Self” just in case we start thinking too much of others and need help getting the focus back on ourselves.  Because we’re saturated with messages about self, it’s easy to bring this mentality to church and expect the congregation to cater to us and to treat God like a genie whose only purpose is to meet our needs.

Did you know that the word “servant” in one form or another is used over 1,000 times in the Bible?  That means it’s a very big deal to God and should be to us as well.  In Numbers 12:7, God refers to Moses with these words: “My servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.”  Abraham, David and Job are called “my servant” by God.  When Paul, James, Peter and Jude introduced themselves in their letters, the first thing they did was to identify themselves as servants.  Each of them tells us who they are (their name) and then what they are (a servant).  This is their fundamental identity…and ours as well.  We are called first to be servants, and second to serve.

Friends, Jesus doesn’t need volunteers; He’s seeking sold-out servants.  Listen to these words from Carlton Coon: “Everyone in our church is a servant….Jesus never asked His followers to give a few hours of their day off.  He did call them to give everything for the sake of the kingdom…most church volunteers have to be cornered, coddled and convinced that their participation won’t take up too much of their time…the church doesn’t need more volunteers who give away spare time.  We need servants whose lives belong to the Lord.”  1 Peter 2:16 challenges us to “…live as servants of God.”   

We could say it like this: The issue is not whether we will serve but where we will serve.  

One day Jesus revealed the importance of serving without being thanked for it.  I should warn you that this is quite a difficult and demanding parable.  Please turn in your Bible to Luke 17:7-10 and let’s read it together: “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’? 8 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’? 9 Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. 10 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.’”

The issue is not whether we will serve but where we will serve.  I see four servanthood standards in this story.

1. A servant’s work is not always sensational (7a). 

Check out the first part of verse 7: “And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep The word Jesus uses in this parable for servant is doulos, or a “bond-slave.”  This basically means that the servant is attached to the owner.  Jesus’ listeners could relate to this parable because about 15-30% of the population served as slaves at that time.  This particular farmer probably only had one servant who had to multi-task throughout the day.  He’d do the back-breaking work of plowing and then the wearisome work of watching sheep.  His muscles would scream and then he may have screamed out of boredom.  And then he’d get up the next day and do it all over again.  Kind of sounds like some of our jobs, doesn’t it?  My guess is that over time, his daily responsibilities became routine and his tasks were not very thrilling.  

This made me think of an article I read in USA Today last week entitled, “Most Workers Hate Their Jobs or Have Checked Out” (, 6/8/13).  According to a recent Gallup survey, seven out of 10 workers have “checked out” at work or are “actively disengaged” and only 30 percent are “engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.”  As a sidebar, fellow Christ-followers, if we’re looking for a way to shine for Christ, when we do our work as an act of worship unto the Lord, we will stand out won’t we?  And when people see this they will be drawn to the Savior whom we serve.

Let me state the obvious.  Sometimes serving is not very sensational because we’re called to be faithful in some pretty ordinary tasks.   Serving involves exertion and often exacts a price.  Our daughter Emily shared with us something a missionary in the Philippines told her.  He and his wife have ministered to Muslims for over twenty years and sometimes he’s asked if being a missionary is fun.  His answer was somewhat jarring: “Our ministry is difficult; we don’t have much fun…but God gives us great joy.”  

One of Edgewood’s missionaries to Japan, is living a life of a servant as well.  He sent an urgent prayer request this past Wednesday in which he described the challenges of ministry, a recent car accident that he and his wife were in and an upcoming surgery that is very risky.  The last two sentences of his email summarize what a servant he is: “If the Lord has more for me to do, He will bring me through.  If not, I will rejoice in His presence.”

Sometimes we recruit people to a ministry by telling them how fun and easy it is to serve.  We need to stop doing this because serving is strenuous and not always sensational…but it does bring joy.  Actually, we make this same mistake when we urge people to get saved by promising them a happy life.  You and I must stop soft-selling the Savior and the life of servanthood.  2 Timothy 3:12 says: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”   

There’s really no way around it.  I like the words from a Mercy Me song called, “So Long Self.”  

