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Luke chapter 12 verses 32 to 48. English Standard Version
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
The Faithful Servants
The structure of the parable
There are three parts to the parable of the faithful servants. The first part is a challenge to all disciples to be faithfully about the Master’s business. The second is also a call to faithfulness, but is particularly addressed to those who are called to lead God’s people. And the third part, in graphic terms, warns of the consequences of unfaithfulness.
The gospel setting of this parable
By these pictures of servants awaiting the certain yet sudden and unannounced return of their master, the disciples were shown how they should be living. The Lord Jesus had just spoken of the danger of getting our priorities totally wrong – by setting our hearts on this world’s pleasures and possessions, and forgetting the fact that our every breath and all our circumstances are in the hand of Almighty God.
By and large, rich men find that they never have enough. They always strive for more. Poor men, of course, find that they never have enough. But middle-income men also find that they never have enough! For this reason, the Lord Jesus taught disciples not to make the things of this life – food and drink, clothing, houses and so on – the heart and centre of their existence. Disciples are called to live lightly to this world’s treasures, ‘sell your possessions’; share their value with those in need; use them for the kingdom. He is not saying disciples should make themselves dependent paupers, scrounging off other people’s goodness. Rather, he is saying, do not grasp to yourself and hoard possessions which could be used to help those in real need, or which could be used to bring honour to his name. Better by far to look to the honour of God, and use our wealth for the King and his glory. As the Lord taught, “Provide yourselves with moneybags (purses) that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”
This is the setting of the parable describing how disciples then, and now, should be living. Disciples are pilgrims on their way to being with their Lord; in parables like these, says John Calvin, our Lord has given us clear light, information, a map and compass.
“You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
The challenge of the first part of the parable is to live like faithful servants; dressed for work with lamps burning and at all times ready for the return of their master.
In the parable, the master or lord of a great house will be returning from a wedding feast, maybe not until the early hours of the morning. His return is certain, yet will be sudden and unannounced. If the returning master finds the servants awake, ready and about his business, he will reward and honour them. The reward will be beyond this world’s wildest dreams. He, the master, will sit them down and serve them, mere servants faithfully doing their duty. Here is an amazing picture of the kindness and generosity of our heavenly Master, given for the encouragement of disciples. To drive home the need for disciples to be constantly prepared, the Lord compares his own return, that of the Son of Man, with the equally sudden and unannounced ‘visit’ of a thief.
The parable was addressed to the disciples and to the crowd who had gathered to listen. But, for today’s disciples who would learn how to live, it still holds true. The parable is a serious call for disciples to live lightly to this world’s goods and possessions, and faithfully play our part in furthering the kingdom of heaven – and to do so in the light of the sudden and glorious return of the King, the Son of Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The parable’s challenge to be ready is coupled with a very strong and encouraging picture. Those who are found actually doing so, will be very greatly honoured by their Lord and Master.
A parable for the Lord’s disciples or for all?
The second part of the parable follows a question. Peter asked, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” Continuing with the same picture of the returning master, our Lord speaks of a senior servant called to be the manager of his fellow servants and to faithfully supply all the needs of the household, and says, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.”
This part of the parable applied in the first instance to the disciples themselves, who were to become his witnesses and apostles and the pillars of the early church. It was a solemn call to faithfulness. It was as if he said, ‘As the parable I have just told applies to all, how much more it applies to you, Peter, and these fellow disciples around you.’ If the whole household is to watch, how much more the principal servants must lead the way by encouragement, exhortation and by the example of their own lives.
The picture is of a servant appointed to manage all the affairs of the house. In looking after his fellow servants, he will need to arrange for the supply of all their needs. He will need to give clear instructions and directions; sometimes there will be a need to challenge or correct, and in other circumstances a need to gently encourage, support or restore one or another of them. Here is the pattern set by the Lord himself, as throughout his earthly ministry he taught and looked after his disciples.
From the letters we have in the New Testament, it is clear that the apostles, including the later addition of Paul, proved to be ‘faithful and wise managers’ set over their Master’s household. They each wrote to encourage, correct and look after a number of churches. It is also clear that they were constantly seeking to prepare the ‘household of God’ for the Master’s return.
