Faithful Servants, Talents and Evil Masters
Well done good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Matthew 25:21 This passage is one of the most often taught in the Christian world, expressing the benefits of working hard for the kingdom of God, of perseverance through tough times and of holding out for the reward to come in the next life. If we serve God wholeheartedly, denying ourselves and putting the kingdom first, we will hear God speak these words to us when we finally go to meet him face to face. Robbing from the poor to pay the rich It all may sound innocent enough, but there is something disturbing about this parable. The master is an inherently evil character in the story, a hard man who has made his fortune from stealing from others, “harvesting where [he has] not sown and gathering where [he has] not scattered seed” (vs 24). The master responds violently to the accusation, and yet he never contradicts it. In fact, the master agrees wholeheartedly with what the ‘lazy’ servant has proclaimed. In effect, the master tells the servant, “You knew I was such a dirty dealer? Then you should have at least given me something more than what you started with. Throw this worthless man out of my presence.” Does this seem strange to you? Especially when we try to reconcile this figure of the evil master with the loving Father that Jesus reveals? Is He a temperamental, petty, vengeful master, whose favour is entirely dependant on our ability? Loving service vs servitude And what of the servant mentality that seems to be at the core of this parable? Why would Jesus be pushing his hearers to take on such indentured servitude in the kingdom of God? In another parable, the prodigal and the older brother take on servant identities and are rebuked by a loving Father who wants nothing more than to bestow the belief in their sonship on them both. Jesus does speak quite frequently elsewhere on the virtues of servanthood, but always in the context of how we should honour each other, never in trying to attain some kind of special favour from God. It is because of our inheritance, our inclusion in the family of God, where we already have everything we could ever hope for, that we are encouraged to give ourselves for others. Sons or slaves? So are we sons and daughters, enjoying our inheritance and sharing it generously with others, or are we servants, enslaved to a system of working for blessing, all the while fearing God’s wrath if we fall short of his expectations? Where is the gospel in this parable? I would surmise that this way of reading the parable reflects the opposite of the Good News. A new kind of hero Let me propose a new hero in this story. The ‘lazy’ servant is, in all actuality, not lazy at all. He has critiqued his society and his leaders as being selfish and greedy, relying on a system of debt to take away the wealth of ordinary people and add it their own coffers. When his master demands that he follow suit and make more money via the same means, he resists, giving back to the master what is rightly (and perhaps more likely, not so rightly) his, and choosing to speak truth to the corrupt power that has his community enslaved. This servant fearlessly denounces his leader, knowing full well the repercussions of such dissent and the labels of laziness that will tarnish his own reputation. But he knows his inheritance is in the kingdom of God that cannot be taken away and finds the boldness to be a voice for the powerless in his community. This flips the expectations that we have for placing ourselves in the story with the first servants. They are no longer the ‘good’ servants, they are the ones willingly working under a corrupted system, knowingly or otherwise. They are the ones tirelessly working for the reward of making their master richer at the expense of the poor, hoping that he will throw them a bone at some point. Burning out for the Kingdom How many of us have buckled under the pressure of God’s expectations, to be good witnesses, to be good parents, to be good people? How many of us have burned out serving the church, striving to carry out its vision in our local settings, stretching ourselves thin in voluntary ministries, all the while attending regular services, prayer meetings, home groups and Bible studies and still finding time to meet with our unbelieving friends so that we can share the gospel with them? Not that any of these things are inherently bad, but how often do we push ourselves to meet so many spiritual commitments at the expense of our own lives and dreams, all with the hope of hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You can finally enter your master’s rest”? Has the church become the evil master of the parable, demanding so much of its members with the promise of future rest and reward? Do we not already have the inheritance? Are we not already in our Father’s rest? Are we ripping people off by offering them a future reward that is already theirs, here and now? Could we find courage in our sonship to speak the truth to power? Could we find peace in being clothed like the prodigal, with our Father’s cloak and rings, and not buy into the religious striving so prevalent today?
And what of our current political state? Many of us do much to help, but could we as the church finally stand up and be a united voice for the poor and marginalised? Could we boldly declare that our governments’ systematic treatment of the poor is fatally flawed while it continues to uphold and create systems that promote such an unequal distribution of wealth, making more and more cuts to pensions and services for the poor, labelling them ‘lazy’ while providing massive handouts to the richest in society?
A needed boldness, a new identity So church, it is time to enter the rest you have been desiring for so long. The rest that has always been yours. It is time to find confidence and boldness and become the voice for the poor and the poor in spirit, in your congregations and in your communities. It is time to lead by example and hold corrupt powers to account. It is time to denounce divisive labels and speak loudly for a better way. For a more encouraging and inclusive culture that acknowledges the little guy and seeks to make the kingdom of God a reality for all people, not just the privileged.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia. See all previous articles by Russell Croft