Believe it or not but life is not apparently about me anyways

But I have met the One who really is worthy

So let me say

So long, self

Well, it’s been fun, but I have found somebody else

So long, self

There’s just no room for two

So you are gonna have to move

So long, self

When we follow Christ we are saying so long to self and when we serve we are giving up all rights. 

2. Serving must be sustained (7b-8). 

After working all day, the servant comes back to the Master’s house.  He’s probably tired and hungry but he still has work to do.  Here’s the principle.  A servant’s service may change locale and the specific job description may be in flux but the truth of the matter is that our serving must be sustained.  The issue is not whether we will serve but where we will serve.  Actually, the job description for a servant is very simple and straightforward: “Do everything your Master commands.”   

On my first day in the office this week I spent some time with Delbert Reynolds.  He showed me around the garage where all the vans are kept.  I was impressed with how orderly and clean everything is.  He has great joy doing this job!  When I asked him how long he’s been serving at Edgewood, he told me that he’s been here for 81 years.  A few minutes later I asked him how old he is, and he said he’s 81!  He’s been working since the minute he came out of the womb!  Now that’s sustained service!

Let’s listen to how Jesus said it in the second half of verse 7 and verse 8: “…Will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? 8 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’?  The servant moves from outdoors to indoors, from daylight to dusk and from hard labor to home life.  He goes from the fields to fixing food.  Don’t miss this truth.  A servant serves whenever, wherever, for whomever, doing whatever it takes, for however long it takes. 

I heard about a little girl who finally learned to tie her shoes.  Instead of being excited, she was overcome with tears.  Her dad bent down and asked her why she was crying.  “Because I have to tie my shoes,” she said.  Her dad responded, “You just learned how.  It’s not that hard.”  The little girl started wailing and said, “I know, but now I’m going to have to do it for the rest of my life.”  

I suspect that some of us feel like we’ve already put our time in and we want a break.  We’ve done the hard labor and now we feel like it’s time to sit and relax a bit.  Vance Havner once said, “Taking it easy is often the prelude to backsliding.  Comfort precedes collapse.”  Friend, if you’re alive, you’re still a servant.  The location and intensity of your serving may change as the seasons of your life change, but no Christ-follower has the option of sitting down to have his or her needs met, when there are still things to do.  

We could say it this way: “It’s not break time yet.”  We talk a lot about serving opportunities in the church, but we’re actually to be serving all the time.  Matthew Henry says that we must make “the end of one service the beginning of another…when we have been working for God, we must still wait on God…continually.”  

The key is to be a servant, not a slacker.  I am so moved by the caliber of the committed servants at Edgewood whose serving has been sustained for such a long time.  I celebrate and honor Pastor Brown’s faithful ministry of 44 years at Edgewood.  Wow, that’s staying power!  

Serving is not always sensational and it must be sustained.  Why? Because the issue is not whether we will serve but where we will serve.

3. Serving is a sacrifice (9). 

After going all out and working from sunup to sundown, the servant is no doubt tired.  A word of appreciation would mean so much to him, but it never comes.  Look at verse 9: “Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.”  The implied answer is a strong “no.”  It’s a strong negative in the Greek.  The word “thank” means to have gratitude or to be grateful.  The idea is if the master expresses gratitude it could be construed as a debt that must somehow be settled to even the score.  This is absurdly arrogant as Job 22:2 points out: “Can a man be of benefit to God?”  We can’t impress God in such a way that He will somehow feel obligated to give us some special honor.  

One morning when I was running this week I ran through the parking lot at the Islamic Center and prayed for the salvation of those who attend.  I also ran through the parking lot at Homewood Evangelical Free Church and prayed for their staff and congregation.  As I came out front I saw their church sign and liked what was on it so I stopped and took a picture (I also needed a breather): “Don’t give God instructions; just report for duty!”

Some of us think that God somehow owes us for all that we’ve done for Him.  He doesn’t favor us especially because we’ve done something special – we’re servants and therefore we must serve.  The Pharisees believed that their deeds put God in their debt.  This kind of thinking gets us in deep trouble because God doesn’t owe us anything.  In fact, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, God doesn’t owe us, He owns us: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?  For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

We are not entitled to a word of thanks or appreciation.  Our focus is often on our feelings whereas this servant was focused on just doing his job.  Too many of us serve with way too many expectations.  This gets us frustrated and angry and mad and we determine to never serve again because no one thanked us, or because it didn’t go like we wanted it to. Remember that God does not need us to serve Him; it’s our duty and delight and He is under no obligation to reward us.

