Scripture contains more than 40 of Jesus' parables. Some are so well known, hospitals (Good Shepherd) and laws (Good Samaritan) are named after them. Others confound readers today as much as they likely did their first hearers. And one parable has been all but forgotten—at least in the West. Recently I shared it with five U.S. ministry leaders. In their 130 collective years of service, not one of them had given a talk on it or heard it preached from the pulpit.
Contrast their response with that of a Nigerian friend, who told me that the parable is one of his favorite teachings of Jesus. So why would the parable resonate in Nigeria and seemingly fall flat in the United States?
The parable—found only in the Gospel of Luke—was delivered relatively late in Jesus' ministry, to his closest followers. It belonged to a set of teachings on discipleship:
Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, "Come here at once and take your place at the table"? Would you not rather say to him, "Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink"? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, "We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!" (17:7–10, NRSV)
The plot is simple. A small household employs a doulos—Greek for "slave" given how domestic bondage worked in Greco-Roman times. A jack-of-all-trades, the slave plows a field and tends sheep during his first shift, and cooks meals and cleans up during his second.
The plot hinges on two questions: ...