Traditionally, scholars of the parabolic language attributed to Jesus will distinguish between types of parabolic sayings: simile (a saying that uses “like” or “as” for a comparison, Matt 13:33), similitude (an analogy, similar to a simile, but elaborated with more detail, Matt 13:31). A parable, on the other hand, is a fully formed narrative, a story with beginning, middle, and end (Matt 13:3b-8). There are relatively few similes in the gospels, and many think of similitudes as narrative parables with less detail.1 A case on point is Luke 17:7-9, a story with less detail.
Who among you having a slave ploughing or tending sheep, when he comes in from the field will say to him: “Come here at once and take your place at the table?” On the contrary, will he not rather say to him: “Prepare my meal, and after girding yourself, serve me while I eat and drink, and after these things, you can eat and drink?” He would not thank the slave because he did what was ordered, would he?2
The saying reflects the schema of a story: the beginning of the story: a man’s slave was working in the field. The middle of the story: the slave comes in from the field. The end of the story: his work day is not yet done. It is as much a story as is the “parable of the leaven,” Matt 13:33b.
Luke 17:7-9 is cast in the form of a conundrum, a series of three questions about how to treat slaves, and appeals to common social practice for the definitive answer: “Who among you having a slave…will say…?/On the contrary, will he not say…?/Does he thank the slave…?” (Luke 17:7, 8, 9). The conundrum provides one example of the treatment of slaves and allows it to stand for the customary practice as a whole: slaves do not eat before their owners; slaves exist only to make the owner’s life more comfortable.
The evangelist strains to find an appropriate religious moral for the story (Luke 17:10). Comparing disciples to the slave in the story (“So also you...”), the evangelist tells the disciples to admit that they are worthless slaves because they only did what was commanded (by God)—that is, they should have done more. Luke 17:10 is not part of the story; it is the evangelist’s interpretation of the story.3
The complication, which is left unresolved in the story, is: how should owners treat their slaves? The story leaves that question unresolved. It only describes what people usually do. Hence some readers are left pondering if there might be a better way of treating slaves, and that eventually raises the issue of the institution of human slavery itself for a thoughtful reader.
Slavery was ubiquitous in both ancient Greece and the Roman Republic and Empire. The general view of slaves is that they were chattel (a self-moving item of personal property). Aristotle argued that slaves should be thought of as a “live tool”; that is, as a living item of property (Pol. 1.2.3-6). Slaves had no legal rights and the slave owner had the power of life or death over them. The institution of slavery was based on violence, and the slave’s life was harsh. Hence, the best admonition for slaves was “Slaves obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling with single-hearted devotion” (Eph 6:5; Did. 4:11). The slave in the story of Jesus was a farm slave, where life was even more difficult than the lives of town slaves.4
We may be surprised that Jesus does not outright condemn such an inhumane social institution, but his stories are not frontal assaults on human degeneracy. His stories realistically mirror situations designed to provoke auditors into pondering their own situations in life through the story. Here is Adolf Jϋlicher’s description of the situation in Luke 17:7-9:
The Jesus who speaks in 17:7-9 is not the ethicist but the knower of men, who describes things, as they were at the time, without sentimentality also without exaggeration of the wretched conditions of slaves.5
His invention of a heartless slave owner and his treatment of a (single?) slave as characters for this story may be taken as a subtle criticism because it raises the question: might there be a better way of treating this particular slave? Paul, likewise, offered a subtle criticism of slavery, when he violates his own directive of “remain as you are” in view of the imminent end of the world (1 Cor 7:17-20). As I read the text, Paul allows an exception for slaves. If they can gain their freedom, they should do so (1 Cor 7:21).6 The short letter to Philemon (particularly verses 10-17) also support the idea that freedom is better than servitude, even though Paul does not specifically ask Philemon to free Onesimus.
The story in Luke 17:7-9 constitutes a subtle criticism of slavery. A better example, however, is the behavior of the appreciative slave owner in Luke 12:35-39. The slave owner dons an apron and serves his slaves a meal (Luke 12:37). There are other sayings attributed to Jesus that also suggest better ways in human relationships in general (for example, Matt 5:6; Luke 6:29a; Luke 6:32), and, hence, they obliquely apply to the treatment of slaves. A similar subtle criticism of slavery is reflected by Paul in his suggestion of a “better way” for the Jesus gathering at Corinth (1 Cor 12:31b-14:1a). The later writings of the New Testament, however, seem oblivious to the evils of slavery. Their authors advise slaves to obey their masters (even the hard or merciless ones) so as to reflect well on their religious faith (Eph 6:3; Col 3:22-23; 1 Tim 6:1; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18). On the whole, the Bible’s record on the institution of slavery is rather poor.
The Jesus Seminar voted that Luke 17:7-9 was not a genuine saying of Jesus.7 As I look today at the rationale for that decision, the reasons do not seem cogent. Our rationale at that time was that Luke invented the saying out of Israelite wisdom and Greco-Roman symposium traditions, but the meal in the story is not a symposium and no parallels are offered from Israelite wisdom traditions in support of the Seminar’s rationale. On the positive side, Luke 17:7-9 has the same oblique quality as Mark 12:17b (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), which was voted Red (assuredly genuine)8 at the University of Redlands in 1986. Luke 17:7-9 is, therefore, also likely a genuine saying of Jesus, the historical man.
Missouri State University
1Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 6-7.
3Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, xvi, 12-14.
4On slavery, see K. R. Bradley, “Slavery,” 1415-17 in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (eds. S. Hornblower and Antony Spawforth; 3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999); H. W. Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans (New York: Scott, Foresman,1903), 87-111.
5Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (2nd ed.; 2 vols.; Freiburg: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1899), 1.16. My translation.
6How the translation of 1 Cor 7:21 (μαλλον χρησαι) should be rendered in translation is disputed. For example, E. J. Goodspeed: “If you were a slave when you were called, never mind. Even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of your present condition instead.” RSV: “Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” Goodspeed’s translation slights the adversative (αλλα) that suggests a strong contrast between the two states of servitude and the slave’s opportunity to gain freedom.
7R. W. Funk and R. W. Hoover, The Five Gospels and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 363. The Jesus Seminar, “Voting Records,” Forum 6.3-4, 265. At Cincinnati in 1990, the vote on Luke 17:7-10 was Red=0, Pink=13, Grey=30, Black=57. Hence, the saying was considered nongenuine.
8Jesus Seminar, “Voting Records,” Forum, 6.3-4, 302.