Closely following the pattern of this parable, for example, Peter wrote to encourage and strengthen the churches in the regions of Galatia and Cappadocia in what is now north-eastern Turkey. For his Master, the apostle Paul planted and cared for many churches. For the church in Thessalonica, he prays, ‘Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ Paul’s great concern for well-being of the church in Thessalonica, and his longing that they might be ‘a household prepared for the Master’s return’ show clearly as he writes such words of encouragement to them.
Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing
Although this was clearly addressed to the disciples, it echoes down the centuries to each one of us in whatever situation of authority the Lord has put us: mothers and fathers with the responsibility of rearing godly youngsters, Bible class leaders, Sunday school and youth leaders, ministers and church leaders. J.C. Ryle makes it clear that it would also include those servants of the Lord placed in positions of responsibility and authority in the state and in national church affairs.
The parable is a call to be a faithful servant of the Lord in whatever situation the Lord has put us, and the most solemn call to faithfulness if he has put us in a position of leadership. Paul the apostle clearly understood this as he describes himself as a willing slave of the Lord Jesus Christ – everything else, his birthright, status and attainments being ‘dung’ in comparison with knowing and serving his Master.
- C. Ryle also draws attention to the importance of the expression ‘finds his servant so doing.’ Not just knowing what we should be doing as servants, nor discussing it, nor intending to do it but actually and actively doing it.
The practical outworking of the parable
For the servant in the parable, should his master’s absence be short, it would mean arranging for the household to be ready and awaiting the master’s return. If the absence was to be longer, he would need to attend faithfully to the day by day running of the house and to making sure that everything was kept in good order. This was the task entrusted to him.
If we count ourselves servants of the Lord Jesus, how do we measure against his parable? Is our heart holding fast and growing in love and devotion to our Master? Springing from that love, are we keeping the charge he has given us? Are we seeking to manage our own family and household in a God-honouring way? If we are called to look after fellow disciples, are we determined to be fair and faithful in whatever situation the Lord has put us?
Together with our fellow disciples, are we encouraging one another to be salt and light in society; playing our part to hold back ungodly corruption, decay and pollution? Are we shedding godly light and perspective in our everyday discussions and meetings with our work or leisure colleagues? We have also been called to proclaim the gospel and to make disciples of all nations with the aim of increasing the household of God. Are we ‘so doing’? There is great joy and glorious gain for those about their Master’s business and eagerly awaiting his return.
The Parable of the Faithful Servants, continued
The third part of the parable contains the Lord’s three warnings of the consequences of unfaithfulness. Be prepared, for the warnings do not sit comfortably with the tender feelings of our modern stomachs!
‘But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.’
But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming’
This part of the parable describes in horrifyingly graphic terms the terrible and most severe judgement that will fall on those who enjoy the privileges of high position but abuse those privileges; fail in their responsibility before the Master. The servant, who had been appointed by his master as manager, is described as taking advantage of his master’s delay, getting drunk and mistreating his fellow servants. “But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk . . .”
The unfaithful servant, who had greatly abused the trust his master had placed in him, is given the most severe punishment. This is the first and most serious level of unfaithfulness and carried the greatest penalty. The Lord’s picture of the punishment is terrible indeed; “. . . the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.” In the ancient world, the penalty for unfaithfulness among slaves and servants was very severe. It had to be dreadful, in order to serve as an example and a warning to others.
If ‘cut him in pieces’ is not literal, but a picture of terrible punishment, a very severe beating or whipping could indeed ‘cut you to pieces’ though you might survive. The words ‘. . . and put him with the unfaithful,’ would then mean the imprisonment of the servant with other unfaithful servants. But, if ‘cut to pieces’ (the word in the original means to cut in two) indicates that the unfaithful servant would be put to death, then the words ‘. . . and put him with the unfaithful,’ mean that, after death, his body would be put in a common grave or pit with other unfaithful servants of his master, who had received the same penalty.
The significance of this part of the parable is that those to whom the Lord God entrusts the care of his chosen people, must note well the severe judgement that will be given to those who abuse that trust. Earlier in this same chapter, Luke records our Lord’s warning of judgement, a warning that would exactly correspond to the teaching of this parable. Of the unfaithful servant in the parable, Jesus said, his master would ‘cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.’ In his direct teaching our Lord said, ‘Do not fear men, rather, fear him who after he has killed has power to cast into hell.’
