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At a recent conference I was part of a panel of pastors who were talking about the realities of being a pastor. OK, let's face it—we were whining. Anyway, one of my fellow panel members said that sometimes he feels he's just slogging through the day, buried in administration, visiting, answering e-mails, scoping out texts for the next Sunday.

He went into the ministry full of excitement, responding to God's call, and doing it all for the love of God and God's church. But the things that once excited him now felt like a vaguely boring routine. "Half the time," he said, "it just seems like a duty." And there was much nodding of heads.

Suddenly it occurred to me, What's wrong with duty? My colleague was using the word duty in the way we often use it in our culture: duty is synonymous with a burden, a joyless routine, an unsatisfying obligation, a guilt trip. We want excitement, passion, freedom, and fulfillment in what we do. In comparison, duty seems slightly old-fashioned, like a cross-stitched motto on your grandmother's wall.

All this is quite a contrast with a tough little parable Jesus told in Luke 17:7-10. He weaves an odd scenario of a master who waits on his own servant, then sums up the absurdity of it all: "Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?" Of course not. Then comes the punch line: "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"

That idea of duty sounds harsh to our 21st-century ears. Many of us don't like the idea of servanthood in the first place. And then, when Jesus emphasizes that the servant is simply duty-bound and deserves no special recognition or thanks, it just goes against our grain.

But before you dismiss this parable as hopelessly outdated, let's take a closer look.

Jesus the Servant

It's very important to understand this story's cultural context. Bonded servanthood was extremely common among Jews in Jesus' day. Even people like Jesus' own disciples, who were not wealthy people themselves, could have at least one servant. (After all, Jesus begins the parable by asking his disciples, "Which one of you . . . ").

Of course, in this little story Jesus wasn't advocating the arrangement but using an example straight from his social context. Besides, Jesus often spoke of himself as a servant. "I came not to be served," he said, "but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many" (see Matt. 20:28). And remember John's unforgettable picture of Jesus washing the disciples' feet with a slave's towel around his waist? The Master became the slave.

Jesus' human life is always a model for our own. By his own servanthood, Jesus reveals ours. The term servant (doulos in Greek, which really means slave) became one of the central metaphors for the Christian life in the New Testament. Paul used it almost like a middle name: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus. . . ."

Being a Christian means we are not owed, we are owned. We have been purchased by the blood of Christ, bought with an enormous price. Still, what really irks us in the Luke 17 parable is the last part, when Jesus says, "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"

There is a little translation problem here. The word unworthy is probably better translated as "not owing to" or "not claiming merit," which I think is Jesus' point. The servant is simply acknowledging that whatever he does is fulfilling his duty; it is what he owes to the master, and the master owes him nothing in return.

It's the same thing you might say to your supervisor when your job evaluation comes around. She praises you for accomplishing your job description. Now, there's nothing wrong with praise and appreciation, but it's a gift, a grace. You have only done what was your duty. That's what you're paid for. So you might respond, with proper humility, "Thank you for the good evaluation, but, after all, I'm just doing my job the best I can."

Medals Not Required

However we might misunderstand the concept of duty in our culture, there are times when we do get it. Who can forget the picture of firefighters and police officers running up the stairs of the Twin Towers on that fateful day in September 2001 when everyone else was running down? As a society we celebrate them as heroes. But for the most part, they didn't feel like heroes at all. It wasn't false humility; the praise seemed to genuinely embarrass them. "I was just doing my job," they would say. Or, "Anyone in my position would do the same thing." In other words, "I don't deserve any special acclaim. I was just doing my duty."

Webster's dictionary defines duty as "obligatory service, that which is required by one's station or office." Implied in that definition of duty is that it's something you do no matter what—no matter what you feel like at the moment, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how difficult or demanding the job may be. Even if you're heading into an inferno, if there are people up there, it's your sworn duty.

Maybe we tend to make duty into an act of heroism because we've lost its true meaning. Sticking by your post, fulfilling your obligations, holding sacred the duties of office—somehow all this sounds so noble for the heroes of 9-11. But it doesn't seem quite so noble when our duties are lived out in ordinary days with their mundane demands and sacrifices.

When marriage gets too difficult (whoever heard of one that wasn't?), you get a divorce. But what about your duty to the promises you made, or to your children? "Well," the reply might be, "what about my duty to myself and to my own happiness?"

I'm not saying that everyone who gets a divorce has carelessly abandoned his or her duty. I know we live in a broken world. But the prevalence and apparent ease with which divorce takes place today suggests that we have lost a great deal of the sense of duty in even our most intimate family relationships.