We live in a culture where we’re consumed with our “own rights” but Christ-followers are not to have an attitude of entitlement that leads us to think we have a right to certain benefits or privileges.  

In his book called, “The Pressure’s Off,” Larry Crabb argues that God is not a vending machine dispensing blessings as rewards for our good behavior.  We need to reject a formulaic faith that says, “If I do ‘A,’ then God will do ‘B’ for me.”  

Brothers and sisters, let’s get this straight: God created us for His glory.  Listen to Romans 11:35-36: “Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?  For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”  I need to be reminded of 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive?”

Let me clarify something.  I don’t think it’s wrong to show appreciation when someone is serving.  In fact, we need to do more of that.  Most people, including me, get discouraged and a word of encouragement can go a long way.  Hebrews 3:13 says that we are to encourage each other every twenty four hours: “But exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”  

Serving is not always sensational, serving must be sustained, and serving is a sacrifice.  There’s one more serving standard…

4. Serving is satisfying (10). 

Jesus concludes this story with some corrective words in verse 10 to those of us who are all up in me, myself and I: “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.’”  In the first part of the parable we’re called to identify with the master but now with the words, “So likewise you…” we’re to see our identity as servants.  My guess is that the disciples liked to think of themselves as entitled masters but probably not as unworthy servants.  This verse helps us see what being a servant involves.  A servant’s heart is intent upon, and his will is bound to, the will and wishes of another.  Someone put it this way, “Regardless of how much we do, we cannot do more than is expected of us.” Can we really say that we’ve “done all those things which we are commanded?” 

Instead of having a feeling of entitlement, we need to see ourselves as unworthy servants.  The idea in the Greek is that we are “unworthy of any praise.”  Warren Wiersbe puts it this way: “no one owes me anything extra.”  It’s like when we pay our taxes and we don’t receive a thank you note from the government – we’ve simply done what was expected of us.  Likewise, we shouldn’t expect an extra reward for expected service.  We’re to recognize our unworthiness and realize our obligation.  Think of it this way – the Lord of glory has you in His service.  In that sense, serving is very satisfying because it’s an honor and privilege to serve the King of the Universe!

One of the clearest biblical images of this single-minded resolve to deflect devotion from self to the Savior is found in Psalm 123:2: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God…”  When the master moves his finger, the servant falls in line.  When he says, “jump” the servant says, “how high?”  The servant does not waffle or hedge or complain or bargain or debate.  He or she simply obeys like the child Samuel who responded to the Lord’s voice in 1 Samuel 3:9 by saying, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.”  Our society seems to be obsessed with helping people develop their self-esteem; Jesus is much more concerned that we understand ourselves to be unworthy servants.

In Mark 10:35-37, we see that James and John had a hard time seeing themselves as servants: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask…grant us that we may sit, one on your right hand on the other on your left, in your glory.”  They were all about “serve-us,” not “service.”  They were all up into status, not servanthood.  They wanted to be seen as superstars, not slaves of the Savior.  Jesus reset the standard in verse 45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Lorne Sanny, the founder of the Navigators, was once asked how we can really know when we have the attitude of a servant.  His answer is to the point and worth pondering: “You know you’re a servant by how you act when you’re treated like one.”  And all God’s people said, “Hummmh.” When you’re treated like a servant, do you get offended?  When someone forgets to say thanks do you go in the tank?  Do you think you’re worthy of recognition?  Or do you say, “I just got treated better than I should because I am an ‘unworthy’ servant.”  

The issue is really one of obedience.

The issue is really one of obedience.  Am I going to have a “Me Party” like Miss Piggy from the Muppets and serve myself or will I serve the Savior and serve others?  The servant does his duty out of devotion to the master. 

Let’s summarize.  Serving is not always sensational, serving must be sustained, serving is a sacrifice, and serving is satisfying.  

