In my father’s Christian bookstore was a book which, I believe, was titled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. I think it may have been written by Donald Gray Barnhouse, a noted preacher during the early years of the last century. As I recall, the book was there for a long time. Either they kept selling it and always got another one in to replace it or, as seems more likely, nobody ever bought the one copy they had.
The “hard words” of Jesus are just that—hard. I recall once sharing Luke 17:10 with one of my former sisters-in-law. There Jesus says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were told to do, should say, `We are unworthy servants: we have only done our duty.’” (NIV) Her response was, “Thanks a lot. You just ruined my whole day.”
I think that verse ranks right up there with, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, you will certainly not see the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20), and, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The standard seems to be set so high nobody could measure up. If we think about it, the first question we should ask is, “Where is the grace in such statements?”
It is sayings such as those which led the English skeptic, A. N. Wilson, to conclude that Jesus was actually a kind of super-Pharisee. Wilson, who has written books on the lives of Jesus and Paul thinks Jesus taught His followers that they had to keep the whole law, that He was at least as strict as the Pharisees and, hence, that all the confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t really happen at all. He believes they were added to the Gospels by later Christians, under Paul’s influence, who wanted to make Jesus something He never was.
There are two problems with all this. The first, rather obviously, is that once we start picking and choosing in the Gospels, eliminating some things because they don’t comport with the Jesus we imagine, how do we know when to stop? Eventually we will be left with nothing at all. Then secondly, If Jesus didn’t tell his great stories of grace, there’s some wise sage out there about whom we know nothing who made all that up. Nobody doubts that Jesus spoke in parables. A quick glance at two of those parables will show us Jesus teaching grace.
First there is the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. Here Jesus borrows a Jewish story. In the version of the story told by the rabbis the workers were all paid according to the hours they had worked. But in Jesus’ reworking of the story everybody got the same amount, regardless of whether he had started first thing in the morning or worked only the eleventh hour. The parable is, thus, a story about God’s gracious act of giving to us not as we deserve but as He, in His magnanimous goodness, chooses to give to us.
The second is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24) in which a wayward son gets something he could never earn, no matter how hard he tried. He was hoping only for a job, a chance to prove himself and gain an independent place in the community. Instead he got welcomed back into the family by a father who was willing to humiliate himself because of the love he bore his boy. In this father we have Jesus’ picture of what God is like.
So how do we explain such verses as Luke 17:10? Was Jesus contradicting himself? I don’t think so. After all, there’s nothing antithetical about the concept of God’s grace on the one hand and the Master–servant relationship that exists between ourselves and God on the other. There is great theology in a verse like Matthew 20:28; “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But we should not lose sight of the way those words call us to emulate our Lo0rd, to serve those around us. How many letters did Paul open–Paul, the apostle of grace–by calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ?
The question we should start by asking here is Paul’s; “What then? Shall we continue sinning so that grace may abound? May it never be!” (Romans 6:1) On the one hand all our faults and failures are forgiven. On the other, we have a life of service to live to the Lord who has been so gracious to us. It’s easy to preach law. So many people have done it so well that too many of us have forgotten the reason all those commandments are in the Bible, including those in the New Testament. They are thereto remind us that in living righteous lives we make the gospel of Jesus Christ appealing to others. That was what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Let your light so shive before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
So why should a verse like Luke 17:10 trouble us so much? I think it’s because we don’t like being told what to do. I have been told, “The more you tell me what I have to do, the less likely I am to do it.” I wonder if people who say such things ever stop to think about the underlying attitude that conveys. It is an attitude of rebellion. Such rebellion occurs a lot in families. But if it’s not dealt with there it can grow and infect a person’s whole Christian life. It is a short step from saying to a parent, “The more you tell me to do that, the less I’m likely to do that,” to saying the same thing to God. It was for such rebellion that Saul lost the kingdom of Israel (cf. I Samuel 15:13-23).
Great mercy has put us under great obligation. We can’t have one without the other. That is why Jesus said what He did in Luke 17:10. The question before us is whether we will be Saul, pouncing on the plunder, or Paul, following his Savior at great cost to himself. That is why Jesus said those “hard words.” But even there we should not forget that, though we will always be “unworthy servants,” it is the unworthy who receive God’s grace.