It is hard work to serve God faithfully for a lifetime, so we cling tenaciously to the promise of reward in the kingdom.
The hope of hearing, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23) propels us forward. For this reason, Yeshua’s parable in Luke 17 raises some questions:
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and recline at table”? Will he not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink”? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:7-10)
Yeshua consistently teaches us to endure sacrifice in the current age and to put our hope in the promises of reward in the kingdom. Why does this parable sound like he’s deflating that hope? After the servant is done working in the field, why does the master impose another phase of work on him? Are we not supposed to expect any reward or even gratitude for our service?
The Motivation of Love
In Chronicles of the Messiah, D. T. Lancaster begins to answer our questions.  He explains that in this narrative, built on three rhetorical questions, Yeshua is driving home the point that we are slaves of HaShem, and, “When a slave serves his master, he is not doing something munificent or magnanimous; he is simply doing his duty.” It also notes the similarity between Yeshua’s parable and a saying of Antignos of Socho recorded in Pirkei Avot:
Do not be like servants who serve their master expecting to receive a reward. Be like servants who serve their master without expecting to get a reward, and let the fear of heaven be upon you. (m. Avot 1:3)
We know that our loving Father will be generous to us, but as Lancaster concludes, “Our service to God should be motivated out of love and fidelity, not the desire for rewards and blessings.” This is an important fundamental idea, but we haven’t answered all our questions.
If that was all Yeshua intended to communicate, he could have used a much shorter parable. He could have simply said that when a servant comes in from working in his master’s field, he should not expect special thanks or reward, but should humbly accept that he was only doing his duty. Yeshua added details about preparing a meal, dressing properly, and serving the master first before the servant can eat. Was it merely to make a more colorful story, or do these details mean something?
Do Not Be Proud of Yourself
Chronicles of the Messiah also cites the commentary of R. Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein to deepen our understanding:
When you have done everything I have commanded you in the Sermon on the Mount and similar passages, and when your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, do not be proud of yourself, thinking that you are doing something beyond the strict letter of the Torah.
Rather, they should realize that they have only done what was placed upon them. For all his commandments are the strict Torah and have the force of the Torah in them, just as do the words of Moses and the prophets...for they are all from one shepherd. (Lichtenstein, Commentary on the New Testament, on Luke 17:10)
Lichtenstein interprets this as a warning not to think Yeshua’s teachings are extra credit. In the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua presented a higher standard than people were accustomed to holding. According to Lichtenstein, the point of Yeshua’s parable is that these teachings do not extend beyond the letter of the law. Rather, they are firm expectations and obligations. What exactly is the distinction between the two types of work the servant performs?
Bachya Ibn Pekuda writes about his own realization that internal refinement is a duty like all other commandments. In the introduction to his work Duties of the Heart, he also explains with a parable:
To what does this compare? To a servant who was ordered by his master to attend to two duties, one in the house, the other in the field. [In the field, the servant’s responsibility was] to work the soil and to tend to it at set hours and at regular intervals. Other than those times, or if something had prevented him from working, he was free of any duty to work in the field. He was never free, however, of his duty inside the house, all the while that he served his master unless prevented or impeded by some external force. When unimpeded, he was always on duty.
The same is true of the duties of the heart. There is nothing that might excuse us from them. 
Even though a thousand years separate Yeshua’s teachings from those of Rabbeinu Bachya, the similarity is unmistakable. In Rabbeinu Bachya’s parable, the responsibilities outside at set times symbolize the obligations we have with our bodies. The obligations inside the house represent the constant duties of the heart.
More Work to Do
Yeshua says that the servant comes in from working in the field; this work illustrates our important labor in the external mitzvot of the Torah. However, after completing this, he still has work to do inside the house: “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me, and afterward you will eat and drink.” The house is our heart, which we must transform into a pure dwelling place for the Spirit of God through the refinement of our character.
Yeshua’s consistent message is that our obligations to HaShem go far beyond what is visible—they reach deep into our hearts. Work on the inside is not optional; we are never exempt from it. Only after we have served our Master both outside and inside, we, too, will eat and drink in his kingdom.
- D. T. Lancaster, Chronicles of the Messiah (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion, 2014), 1098
- Bachya Ibn Pekuda, Duties of the Heart (Chovos Halevavos), trans. Daniel Haberman (New York, NY: Feldheim, 1996), 19.