30. Servants of All Sorts

30 – Servants of All Sorts

“How many of my father’s hired hands…”

“Make me as one of your hired hands…”

“The father said to his slaves…”

“He called one of the servant boys…”

“I have worked like a slave for you…”


It is obvious in the reading of this parable that there are three main characters in the story: a father, an older son and a younger son.  But there are some secondary characters that surface occasionally in the story. These include a citizen of the far off country, with references being made to the so-called friends of the older son, and the so-called prostitutes of the far country, and a series of varied servants. There are also some tertiary “characters” that play their part: the pigs, the fatted calf, and the hypothetical young goat. If we include the characters in the entire chapter we can include the shepherd, his sheep, the woman who lost a coin, besides God and angels and all of heaven’s inhabitants.  Quite a crowded canvas! But what is of interest at this moment is the frequency of references to servants and words said to them and about them.

It was actually not necessary for Jesus and Luke to tell their story with any reference to servants, who in most stories are quite invisible.  But in this story they highlight an important theme. Let us look a bit closer.

Hired Hands

The first word we hear about servants is from the runaway son, sitting by the pigpen, reflecting upon his circumstances. He remembers that his father’s hired hands were all well-fed.

Three different words are used in this parable to refer to those who are employed by the father. The word used here is Misthioi and is best translated “hired hands”. These were casual day labourers who were hired to help out at busy times. We meet such men in Jesus’ parable about the landowner who hired people throughout the day to gather the harvest of his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-16)

The law prescribed that such persons were to be paid each day for that day’s work. “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)

The employer of such day labourers was also obligated to provide food and drink, in addition to an agreed-upon wage for the day. The younger son was aware, that when his father fed these hired hands, he fed them well. They had “bread enough and to spare.” A good meal and a “doggy bag” to take home!

In the story of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz, it is interesting to notice the parallel to the son’s memory of the hired hands. Though Ruth is only a gleaner, picking up the leftovers of the harvesting, she is invited to drink from the jar of water brought into the fields for the day labourers. And then, “at mealtime Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.” What was uneaten she took home to share with her mother in law.  (Ruth 2:8-18)

While thinking about such meal times, the younger son comes to a decision.  He will go home, admit that his behaviour has been unforgivable, and he will ask, not be treated as a son. but simply to be taken on as one of these hired hands.

Of course we known that his father wants a son back, not a hireling, The father may want service, but not at the cost of sonship.  Neither does he want misunderstandings to exist.  We are children of the Great Father by virtue of his gift, not as a reward for our service.  We do not come as servants, and if we please him well enough and long enough, he will promote us to son and daughter status.  Oh no!  The message is clear.  We are the sons and daughters of God because he has created and redeemed us, and then because we are family, we may be glad to invest ourselves in the family business, not as hirelings, but as partners.

Slaves and Servants

The second word that is used of those who are employed by father is “doulos”.  Its most usual translation is “slave” or “servant”. While the father is embracing his son, the text reads, “The father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!” These servants or slaves are his to command. He gives them orders and they go scurrying to fulfill the father’s wishes.

But are they slaves or are they servants? The word slave  describes their status, while the word servant defines their role.  In Israel’s long history some people became enslaved because they had been captured and became part of the spoils of wars. Others sold themselves into slavery because of unpayable debts. Some were born into slavery because their parents were already slaves to a master. Others sold themselves into slavery to guarantee shelter and meals in exchange for their labour.

And there were others who were slaves, but when given the opportunity to gain their freedom, for one reason or another, did not want to leave their master’s service. As a token of their voluntary enslavement, they had their ears pierced at the doorpost of the house, to indicate that they were binding themselves to continue as slaves to this master for the rest of their lives. (Exodus 21:5-6)

Some of these “douloi”. However. were not slaves as such, but were free people who nonetheless indentured themselves to a master in exchange for an income, and like a slave obeyed the master’s commands, or got fired. These were often the working poor, the minimum wagers, the bottom of the economic ladder.  Many of these slaves/servants found themselves “at home” in the places of their servitude, and in a world of little welfare support, and to avoid begging or being an under-employed hired hand, found this an acceptable way to manage life. We shall return to this same word in a few moments.

The Servant Boy

We encounter the third word that Luke uses to refer to this working class of servants. When the older brother hears the revelry coming from the house, he stops a “Paidon”, a servant boy, and inquires as to the goings on.  The paidon may well have been a child of one of the servants who would be used as an errand boy to do minor tasks around the house. In the preparation for the feast, while deployed with running errands, he was stopped by a call from the older brother. When asked about the goings on, he replied, apparently with some excitement in his young voice, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound!”

The Older Brother

But now we must turn our focus back to the older brother.  The request of the younger son “to be made a hired hand” was denied by his father. The older son’s presumptions about his own status will also be denied by that same father.  The older son, in his anger, is rejecting both brotherhood and sonship, and is taking on the self-pitying role of an unhappy slave. That also must be repudiated. Let us return to the conclusion of the story.