If, as the Lord went on to warn, punishment awaits servants who by idleness or mistake are not about their master’s business, how much more is dreadfully severe punishment deserved by those in senior positions who choose to ignore or even despise the Lord and his word and abuse the trust placed in them.
The South African pastor Norval Geldenhuys comments, ‘For those servants of Christ who labour faithfully and devotedly in his service, every moment expecting the coming of their Lord and joyfully looking forward to it, the second coming of Jesus will be a matter of the greatest joy and of the most glorious gain. But for those who doubt his promises and who live in selfishness, imperiousness and worldly-mindedness, the second coming will be fraught with terror and irrevocable loss.’
A second and third level of unfaithfulness and of punishment
‘And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.’ Here is a servant who had been given a trust by his master but who, for one reason or another, simply does not fulfil it. Will his master smile on him? Clearly he will not. Perhaps the servant was lazy and idle, or maybe he spent his time pursuing his own concerns and interests rather than those of his master, or perhaps he was just very busy with many other smaller matters that seemed urgent and necessary at the time. In one way or another he failed to do his master’s will and failed to prepare for his master’s return. He, too, had to bear the consequences of his failure, a severe beating. From the parable such a servant of God in the Lord’s household, will also be called to account and punished appropriately.
The third and final level of failure and of consequent judgement that Jesus portrayed in the parable was for those who ‘did not know’. ‘But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.’ There may be reasons why less than faithful behaviour could, at least in part, be excused. The Lord Jesus allows for that, the punishment is just, for those unaware ‘a lighter whipping’ or ‘a light beating.’
On the master’s return, here is the dreadful discovery made by a servant who, perhaps by his own failure to find out, or by the failure of the senior servant to tell him, was never aware of what the master required of him.
It is salutary to ask, how many well-intended and good people will recoil in horror, on the last day when the Master returns, with these words on their lips, we ‘did not know’?
How did the apostles warn of the seriousness of these things in the early church?
As already noted, the apostles wrote to encourage believers in their care. But very closely related to this part of the parable concerning the failure of a trusted leading servant, Peter found it necessary to warn church leaders to ‘shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock’. In the second letter bearing his name, there are warnings about ‘false teachers’ and ‘scoffers’ who would question or deny the return of the Master.
In the Corinthian church, Paul had to stand against self-appointed and smooth-speaking ‘super-apostles’ who were ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’. He also warned that such people were taking advantage of them, ‘For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you . . .’
The apostle John warns believers against even greeting or eating with those who bring another teaching and deny the deity of our Lord. ‘Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.’
A fascinating parable and interesting church history – or a word for ourselves?
In our own day, these are very real and urgent warnings. How many church and denominational leaders would play down or deny the reality of our Lord’s deity? How many would question the possibility and serious consequences of his return? How many, in high position, will be found at the last to have actually been indulging themselves, as they pursued their career and enjoyed power and prestige? Even more dreadfully, when the secrets of all hearts are disclosed, how many will be found to have taken advantage of, or disheartened true and faithful servants of the Lord?
A Christian husband and wife, Sunday School leaders, were invited to lunch with a visiting and very senior churchman. But the man ate and drank perhaps too freely, and when the couple shared the wonderful way God was working among the young people, he showed no interest whatever; he completely brushed them aside. Rather than encourage them, he crushed and disheartened them. You can see that when the Master returns, this parable gives me reason to quake should I be found to have treated the fellow servants of my Master in such a way.
Extreme, you may say. Maybe, but with a steady income, a comfortable house to live in and a privileged position in society, how easy it is for those called to be overseers in the Master’s household to let things slip. We can so easily assume that it is natural and right for us to lord it over others and indulge ourselves. As J.C.Ryle again makes clear, it is not just ministers of religion and church leaders who are in great danger but those in society in any position of trust under the Lord God, in politics, education, commerce etc.
The world about us, our own fallen nature, and the evil one, will all contrive to persuade us: “He has not returned. Perhaps we are mistaken. He may never return – at the very least there is no urgency. There is no immediate need to worry about ‘a calling to account’, so I can carry on doing as I choose.”
From the parable, firstly, it is clear that any call to leadership among the people of God carries with it a very great weight of responsibility to do so faithfully. The parable plainly shows our need to keep constantly before us the fear of God, and our accountability before him. The apostle Paul displays just such an awareness of the seriousness of his calling as he writes, ‘Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.’ Or, in the arresting words of the older translations, ‘Therefore, knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men . . .’
