This Sunday, Jesus Tells Us We’re Unprofitable Servants

SCRIPTURES & ART: In doing what God wants of us, we’re doing God no favor — we’re simply doing what we’re supposed to do.

Eugène Burnand (1850-1921), “Unworthy Servant I”
Eugène Burnand (1850-1921), “Unworthy Servant I” (photo: Public Domain)

The Sunday Gospel occasionally surprises us, because it takes a tack we don’t expect. Several Gospels during these weeks of Ordinary Time have or will probably do that, from Jesus’ saying that he did not come for peace but division to his seeming praise of a cheating property manager. Today’s Gospel about “unprofitable servants” probably also falls into the surprise category. 

These Gospels perhaps surprise us because we may have become accustomed to a flabby kind of Jesus in a soft and comforting Christianity. When we encounter Jesus in his own words, we’re surprised that the overlay of our “therapeutic” Christ has to be removed.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks how one would deal with one’s servants. Would you tell a servant who’s just finished working in the field to come and have dinner that the servant is to make? Or would you have him go to his next duty, i.e., making supper and serving you, and then dine? 

“Is he grateful to that servant because he did what he was commanded? So should it be with you.”

Now, before somebody calls the woke-police, let me add something even more provocative: This Gospel is just as important today as it was when Jesus spoke it.

Why? What could be its relevance for today? Doesn’t it employ relationship models that are outdated, hierarchical, “privileged?” 


To appreciate this Gospel requires the Spirit’s gifts of piety and fear of the Lord alongside the natural and supernatural virtues of justice.

Today’s Gospel remains relevant to our day because:

  1. God is still God;
  2. You are not God; and
  3. You do God no favor by recognizing (1) and (2).

In our abuse of the word “justice,” we forget that religion is a part of the virtue of justice. If justice is about “giving the other his due” — as St. Thomas Aquinas put it — then no one is owed more than God. One’s whole and continue existence depends on God. None of us would have ever come to be nor continue to exist without God’s creative and sustaining power. So, in acknowledging our dependence and debt to God, we are doing nothing more than acknowledging the truth — and, contrary to the claims of our woke world, truth is both objective and obligatory.

Acknowledging one’s dependence on God, in gratitude, through prayer and worship is then not something “optional.” It is a duty, the dereliction of which is not a “choice” but a moral fault.

That these ideas may sound strange to modern ears flows from perhaps an even deeper philosophical and theological error, one that eventually goes all the way back to Genesis. Freedom is not about doing “what I want” but about “doing what is good.” Good exists independently of my will. There is no such thing as “’your good’ and ‘my good’” but only “the good.” Freedom exists not to say what is good but to recognize the good and acquire merit by making the good my good. Notice, however, the order: the good becomes my good, not my good is turned into the good.

Freedom, then, does not exist to ignore God but to make the duty in justice of worshipping God my own value and my own good.

Does this sound strange, an eccentric way of understanding things? Only because our culture has drifted that far from its Christian roots. Jesus commands us: “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus treats love as something that can be commanded, a duty. He treats the failure to do that as a moral fault. For a world that treats love as an emotion or feeling, that’s incomprehensible. So you have to make up your mind: do we follow Christ, or ourselves?

When we recognize that religion is something we owe God, we begin to grasp the difference between God and us. We are not God. We are not on God’s level. Our arms are too short to box with God.

So, in doing what God wants of us, we do God no favor. We do what we are supposed to do, what fulfills us as creatures dependent on a Creator who is also Father. 

Jesus comes back to this point regularly in the Gospels. When he speaks the parable of the vineyard workers hired at various times who all receive the same wage at the end of the day, he’s not providing suggested negotiating terms for the next contract discussion with the local union. What he is getting at is that salvation — our “wage” — is not something we have a “claim” to by our labors in the Lord’s vineyard. Salvation is always and above all God’s gift. To think otherwise is to think we can save ourselves. To think otherwise is to think like the Pharisee who goes to the Temple to enumerate his virtues while dumping on the publican, rather than recognize his own need for God.

Jesus is not denigrating us when he tells us to speak of ourselves as “unprofitable servants.” He is focusing us on the humility to understand our position vis-à-vis God, a humility that is absolutely essential if we are to treat God as our Lord and Savior and not the other side of a bargaining agreement. 

Whatever good we do begins with God. That is a basic Christian truth. To claim otherwise would eliminate the need for Christ because, if we can do good purely on our own initiative, then we could save ourselves and Jesus wasted his time and life. 

But in accepting Christian orthodoxy by recognizing that our good begins in God’s grace and is sustained by it, we are not devaluing our role in doing good. God wants our collaboration and sustains it. The good must be mine, too. But I am a son of Adam or daughter of Eve, which means that my human nature is broken and I can’t fix it by myself. That’s why Christ came. And that’s why, recognizing I need him, requires me to recognize my secondary status vis-à-vis God’s leading initiative. 

I am not my own Savior, any more than I can be my own Redeemer or Father Confessor.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Swiss artist Eugène Burnand (1850-1921). Burnand grew up a Protestant in French Switzerland, and tended toward realism in his art. Landscape, animal and portrait painting were among his skills, but he also developed considerable attention to religious painting. Today’s illustrations point to the master/servant relationship of today’s Gospel.

In 1908, Burnand published an illustrated collection, Les Paraboles [The Parables] in French. It was subsequently published in German and later, English, supposedly in Protestant and Catholic editions. The work established his fame in Europe, even though he remains largely known today only in his native Switzerland and France. The English version can be viewed here.

Burnand’s two illustrations of the “Unworthy Servant” are based literally on the Biblical text. In the first (above), the servant in the field encounters his master on the way back from the field. The servant, leading the cattle, is standing; the master sits. It is clear from their demeanor the well-clad master is giving the more coarsely-clad servant instructions. In the second illustration (below), the servant is presented as a sheep hand leading the flock, but his master is absent from the scene. 

One can see Burnand’s artistic skill in the attention to the animals and his careful rendition of detail in the three human figures. The commentator to the English version of the Parables, linked above, maintains that Burnand was dissatisfied with pietistic religious art in his day and sought to render the parables in everyday, normal scenes. The drawings are primarily graphite-charcoal crayons and charcoal, with almost no color added. That accounts for their primarily black-and-white nature. 

Burnand’s black-and-white illustrations are perhaps appropriate for today’s Gospel lesson, because there can be no blurring of the line between God and man without the latter putting himself on God’s level and feeling entitled. But salvation is a gift, not an entitlement, and that can only be understood when one recognizes God is God, and we’re not.

Eugène Burnand (1850-1921), “Unworthy Servant II”
Eugène Burnand (1850-1921), “Unworthy Servant II”