The servant boy had said, “Your brother …” and “your father …” But the elder son is infuriated by the young boy’s announcement.  He refuses to enter the home.  His father comes out and begins to plead with him.  His response to his father’s entreaty is stunning. “Listen!” he shouts at his father, omitting any term of respect or affection.  The younger had prefaced all his words with the title “father…” but not this son.  “Listen!” he says, as though his father were reluctant to hear him. “Listen!” he cries out, as thought the festivities in the house threatened to drown out his complaint.

“Listen!” he says “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you!”  Then he adds “and I have never disobeyed your command!”  Wow!  There it is.  This son has seen himself, not as a son, but as a slave, a doulous, apparently for years.  He says, “I never disobeyed” as he scans backwards through his life, and knows he has been obedient throughout it, just like a good slave should be.  He has worked like a dog for his dad; he has been compliant; he has done his duty.

Then to add insult to injury he adds, “but when this son of yours came back…” It is not “when my brother came back”, but “your son”, making his brother the father’s only son, and presuming himself to be the slave. How sad!

But the father will not let his son’s words hang in the air uncontradicted. He responds with the word, “Child….” The word is not “son”, as in most translations. It is the word “teknon” which is a term of affection used of a son or daughter.  It is not, by the way, an insult that says, “don’t be so childish!” It is a term of tender affection for this son whom he has helped raise “all these years,” and who has been so grateful that this son has “always” been with him, and is with him still, even when his other son had left!  George Macdonald[i] has caught the meaning of that word “child” when he writes: “What is the great glory of God, but that, though no one can comprehend Him, He comes down, and lays his cheek along side ours, and says to us, “Eh, my child!”  This sullen son is the child of a father who loves him immensely, and for whom he would die, and for whom he now suffers.

The father sadly continues the conversation, almost  apologetically, “But we had to celebrate…. because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!” He will not un-son his son, or un-brother this brother. But neither will he mute the celebration because his older son happens to be unhappy about  it.

This father will not let the word “slave” stand unopposed either. He is not a slave. “All that is mine is yours,” he reminds him.  He is still the first-born, and still his son, and heir of all that he possesses.

So the question still stands; will the older brother come in and join the celebration? We are not told, but perhaps…..



Theological Reflection

It is intriguing to survey the use of the word “servant” throughout the rest of scripture.  Most often it is used in reference to actual servants and slaves.  But occasionally it is used as one of the most honored titles that a person can hold.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are called the servants of God, (Exodus 32:13) as are Moses (Exodus 14:31) and Joshua, (Joshua 24:29)  kings (II Samuel 3:18) and prophets. (Amos 3:7).   The nation of Israel was called “My Servant” by God (Isaiah  41:8) and Paul gladly and frequently calls himself “the doulos” of Jesus Christ. The term when used in this way is not to underscore the servility of the persons so named, but to indicate their significance to God in the carrying out of his purposes for Israel, the church, and the world.

When a person becomes a Christian, we may need to be reminded that they are also signing up for the work force of the Kingdom.  Ephesians 2:8-9-10 reads, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God from the very beginning ordained that we should walk in them.”  This may indicate that we are saved, not so much to be “safe” but to serve. The reformation doctrine of “individual election” has been presumed to refer to God’s arbitrary selection of some to receive eternal life, while others were not selected to that hope. But a better understanding of that idea would insist that we have been “elected” to an office. Elected, not to privilege, but to a responsibility, which by the way, is a great privilege!  Our calling is a “vocational” calling, called to a function, for which he grants the gifts of his Spirit, which are not toys, but tools by which to serve God and community well.

The sons and  daughters of God are intended to take on a servant’s activities, but that does not make us hirelings, as the younger son had first hoped.  Jesus reveals his attitude towards those who are mere hirelings in John 10:11-14,  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

Neither are we to work like slaves. The older son thought working like a dog was pleasing to his father. Some of us are workaholics who work, not for the joy of the work, but because of a neurotic compulsion.

God does, however, invite us to be co-workers, working together with others and working together with him. We are to work for the joy of working alongside the Father, and the joy of work well done.

None of us ever need to say with those sad men in the parable, “no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7) for God offers full employment to all, and wonderful wages.

Further Reflections

Some of us engage in what has been termed “daily devotions” as we take time each day to read the scriptures & pray. But sometimes that activity is misunderstood. Some of us think it is our attempt “to become more spiritual” and we feel guilty is we haven’t “had them”.  But perhaps the central significance of such a practice is to imagine ourselves “punching the clock” at the start of each day, asking for instructions for the tasks before us, reading the directions, picking up the needful tools, and taking time for a team meeting, before we head out. Then at the end of the workday, we report back in on how the day went, asking for counsel, apologizing for mistakes made, and asking for wisdom for tomorrow. For we are to be workers together, and with God himself.


[i] George MacDonald, Daily Readings, ed Arthur C. Fifield, 1906.

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