The Faithful and Unfaithful Servant: Matthew 24:45-51 – Rev Phil Wall
So, back in the UK, there is a BBC radio program called ‘Desert Island Discs’. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s a fascinating show in which the great and the good – politicians, scientists, athletes and the like – share stories about their life over the show’s hour and the conversation had is built upon the premise that the interviewee is about to be marooned on a desert island. To that island, they are allowed to take a book, a luxury item and 8 pieces of music or recordings. Each interview is unique but the 8 music choices often fall into 3 categories – music that is personal to the interviewee; music that tells the listener something about the interviewee’s worldview; and music that the interviewee simply likes. Well, as I began to think about today’s sermon, I wondered, given the many parables that you’ve been looking at this year, which 8 you might choose to take to a desert island. Which parables feel personal to you, which say something about your worldview, which is simply your favourite? It might be interesting at the end of the year to find out which ones are most loved by the church at large. The Prodigal Son would no doubt be up there. The Good Samaritan, The Mustard Seed would probably make an appearance. Sheep and goats, the sower and the seed, perhaps. Well, one that I doubt would make it into anyone’s top 8 would be the one we just heard – the parable of the faithful and the unfaithful servant. As parables go, it seems it’s no-one’s go to. It doesn’t appear in the lectionary, is overlooked by most commentators and is rarely touched by us preachers. And who could blame us for, at least at first look, it is a shocker. In just 6 verses we’ve got slavery, retribution, weeping, gnashing of teeth and mutilation. So I’d just like to take a moment to thank Martin and Anne for their generosity and kindness in inviting me to preach on this passage!!!
Given the parable’s general obscurity, you’d be forgiven for not being well acquainted with it or for getting it confused with some of the other master/servant parables in Matthew’s account of things. The one with which we wrestle today is found midst a lengthy passage in which Jesus is condemning the Temple system and warning of troubled times to come. The parable itself is fairly sparse in detail and opens with a question:
“Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?”
I love the fact that even when talking about judgment and future destruction, Jesus can relate everything to food. A man after my own heart!
Anyway, Jesus goes on to expand his teaching by saying that the faithful servant at work when his master returns will be rewarded whilst the one who thinks his master is delayed will turn to drink, abuse his fellow slaves and will be in big trouble when the master comes back. Or, as it’s put in The Message translation –
“The Master is going to show up when he least expects it and make hash of him. He’ll end up in the dump with the hypocrites, out in the cold shivering, teeth chattering.”
Lovely! I say that somewhat sarcastically, of course, but then there are many of our sisters and brothers who would say ‘Amen’ to a literal understanding of the parable – that the faithful will be rewarded and the bad will be punished. As part of my education in all things Kiwi, I’ve caught up on a tv show about Gloriavale and I whilst I can’t assume their take on this particular parable, it’s certainly true to say that they’re looking forward to the day when, they believe, Christ will return, the saved will go to paradise and the rest of us will go to hell…and lest we be too quick to judge such a view we might be reminded that this was a foundational belief of our Presbyterian forebears.
Today, however, I’d like to think that we’ve been led to a more grace-soaked outlook. Today, I’d like to think that such a literal, straightforward interpretation of the parable feels unsatisfactory to us – not only because it is at odds with the picture of a God of extravagant love and boundless grace that we see elsewhere in the Bible, indeed in our daily lives – but also because we’ve come to know that parables just don’t work like that. Jesus – perhaps infuriatingly – never tells a straightforward story to convey a straightforward truth. Parables are always tricksy tales, sideways stories that engage and enrage us. So whilst there may be strands of comparison between the waiting servants and us, the returning master and Jesus, to try to simply equate the two would be to misunderstand the parables of Jesus, to misidentify God as a callous, unforgiving Master and to falsely picture the next life as a consequence of reward and punishment.
But if we can’t reduce Jesus’ parable to such a simplistic story, what do we do with it? No, seriously, what do we do with it – it’s not a rhetorical question! What would you do, how would you respond if a non-church going friend stumbled upon this passage and asked you what it said about God?! Okay, so the chances of that might be unlikely, but as followers of Christ, as people of the Book, we may well be asked to explain how such strange or sinister passages sit alongside calls to forgive neighbours and love enemies in our scripture. Just this week, I met up with a member of this church – in Misceo’s of course – and the same question was asked about the more shadowy passages of the Old Testament. The near sacrifice of Isaac; the murder of Jephthah’s daughter; the flood. What do we do with such tough passages?!
Well, one answer is that we do absolutely nothing at all! Just as someone suggested at the last Table Talk evening, perhaps we need to let the story speak for itself, offering little explanation, interpretation or justification. Yes, we might find it shocking but perhaps that’s the point of Jesus’ parable – to shock, to challenge, to affront our normal way of thinking.
