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The gospel of 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 Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The parables of the faithful servants © Parva Press
The gospel setting of this pair of parables
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 very 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 they never have enough! For this reason, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples not to make the things of this life – food, drink, clothing, houses and the like – the heart and centre of their existence. 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 we should become dependent paupers, scrounging off other people’s goodness. Rather, he is saying, do not grasp to yourself and hoard that which could be used to help those in real need or that which could be used to bring honour to his name. Better by far to use our wealth for the King and his glory. ‘Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.’
This is the setting of the parables describing how disciples then, and now, should be living. Disciples are pilgrims; in parables like these, says John Calvin, he has given us clear light, information, a map and compass.
The parables themselves
The point of these parables is the challenge to live like faithful servants; dressed for work with lamps burning and at all times ready for the return of their master.
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 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 serve them, mere servants faithfully doing their duty. Here is an amazing picture for the encouragement of disciples. To drive home the need for constant preparedness the Lord compares the master’s return with the sudden and unannounced ‘visit’ of a thief.
The parable was addressed first to the disciples and to the crowd who had gathered to listen. For today’s disciples who would learn how to live, it still holds true. Here in this parable is the clear and unmistakable challenge from the Lord’s own lips to spend our time, our effort, our prayers, our skills and possessions to bring honour to his name. Here is the all-embracing challenge to live in the light of his return; to live for him, die for him; to devote everything to his cause. ’You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ It is coupled with the very strongly encouraging picture of those who are actually found doing so being very greatly honoured by their Lord and Master.
Here is the first parable of the pair, a most serious call to live in this world for the Lord God; for the kingdom of heaven in the light of the return of the King; the Son of Man, the Lord Jesus Christ.
A parable for the Lord’s disciples or for us all?
The second parable follows a question asked by Peter, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?’ The Lord Jesus answers that question with another question. Continuing with the same picture of the returning master, he speaks of a faithful managing-servant and asks, ’Who is that faithful servant whom the master will find so doing . . . ?’ This second parable applied in the first instance to the disciples themselves who were to become his witnesses and the apostles and pillars of the early church. It was a solemn call to faithfulness. It was as if he said, ‘As it applies to all, how much more it applies to you and these fellow disciples around you, Peter.’ If the whole household is to watch, how much more the principal servants must lead the way by encouragement, exhortation and example. The picture here is of a servant set over the household to look after his fellow servants and to administer all its affairs. In dealing with his fellow servants there will be a need to arrange for the supply 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 support, encourage and restore one or another of them. Here is the pattern set by the Lord, himself, throughout his earthly ministry.
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 clear that it would also include those servants of the Lord placed in positions of responsibility and authority in society.
Here is a solemn call to faithfulness in leadership. A call to be a faithful servant of the Lord in whatever situation the Lord has put us. Paul the apostle clearly understood this as he describes himself as a willing slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything else; his birthright, status, attainments being ‘dung’ in comparison to knowing and serving his Master. Ryle draws attention to 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, concluded
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 his master’s charge to him; the task entrusted to him.
If we count ourselves servants of the Living God, 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 being salt and light in society? Are we playing our part to hold back ungodly corruption, decay and pollution? Are we shedding godly light, illumination and perspective in our everyday discussions and meetings with our work and leisure colleagues? We have also been charged 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 reward for faithful servants; great joy and glorious gain for those about their Master’s business and eagerly awaiting his return.
The next part of the parable describes in horrifyingly graphic terms the terrible judgement that will fall on those who enjoy the privileges of high position but abuse those privileges; fail in their responsibility before the Master. ‘But if that servant says to himself, ‘’My master is delayed in coming . . .’’ ‘. ‘But’ is not a nice word here, for the servant is described as getting drunk and mistreating his fellow servants.
This is a very real and urgent warning. How many church and denominational leaders will be found at the last to have actually been indulging themselves in their thirst for power and prestige? Found to have beaten-down, expelled, sidelined or disheartened 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 work of God among the young people, he showed no interest whatever; he completely brushed them aside. Rather than encourage them, he crushed and disheartened them. Can you 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 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.’
A warning of terrible danger
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’.
However, the Lord’s picture of the most severe punishment is terrible indeed; ‘Cut to pieces and put with unbelievers.’ Can it be both? Well, yes it can for in the ancient world whipping did indeed ‘cut you to pieces’ though you might survive. Or could there be a hint here of those terrifying words of the Lord, found in this same chapter, ‘Do not fear men, rather, fear him who after he has killed has power to cast into hell.’
If punishment awaits servants who by mistake are not about their master’s business, how much more is severe punishment deserved by those of us who choose to ignore and despise the Lord and his word.
The picture of the ‘lighter whipping’ carries a terror of a different sort. Here is the terror of people who ‘did not know’. How many leaders in society? How many church leaders? How many good church folk will that phrase catch? We ‘did not know’. Leaders trained to keep the church organisation humming; busy, enjoyable, financially viable and in good heart and repair . . . flowers, garden parties, cleaning, fund raising . . . but knowing nothing of a household ready for the master’s return. How many leaders have not been taught the priority of the preparation of 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 loving, supporting and encouraging one another, reaching out with the gospel of God to those around them both near and far, making and growing other disciples, watching, praying, eagerly awaiting their Master’s return. ‘Oh! I don’t know about that!’ How many leaders in society? How many church leaders? How many good and enthusiastic people in our churches and chapels will echo these words we ‘did not know’? ‘We have never taken to heart 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. We are each answerable to him. As John Calvin points out, ignorance is no excuse.
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.’
These two closely linked parables are not parables for our comfort but, in the original sense of that word, they are told for our strengthening, for our strong encouragement.
In whatever situation our Lord and Master has placed us, we are challenged to buy up every opportunity to prepare; to make ready and to keep ready for the certain, sudden and unannounced return of the Son of Man, the Master, 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 anytime. Stir us and enable us to keep awake, about his business, just, generous, kind, making disciples, encouraging and building-up one another and, as the great day approaches, watching and ready.
In whose hand is your breath and all your circumstances, Daniel 5:23
After he has killed has power to cast into hell, Luke 12:5
Questions for group discussion
- In what ways am I, or are we, in danger of making the things of this earth the whole point and purpose of life?
- Why is it difficult to consider the possibility of selling some of our treasure to help someone in need or to further the kingdom of heaven?
- How did the life style of Paul the apostle measure up to the teaching of these two parables?
- How did the lifestyle of the Lord Jesus measure up to his own teaching?
- What implications do these parables have to the way in which we go about things personally?
- What implications do they have for disciples in high office in society?
- What implications do they have for our church or chapel?
. . . and questions for personal reflection
- How can I be on guard so as to avoid making the things of this world the point and purpose of life?
- Ought I to consider selling some of my treasure for the kingdom of heaven?
- Can I see ways to encourage and not discourage my fellow disciples?
- How faithful am I as a servant?
- How ready am I for the Master’s return? Is there something I should I be doing?