The Faithful and Unfaithful Servant

July 4, 2024

By Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 7:50
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The parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant is told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with minor variations. The context of this parable is that Jesus was speaking to His disciples shortly before His arrest and crucifixion. They were on the Mount of Olives in a private setting and the disciples asked Him: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). In response, Jesus went on to speak of future events, which included His return: They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

Jesus went on to tell this parable within the context of His return (referred to as the parousia), and told His followers that no one knows when His return will happen: “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). He also cautioned believers to always be prepared for that day: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44).

Jesus then told a parable which emphasizes the importance of living in a manner which prepares us to be ready for His return at any time. He contrasts two conflicting attitudes, two choices which believers can make. He began the parable by posing a question:

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their 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” (Matthew 24:45–47).

Here we read of a servant who is put in charge of his master’s household while the master is away. He is given authority over the rest of the household staff and the responsibility to administer the household. This seems to be a household with many servants, and as such, a great deal of responsibility.

This servant doesn’t focus on when the master will return, as it makes no difference to the work he does; he simply fulfills his duties faithfully. Such a man will be highly commended upon the return of the master. Beyond commendation, he will be given a promotion to the position of steward, with responsibility for all the master’s possessions.

After we’ve been given one possible scenario of a servant who has acted honorably in carrying out his duties, we are then given the opposite scenario of what might happen if the servant were to make a different choice, and the consequences of such a decision.

“But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 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 hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:48–51).

In this passage, we see the servant having an internal discussion, reasoning with himself. The master is away, and for some reason won’t return when originally expected, so the servant feels he can act with impunity. In his mind, being left in charge as the overseer means he’s not answerable to others and there will be no consequences for his actions. He acts as if the master will never return and he will never be held accountable for his choices. This servant begins to act unjustly—his temporary authority goes to his head and he cruelly beats the other servants and begins eating and drinking with drunkards.

We’re told the master does return—with no warning—and the servant is totally unprepared. Somehow this servant lost sight of the fact that while the master was away longer than expected, it didn’t mean that he would never return. Return he did, and we’re told that due to the servant’s actions, his mismanagement, harshness, and malice toward others, he is judged and condemned.

Being “cut in pieces” certainly sounds like harsh punishment. Some commentators consider this to mean being “cut off from the midst of the people,” referring to fellowship with believers. Others consider that it can be interpreted metaphorically, while others feel it simply means he will be punished severely. As many Bible commentators say, it seems that the term is not meant to be a metaphor, but to be taken literally to mean a brutal punishment, used in order to shock the listeners so they would make the right decisions.

The phrase put him with the hypocrites in the Gospel of Matthew is presented in Luke as assign him a place with the unbelievers (Luke 12:46). The word in this context should probably be looked at as a general term for those who make the decision against God. Weeping and gnashing of teeth expresses deep sorrow and emotion. This phrase is used seven times in the New Testament, and in all cases in reference to those who have rejected God and are excluded from His blessings in the time of the end.

This parable presents two contrasting ways of living one’s faith. One option is to be like the first servant, who faithfully and consistently does the job day in and day out. It doesn’t matter when his master returns, as he has continually done what has been asked of him. Whenever the master returns, he will be ready.

The second option is to have the attitude of the wicked servant. He put very little focus on the fact that the master would return; instead he acted as, if it happened at all, it would be so far in the future that there was no reason to give it much thought. The catch is, the master did return, and there was a judgment and a reckoning.

While it might seem that this parable is about two different servants—one who makes the right choice and the other who doesn’t—in fact it’s about one servant, faced with making one of two choices. The implication is that each believer is faced with a choice. Will we be faithful to the Lord? Will we live our lives in accordance with His teachings?

Will we be ready whenever He returns, or when our lives are over? Or will our attitude be like the servant who lived as if there was no accountability, only to find out too late that there is, and we are being held accountable? As the Bible tells us, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

The right choice is clearly the first one—to choose to base our lives on the teachings of Jesus, to be in a healthy relationship with God, to love Him and others, and to be faithful in what He has called us to do. In living this way, we will be blessed not only in the present, but for all eternity.

Originally published February 2018. Adapted and republished July 2024. Read by Jon Marc.

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