Doth he thank that servant, for doing the things which he commanded him? I think not. So you also, when you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do (Luke 17: 9-10).
Our Lord spoke these challenging words to His Apostles after first accepting their prayer for Him to “increase [their] faith” assuring them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they could say, pointing to a mulberry tree, “Be thou rooted up, and be thou transplanted into the sea: and it would obey you” and, second, offering them the example of a master who required his servants, after their duties in the fields were finished, to serve him his supper before they dined themselves.
What relationship is there between these two analogies? The first indeed is a supernatural effect of the kind of faith that can “move mountains” and the second is simply a work in the order of natural justice. The servants were hired to plow, feed cattle, and prepare and serve supper to the master of the estate. Doing so was their duty, their work for a wage. Hence, they were due no privilege beyond receiving their pay and a meal. No, they were not even owed a “thank you” from the master, not in strict justice. Thanks are due in justice when a man renders a service to another gratuitously without payment.
Therefore, the lesson is this. Be humble. Account yourselves “unprofitable” (some translations have “useless”) servants when you do those things that are your duty to do in obedience to God’s natural law. The Creator is due obedience from His creature. Only man in all material creation can refuse this obedience, because he was created with a free will. Such obedience, however, without the gift of sanctifying grace which can only come with faith in Christ, is of no profit toward a supernatural reward. It is man’s duty to obey the natural law which comes with the light of reason. Obeying this natural law is, of course, of profit toward a natural reward; but man was not created for eating, drinking, and earthly peace (the rewards God gives of the fruits of manual labor and fraternal justice) but for the beatific vision and eternal life in glory. “[E]ye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Cornelius a Lapide comments: “For although our works, as far as they are ours, are of little or no value, yet so far as they flow from the grace of Christ, and are therefore the works of Christ, our head, they are of great worth and desert, and do merit, as such, eternal glory; for grace is the seed of glory; especially as God, of His immeasurable goodness, has been pleased to promise to them, as done by the grace of Christ, eternal glory.”
As members of Christ through baptism we are called not only to renounce Satan and his works but to perform works of supererogation. Saint Bede says, “So there is laid upon us the necessity of doing all things that God has commanded, and by fresh diligence, of always increasing our former services.” (quoted in a Lapide on Luke 17)
Saint Ambrose adds, “As we not only do not say to our servant, Take thy repose, but require of him a further service, and give him no thanks, so neither does the Lord permit in us one only work, for all while living ought to work always. Acknowledge we ourselves therefore to be servants, lending very many acts of obedience on interest. Nor should we exalt ourselves, because we are called the sons of God. Grace is to be acknowledged, but nature is not to be passed over, nor should we boast ourselves, if we have served well in that which we ought to do. The sun obeys, the moon submits, the angels serve.” (ibid, a Lapide)
These acts of charity and obedience, to which we are called, are, in grace, a duty that is fulfilled from love of God, not fear. Obedience is part of justice. What is due under obedience is due in justice. That is why they are supernaturally meritorious. Justice is a moral virtue. Infused (as distinguished from acquired) moral justice is supernatural in its orientation. When we do a work of justice in the state of grace, it is supernaturally meritorious, even if the work is due in strict justice. And woe to us if we do not cooperate with so wonderful a gift of grace. As Saint Paul said, “Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel,” because God has commanded me to do so. (1 Cor. ix. 16).
Perhaps no doctor of the Church devoted more commentary on this passage than Saint Bernard. In his treatise on Precepts and Dispensations he thus explains the matter, “We are unprofitable servants, we have done what we ought;” i.e. If you are content with the mere precept and traditions of the law, and do not give yourselves up to the counsels and persuasions of perfection, you are free indeed from debt, but you are not praiseworthy for merit; you have escaped punishment, you have not gained the crown. (ibid, a Lapide)
“Behold,” says Saint Bernard, “He is at the door who made the heavens and the earth. He is thy Creator and thou art His creature: thou art the end of His work.” And again, “[W]e owe all our lives to Christ Jesus, for He laid down His life for us, and endured bitter torments, that we might not have to undergo eternal ones. . . .When I give to Him all that I am, all that I can do, is not this as a star to the sun, a drop to the river, a stone to the mountain, a grain to the heap?” (4th sermon, Psalm 15) And, in his work, De Deo dilig.: “If I owe my whole self for my first creation, what shall I add for my second, and that brought about as it was? For a second creation is not effected as easily as a first. He who made me once and only by a word, in creating me a second time spoke many words and did wonderful things and endured hard things, and not only hard but even undeserved things. In the first creation He gave me to myself, in the second He gave Himself to me, and when He gave Himself to me He restored me to myself. Given, then, and restored, I owe myself for myself, and I have a double debt. What reward shall I give to God for Himself, for if I were to weigh myself a thousand times, what am I to God?” (my emphasis)
A Lapide summarizes the exegetical contributions of other fathers thusly: “Again, we are unprofitable, because we sin in many things, and many of our words are infected by negligence or vainglory or some other fault. In addition to this, our actions, if looked upon with strictness, as they proceed from men, are without value to the meriting of the grace and glory of God: according to the Apostle, Rom. viii. 18. Lastly, all our actions derive the dignity of worth and merit from the grace and promise of God, and are useful to ourselves, not to Him. Hence the Arabic reads, ‘We are indeed useless servants, for we have done that which was our interest to do.’”
And to certain monks of the Alps, Saint Bernard wrote: “You account yourselves unprofitable, and you have been found to be humble. To act rightly, and yet to think themselves without value, is found in few, and therefore many admire it. This I say, this assuredly makes you, from illustrious, even more illustrious; from holy, more holy; and wherever this report is published it fills all things with the odour of sweetness.” (Epistle152)
Finally, a Lapide notes that Saint Augustine, for useless servants (inutiles) reads supervacui , men at leisure, who after their labor look for repose; that eternal reward and glory which far surpass and exceed all their toil. “Nothing remains for us to do: we have finished our trial, there awaits us a crown of righteousness. We may say all things of that ineffable perfruition, and the more all things can be said the less can anything be said worthily; for it is the light of the illuminator, the repose of the toiler, the country of the returned wanderer, the food of the needy, the crown of the conqueror, whatever the temporal goods of unbelievers the holiness of the sons of God will find others more true, and such as will remain in the Creator to all eternity.” (Augustine on Romans 8:18)