Parables of Jesus: The Unprofitable Servant


W. Rolfe Kerr
Jesus taught His disciples about faith and faithfulness, and the relationship between His grace and our works.

Parables of Jesus:

As one of four boys raised on a family farm in northern Utah, I was taught many valuable lessons by wise, loving, and farsighted parents. We were taught by word and example to put our trust in the Lord and that “all victory and glory is brought to pass unto [us] through [our] diligence, faithfulness, and prayers of faith” (D&C 103:36). We were taught to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and His teachings.

While the Savior was completing His mortal ministry, He taught His disciples of faith and faithfulness. His words required new and seemingly demanding patterns of conduct (see Luke 10–19). Some of His disciples felt overwhelmed and pleaded, “Lord, Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). The Savior responded by giving them more of what may seem to us hard doctrine—a parable about faith and faithfulness. In the parable of the unprofitable servant, we find images of farm life, images they could easily understand. Its principles are as applicable today as the day they were given.

The Servant and the Master

Jesus began, “Which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle …” (Luke 17:7). In Jesus’ day servants were the property of masters and were more similar to slaves than employees. They were legally required to do whatever the master needed, such as planting crops, looking after the sheep, or preparing and serving meals. Servants were, in return, cared for by the master.

The Savior continued His question: “… Will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?” (Luke 17:7–8). The servant’s duty was to provide for the master’s needs first. It was unthinkable that the master would excuse the servant for dinner while the master’s meal was unprepared.

Jesus then concluded the parable with this rhetorical question: “Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow [think] not” (Luke 17:9). The servant should not expect to be thanked for his efforts because, after all, he was simply performing what he had already committed to do.

To ensure that His disciples understood the point of this parable, the Savior emphasized, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). Since the master had provided for all of the servant’s needs, the servant’s efforts were but the performance of what he owed the master and what was already his duty to do.

I believe that in this parable Jesus was teaching His disciples about faith and faithfulness, principles I began learning as a boy on the farm.

The Principles of Faithfulness and Valiance

Picture in your mind’s eye four young boys growing up on a farm. For us, faithfulness meant going the extra mile. It meant that we should not need to be told everything to do but that we should anticipate what was needed and do it. Feeding the cattle was not just a matter of throwing the hay, grain, and silage into the manger. It also meant cleaning up the baling wire, scattered hay leaves, and spilled grain. Caring for the cattle meant checking the fences and gates, cleaning and strawing the lounging sheds, and checking for sick or lame animals. Plowing the fields was more than just driving the tractor from one end of the field to the other. It included properly setting the plows, doing the job neatly—close to the fences and ditch banks—maintaining the machinery, and returning the tools and equipment to their proper places.

The dinner table was more than just a place to eat; it was a place to be taught, to share feelings and experiences, and to make plans for the future. Home was not just a place where we lived but a place to be kept clean and periodically redecorated, with our full involvement. Beds were not just to be slept in but to be made each day and changed weekly. Dishes were not just to be eaten on but to be washed and properly stored in cupboards. Fruits and vegetables were not just to be ravenously consumed but to be canned, bottled, or frozen. Household duties were part of what was expected of us boys. We learned the old adage that “A job worth doing is a job worth doing well.”

Valiance means to faithfully perform one’s duties beyond the minimum requirement. It is laboring at a standard that represents our best efforts and is substantially more than what might be minimally expected. It was helpful for us to watch the faithful examples of valiance in our parents. When a long day’s labor on the farm was completed, our father fulfilled home teaching assignments and accepted and magnified many Church callings through the years. In addition to supporting her husband in his farm and priesthood responsibilities, our mother carried her own heavy load of ward and stake callings. Our parents were faithful. Indeed, they were valiant.

From time to time we hear some Church members express the feeling that it is hard to be faithful in today’s world. They say, “It is hard to pay a full tithing,” “It is hard to stay morally clean,” or even, “It is hard to be a Latter-day Saint.” The fact that some things are hard is not new to those who have embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ. He will also provide an outpouring of strength to help us do those hard things.

Jesus taught His disciples many hard things (see John 6:60). What would the Savior say if we were inclined to feel that our lot was hard or too challenging? Perhaps He would ask, as He did of His Apostles, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67). It is my prayer that we would recognize His generosity and mercy toward us and respond as Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68–69).

Faithfulness, even to what we feel are the hard doctrines, is a quality the Savior encouraged in His disciples. However, Jesus also wanted them to understand that pleasing the master was more than just a work ethic. He taught them that it was also a matter of the heart and their relationship with their heavenly Master.

The Principles of Faith and Grace

As young boys on the farm, we recognized that we owed everything, physically and spiritually, to the Lord and our parents. We were taught, as Amulek taught the Zoramites, to pray “both morning, mid-day, and evening” for our own welfare and for the welfare of those around us (see Alma 34:19–27). Family and individual prayers were a part of our daily experience. We learned by word and example to have faith in “the Lord of the harvest” (see Alma 26:7). After we plowed, planted, irrigated, and cultivated the fields, we cast our fate in His hands. We worked hard but knew that without the sunshine and rain, the grace and mercy of God, and the benevolence of loving parents, we could accomplish nothing.

Is not this faith in and dependence upon God what King Benjamin taught when he said: “If you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, … if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. … And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 2:20–21, 25).

We are indebted to God for our very lives. When we keep His commandments, which is our duty to do, He immediately blesses us. We are therefore continually indebted and unprofitable to Him. Without grace, our valiance alone cannot save us.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has written regarding this parable:

“God’s generosity [or grace] toward us is not to be expressed by the dilution of the demands of duty that He lays upon us. Where much is given, much is expected—not the other way around. Nor is divine generosity to be expressed by a lessening of God’s standards concerning what is to be done. Rather, when much is given and much is done by the disciple, then God’s generosity is overwhelming!

“When we have given and done our all, we will one day receive ‘all that [our] Father hath’ [D&C 84:38]. Therein lies God’s generosity. When we do our duty, He is bound—and gladly bound.” 1

In the parable of the unprofitable servant, the Savior taught His disciples and us about faith and faithfulness. He taught about valiance and grace. May we be valiant, doing more than would be minimally expected. May we gratefully acknowledge that only His grace is sufficient to make us perfect in Him (see Moro. 10:32–33).

[illustration] Detail from Jesus and the Fishermen, by Zimmerman © Quebecor Printing

[illustrations] Illustrations by Gary L. Kapp

Show References

    Note

  1.   1.

    Even As I Am (1982), 86.