Secondly, the Lord’s parable alerts us to the great danger of being so occupied with apparently urgent and pressing matters that take up so much of our time that we fail to seek and do the Master’s will or prepare for his return.
A great many church leaders ably keep the church organisation humming; busy, enjoyable, financially viable and in good repair . . . flowers, garden parties, concerts, cleaning, fund raising . . . but have little awareness of a household ready for the Master’s return, of the priority of doing our Master’s will and preparing the household of God for the return of the King. That priority implies putting our best efforts into developing a people growing in godliness; a people busy about their Master’s business. In practice that means growing a people who are well grounded in the word of God, supporting and encouraging one another as they reach out with the gospel of God to those around them both near and far, making and growing other disciples, watching, praying, and eagerly awaiting their Master’s return.
Thirdly, how many church leaders, how many leaders in society, how many good and enthusiastic people in our churches and chapels, will echo the words we ‘did not know’? ‘We have never taken to heart the seriousness of parables like these.’ ‘Nobody told us.’ ‘Nobody showed us.’ ‘We did not realise.’ We ‘did not know.’
We are each responsible for finding out what the will of the Lord is, and doing it. His word is open and plain, and other people’s opinions and teachings will not shield us from the all-seeing judgement of Almighty God. We are each answerable to him. As John Calvin points out, ignorance will not excuse us.
A very great responsibility
The parable concludes with a very solemn charge reflecting the tremendous privilege of any kind of Christian service in church or society, especially that of leadership, ‘To whom much is given, much will be required.’ Here is the recurring theme of the great responsibility before the Lord God to be faithful. The challenge is to stand firm in the faith, growing in love and devotion, and then to use all our God-given skills and abilities, trainings and opportunities with a single eye to the Master’s honour; a household prepared for his return. Here is the challenge not to abuse, or fail to use, the gifts and graces, the privileges and opportunities he has entrusted to us.
Let Matthew Henry have the last word. To church leaders he says, ‘To be unaware of the solemnity of our holy calling and to take our eye off the return of the Master is the root of the failure and weakness of the church.’
This parable in its three parts is not a parable for our comfort, but, in the original sense of that word, it was told for our strengthening and for our strong encouragement.
In summary, in whatever situation our Lord and Master has placed us, the parable challenges us to be servants of God, faithfully about our Master’s business, preparing and keeping ready for the certain, sudden and unannounced return of the Son of Man, the Master of the house, the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Heavenly Father, stir us to bow the knee and cry to you for the mercy offered in your Son, the Lord Jesus. And, by your grace, awaken us to the joyful and solemn reality of his return in glory at any time. By your grace enable us to be faithful servants. Keep us awake, about your business, just, generous, kind, making disciples, encouraging and building up one another and, as the great day approaches, watching and ready.
Questions for group discussion
- How can we, personally, be on guard so as to avoid making the things of this world the point and purpose of life?
- How did the ministry of Paul the apostle measure up to the teaching of this parable?
- How much was the teaching of the Lord Jesus reflected in his own life?
- Can I see ways to encourage my fellow disciples?
- Can I see ways I must avoid, in order not to discourage my fellow disciples?
- What implications does this parable have for disciples in high office in society?
- What implications does it have for our church or chapel?
. . . and questions for personal reflection
- How faithful am I as a servant?
- How ready am I for the Master’s return? Is there something I should be doing?
In whose hand is your breath and all your circumstances – Daniel 5:23
- Pilgrims on their way to be with the Lord – Philippians 1:21-24
- Paul’s prayer for the church in Thessalonica – 1Thessalonians 3:11-13
- Status and attainments being ‘dung’ in comparison with knowing his Master – Philippians 3: 8&9
- After he has killed has power to cast into hell – Luke 12:5
- Not domineering or ‘lording it’ over those in your charge – 1 Peter 5:2&3
- False teachers and scoffers – 2 Peter 2:1 & 3:3
- Self-appointed and smooth-speaking ‘super-apostles’ – 2 Corinthians 11:5
- Deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ – 2 Corinthians 11:13
- People who would take advantage of the people of God – 2 Corinthians 11:19-21.
- Do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting – 2 John vs.8-10
- Therefore, knowing the terror of the Lord – 2 Corinthians 5:11