And we may be training our children to do the same. In the United States, at least, kids evidently need bumper stickers to celebrate their studiousness. Doing dishes deserves a prize, a smiley-face sticker. It all goes to prove Garrison Keillor's adage that in Lake Wobegone "all the children are above average."

The idea of the mutual duties of employees and employers is replaced by job descriptions, wage scales, and wholesale downsizing or outsourcing. A family member with a loved one in a nursing home once complained to me that a nurse refused to respond to the pressing need of her mother because, as the nurse put it, "She's not my patient."

Basic Christian Living

This societal rejection of duty seeps into the church as well. People go church shopping to find the place that's right for them, the place that makes them happy and has the programs that meet their needs. Calling people to their Christian duty doesn't seem a very good strategy for growth.

A few years ago a friend of mine attended a conference on church fundraising. She learned 25 ways to write a letter of thanks to people who gave. She was told that people give when they are personally recognized for their giving and even effusively thanked for it. After all, the church is a volunteer organization, and you've got to keep people happy. Giving as a duty was not one of the workshops.

Of course we thank and appreciate people. The master in another one of Jesus' parables says, "Well done, good and faithful servant." But that's not why we're in it. Being thanked is a gift of grace. A while ago the minister of church education at the church I pastored sent thank-you notes to Sunday school teachers and youth leaders, and on those notes were pictures of the kids they were serving.

Someone said, "It's the best thank-you I ever got." It was so memorable because it didn't just pat the volunteers on the back. It helped them remember that in faithfully doing their duties they were helping children grow in Christ. They were part of something big and important, represented in each child's face.

Make a list of some of the simple basics of Christian living. What would it include? Prayer, worship, obedience to God, faithfulness to each other, sharing our gifts, feeding the hungry, extending the kingdom of God to our places of work and influence. These require no brass-band recognition. These are simply duties of the servants of the Servant, Jesus Christ.

So when you have done it all, say, "We are not owed anything. We have only done our duty." It doesn't matter whether it feels good at the moment. After her death, some letters Mother Teresa wrote to her spiritual director became public. In them she disclosed feelings of doubt, loneliness, and abandonment. Most of the time God seemed absent, heaven empty, and, bitterest of all, her own suffering seemed to count for nothing. For 40 years after the glorious experience of Christ almost personally calling her to serve the poor, Mother Teresa often walked through a spiritual desert. Yet each day she rearranged her deep facial creases into a smile, said her prayers, and bent down to cradle some half-dead person in her arms.

Thank God, that's not the typical picture. Yes, doing our duty may be difficult and demanding. It may cost us dearly, and it's not always immediately gratifying. But no matter what it feels like at the moment, the privilege of serving the Master is ultimately a joy. And that joy transforms our duties into delights.

The Delight of Duty

In Psalm 40 the psalmist sings, "I delight to do your will, O Lord." The one we serve, the one to whom we belong, is so wonderful, so loving, so gracious, so pure, so holy, so good, that it's a delight to be in his service.

In the Bible, love and the duty of obedience toward God are not in tension at all. They belong together. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commands" (John 14:15, TNIV). Love and duty belong together. To love God is to be part of the great work of salvation God is doing. To be a duty-bound servant to such a Master is life's greatest privilege. When we catch a vision of that loving duty we can pray every morning like the proverbial old Scot, "Lord, it's John MacDonald, reporting for duty."

Which suggests an overlooked gift that comes from doing your duty. To be duty-bound is to belong. It's to be part of the texture and fabric of committed relationships.

Whether it's amid a platoon, a firehouse, a family, a church, duty confers identity. Our duties are a significant part of what defines us. I am a husband, a father, a pastor. I have deadlines, responsibilities, a sacred trust; my family and my church depend on me. In these very duties, which may at times seem empty or burdensome, I know who I am. I know what to do. I am part of the family, the community, an essential member of the body of Christ.

In doing our duty toward the Lord, we know who we are, and no one and nothing else can own us. That truth frees us from all the false duties and obligations that claim our allegiance. We are servants of Christ and no one else.

The venerable Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way: "I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . . [who] by his Holy Spirit makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready to live for him." That's the simple truth this parable wants to tell us: we are Christ's own servants, purchased by his blood, who willingly, freely, lovingly do our duty.

  1. Has the word duty come to have a negative connotation for you?  

  2. "Owned . . . not owed."  In what ways do we think we are "owed"?  Do you think of yourself as a "slave of Christ"?  How does this affect your life as a Christian?

  3. Have you had similar feelings to those described by Mother Teresa? What did you do?

  4. In what ways does duty define your identity and give you a reason to get up every morning?

  5. How would a rehabilitation of the concept of duty change your life? How would it change the life of your church?

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