Defining The Relationship

Does anyone know what “DTR” stands for?  It means, “Define the Relationship.”  Let me give an example.  After finally sweeping Beth off her feet in 1983, we started dating and as far as I was concerned we were just months away from matrimony.  Things were going very well…or so I thought.  I’ll never forget that dreadful day when she said we needed to talk.  She told me that she wanted some time…away from me…in order to discern whether God wanted her to get tangled up with me.  I wanted to tell her that God had already made that clear to me but I wisely kept quiet, living out the truth of Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent…”   Apparently she wanted to make sure I was Mr. Right and so we entered relationship limbo.  To this day Beth tells me that this nebulous season only lasted for a week or two.  To me it felt more like two months.

After this time of separation, Beth saw the light and our relationship was back on track.  We moved from friendship to courtship and as they say, the rest is history.  Looking back, this was an important time because it led to a definition of our relationship so we could go forward.

Friends, in a similar way it’s important for us to define our relationship with each other…and with God so we can go forward.

1. Defining our relationship with each other. 

This is our first weekend together…I want a long relationship and I hope you do too.  I’m aiming to follow the practice of Pastor Brown but I should warn you that in 44 years I’ll be 97.  I’m not sure you’ll still want me around when I’m that old!  Here are some things that may help us go the distance together.

  • I’m pastor to my family first.  Thanks for your understanding about the transition that our family is going through right now.
  • Beth is a believer with gifts.  She is my wife, our girl’s mother and a member of the body of Christ.  She is a servant and loves to serve as God opens up opportunities.
  • You can all me Pastor Brian but really I’m a fellow bond-servant with each of you.
  • I’m part of a gifted pastoral team of equippers – the members of Edgewood are really the ministers.
  • I hope our honeymoon is long but it will eventually end…and it needs to.  When it does, let’s keep loving each other, with warts and all.
  • Help me with names – It’s probably best to assume we’ve forgotten your name.
  • We’re approaching our time here as missionaries and thus are not planning any big changes for at least six months or longer.  We’re committed to listening, learning, loving, laughing…and going out for lunch (I needed another “L”).
  • Pray for us; we’ll pray for you

2. Defining our relationship with God. 

It’s so important that we get this straight.  God is our Master.  I have no rights before Him.  He is right and has all rights and is alone righteous.  The Supreme Court isn’t supreme.  He is the Supreme Court of the universe and all His rulings are just.  We need to get on our knees before Him and repent of our weak view of God.  That’s what Isaiah did when He caught a glimpse of the holiness of God in Isaiah 6.  Job repented of his arrogant questioning when he said in Job 40:4: “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer you?  I lay my hand over my mouth.”  And then in chapter 42 Job says: “I know that you can do everything, and that no purpose of yours can be withheld from you…I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Chuck Colson, former Watergate conspirator, who served with Richard Nixon, came to Christ in 1974.  Years later, he went through a spiritually dry time so someone gave him a video series by R.C. Sproul called the “Holiness of God.” Listen to how he described what happened: “By the end of the sixth lecture I was on my knees, deep in prayer, in awe of God’s absolute holiness.  It was a life-changing experience as I gained a completely new understanding of the holy God I believe in and worship.”

The Almighty doesn’t exist to serve us.  Hebrews 12:28-29 calls us to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.  For our God is a consuming fire.”

How then should we respond?

  • Surrender to the Savior.  The first place to start is by making sure that you are saved and surrendered.  After you surrender, you will want to serve Him, not because you have to, but because you get to.  You’ll live as a servant because you love Jesus as your Savior.  C.S. Lewis said, “The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.” Let’s make sure our time, talents and treasures are at the disposal of the Master.
  • Choose to be a servant, not a volunteer. There’s a difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant.  We could say it this way: Don’t serve until you’ve settled the servanthood issue; but once you’ve settled it, don’t ever stop serving.  In what ways can you serve this summer?  Edgewood is in need of more servants, not just volunteers who fill some slots.

David Livingstone served as a missionary in Africa for 33 years.  When he came home people tried to applaud him and heap accolades on him as a “superstar servant.”  Listen to how he viewed himself: “For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office.  People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa.  Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?  Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought!  It is emphatically no sacrifice.  Say rather it is a privilege.  Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment.  All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us.  I never made a sacrifice.”

If someone were to visit Edgewood, would they see a few superstars or would they see a team of sincere servants sold out to the Savior who are equipping others to reach their full potential in Christ?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?