“Maybe we should preach more of [these powerful and raw stories],” says American theologian Barbara Brown Taylor in her enlightening book, ‘When God is Silent’, “…[A]nd where they are obscure, troubling or incomplete, perhaps we should leave them that way. Who are we, after all, to defend God? Once, after the composer Robert Schumann had played a particularly difficult [composition],” she continues, “he was asked by a member of his audience please to explain it. In reply, Schumann sat down and played it again. We could do worse than to follow his example when we come to particularly difficult pieces of God’s music. Our job is not always to explain them. Sometimes it is enough to play them again so that they are heard in all their tooth-rattling dissonance.”
What do you think? Perhaps we might let the story speak for itself…to be shocked and stunned, shaken and stirred by what the story brings us without feeling like we need to explain it away.
For some of us, this won’t be good enough. Even hearing a story of patriarchal vengeance and violence in a community where love, grace and peace are meant to be preached and practiced might feel abusive. What is needed, we might think, is to wrestle with the text, to redeem it even through interpretative and imaginative means. So I wonder how we might come to view this parable – and all of the master and slave ones recorded by Matthew – if we imagined that the powerful men in the stories weren’t meant to be metaphors for God. What if, instead, these parables unmasked the violence in our societies so as to lead the hearers to question or even overthrow the unjust, violent, patriarchal systems of our day? Perhaps, as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of New Zealand leading the world in women’s suffrage, this would be a particularly fitting perspective to consider.
Or what if we imagined Jesus in the role not of Master but as both servants? Sure, we could see him playing the part of the faithful servant, generously feeding his people and being lauded as a consequence but what if he stood in for the other servant too? Not the abuse of others but the taking of the consequences – the absorbing of the violence that would otherwise destroy us? After all, doesn’t that servant end up with those weeping and gnashing their teeth? Could it be that those weeping are those crying out for bread, crying out for justice, are those shivering in cold isolation? And isn’t this where Jesus was to be found…is to be found today – with those on the margins of society, outside the circles of power, keeping company with the forgotten, the desperate, the shamed? What might this imaginative interpretation of the parable have to say to us?
To recap then, some of us may wish to respond to today’s parable and indeed to any troublesome text from the Bible with silence, letting the story for speak for itself; others choose to imaginatively enter the story, being open to what the Spirit might reveal through creative interpretation; and still others might wish to seek the good news of God’s loving nature which they believe must be present within the text, however hidden it might appear. For those of you with this inclination, good news
can indeed be found in the text. It’s generally considered that Matthew was writing at a time when Jerusalem and its Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. This is likely to have influenced the emphasis of Matthew’s reporting and so many believe that this parable was written to be good news to the disciples – as evidence that Jesus knew of Jerusalem’s coming destruction; indeed that it was of God – the unfaithful servants representing the unjust religious leaders of the city who mistreated others and thus reaped the violence they sowed.
That might not immediately sound like good news to our 21st century ears, but it would be the equivalent of me saying – “Don’t look to Trump or Brexit; to the rise of fascism across the globe today and lose hope…for those corrupt rulers and regimes will pass. God’s love will topple them all and in the end, all shall be well.” Perhaps that’s the good news that this parable offer…not to lose hope in the face of unjust leaders but to believe in God’s sovereignty and justice.
But, after all this, what do you think? Which response speaks to you? Which explanation would you give to a confused friend? Do you offer no defence; creatively play with the story; or seek the good within it?
For what it’s worth, I believe that God might be honoured and revealed in each of these responses. For our reaction to such confusing and violent passages in the Bible might well be mirrored in our reactions to the confusing and violent stories we encounter in our churches, communities and personal lives. How do we, as followers of Christ, respond to those who have lived through the storm of war; those who have seen their homes destroyed by earthquake; those who carry the agony of losing a child? Well, just as with the parable, sometimes the best thing to do might well be to offer no explanation in the face of suffering but to simply listen to the stories of others, staying with their pain and offering no easy answers.
At other times, our God-given creativity must be used to imagine how tragedies might be transformed; how injustices can be put right; how a kingdom of justice and joy might redeem a world of fear and despair.
At still other times, we might be called to seek the good in difficult situations – to be hope detectives, gospel guides in our homes, streets and communities, being open to what the Spirit is saying through scripture and the stranger, through life’s magnificence and messiness, through good news and tough times.
So I don’t know about you but I’m taking the parable of the faithful and unfaithful steward to my desert island. It might not be the shiniest, the brightest or best of the parables but I have space in my life, I have need in my faith, for a story that contains a few rough edges; for a tale that fascinates and frustrates me; for a parable that hints at hope yet calls me to work still harder to glimpse the grace and glory of God. Amen.