Faithful servants

What would you do if someone gave you the equivalent of three months wages and told you to put it to work?

That’s what happened with the ten servants in Jesus’ story. Each of them was given one mina (basically the equivalent of three months wages) and their job was to put it to work, doing business until their master returned.

A number of years ago I read about a church in the United States that ran a six week project which involved giving 10 dollars each to several of their members. The idea was that if you were one of the fifty people who received 10 dollars you had to put the money to work and make some profit. The profits would be allocated to a particular ministry.

Some people used their 10 dollars to buy baking ingredients. They raised money by selling what they had baked. Someone made a recording of the church’s musicians and sold copies for 5 dollars. A group of people got together and produced a cookery book. By the end of six weeks what had started as 500 dollars had become almost 3000 dollars which was sent to a church in Ukraine.

The key word in how the king’s servants were evaluated on his return is faithfulness. Initiative and creativity are vital, but this story is about being faithful. Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that

we are not called upon to be successful, but to be faithful.

There are several things we need to notice about faithful servants:

Faithful servants are faithful when there is no immediate reward.

This is an important emphasis in the story in view of the reason Jesus had for telling it. He wanted to dampen expectations of an immediate coronation and kingdom. People needed to know that there was going to be a waiting time.

The ten servants would have to wait. All they knew was that their master had promised to return. They would have to be faithful until that time, even if they did not know when exactly he would be back.

Jesus’ disciples would have to wait. This was underlined for them on the day that Jesus left earth to return to heaven. According to Acts 1 they were keen to know if he was about to restore the kingdom to their nation of Israel. Not only was their expectation too limited in terms of the scope of his kingdom; they had to understand that they would not be privy to the timetable.

It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

They were going to have to wait. They were going to have to be faithful. And the Holy Spirit would empower them for the task of worldwide witness.

That was some two thousand years ago. The timetable is still secret and the task is still the same.

Every follower of Jesus has been entrusted with a share in the life of the coming kingdom. Are we faithful to what has been entrusted to us, even if we don’t know the timetable? Faithfulness is not really measured in how well we do in the short-term. Anyone can rise once or twice to the big occasion. Faithfulness means staying at it over the long haul, even when the end is not in clear sight.

Faithful servants are faithful in a climate of opposition.

And faithfulness is also expressed when the circumstances are not favourable.

Not everyone in the story wanted the nobleman to be king. In fact some (the majority?) of the people were strongly opposed to the idea. They actually got a delegation together who were tasked with the job of opposing his appointment.

I think that is an important piece of background to have in mind when we reflect on the faithfulness of his servants. It’s one thing to be working for the king when everyone loves him; it’s quite another to be working for him when most people hate him. The fact that at least some of the servants had been faithfully putting their master’s investment to work was a clear demonstration that they accepted his kingship: they were on his side.

I don’t know if any of the king’s servants ever wondered to themselves whether they might have backed the wrong horse. What if their man never cam back? What if his rule was never established? What if his opponents won the day? What if someone else won the emperor’s approval?

Kenneth Bailey, who has written some wonderful material on the gospels, not least about the parables of Jesus, talks about a time when he was working at a Bible training college in Latvia. He realised that one of the key questions in the interview process for prospective pastors had to do with when they had been baptised: had they been baptised during the communist era, or had they been baptised post-communism.

Faithfulness is more clearly seen when it is lived out in a climate of opposition.

This is a very real issue for many Christians across the world. Over the past few weeks many of us have had our attention drawn to the courage of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor who refuses to recant his Christian faith and as a consequence has been sentenced to death. That’s what faithfulness looks like in a setting that does not recognise King Jesus.

There is an awful lot more to faithful stewardship than filling in a spiritual gift inventory (not that that is necessarily a bad thing) or volunteering to serve dinner at your church’s Christmas outreach to the homeless. Faithfulness means expressing our allegiance to the King when most of the people we know reject him.

It’s one thing for a young person who grows up in a supportive Christian family and attends a warm fellowship to be faithful: it is good that they are. But what happens when that young person finds themselves at university where suddenly they are rubbing shoulders with a new crowd whose lives loudly proclaim that they serve a different king?

It is often when we step out of a sheltered environment into the chilly atmosphere of opposition, or pluralism, or just indifference, that we need to take stock and renew our commitment to the coming King.

Faithful servants are faithful in small things.

Notice what the king said to the first servant.

You have been faithful in a very little.

I must confess that with my sense of economics, three months wages seems like a decent amount. Convert it to today’s values and even at minimum UK wage it is about three thousand pounds. The king must have been extremely wealthy to consider the amount he had entrusted as “very little.” Certainly a few months wages is not much in comparison with the stewardship of an entire city, or several entire cities, which was the faithful servants’ reward.

Most of us who read this are unlikely to face the kind of test of our faithfulness that Pastor Nadakhani has faced in Iran. Instead, our faithfulness is measured out in a hundred and one little things.

American preacher Fred Craddock gave this memorable illustration of faithful commitment, expressed in small ways, over the long haul.

 To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself out for others. . . to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom — I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking $l,000 bill and laying it on the table– ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $l,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at at time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.

It’s an important emphasis. God looks for, and notices faithfulness in small things. Faithfulness is not determined by the magnitude of the responsibility. Nothing is so small that God doesn’t notice.

It’s unfortunate that the Christian church falls so easily into the wider society’s cult of celebrity. We have our celebrity speakers and worship leaders. We have our famous authors whose books everyone buys and whom everyone will flock to hear if they make an appearance at a conference. My point is not to denigrate either the gifting or the faithfulness of these people; but what about the so-called “little people”?

It was Francis Schaeffer who said that

… in God’s sight there are no little people and no little places.

I’m not sure that we always believe that.

Allied to our celebrity culture there is a tendency to value the things that put people on platforms and devalue what goes on behind the scenes.

The King takes note of faithfulness in small things.

Sometimes he uses the small things as a training ground for wider responsibilities. But we need to remember that sometimes the our valuation is all wrong. It is the apparently small, often hidden work that will turn out to have been far more significant than anyone could imagine.

Faithful servants will be rewarded for their faithfulness.

When the king returned he rewarded his servants for their faithfulness. The rewards were in proportion to the amount of money each servant has gained. The servants don’t really claim success for themselves: it was the master’s mina that gained a further ten, or a further five.

There is another, similar story in Matthew where a significant difference lies in the fact that the servants were not given the same amount to work with, depending on how the master judged each servant’s ability. Here, however, the emphasis is on equal opportunity.

The story then becomes a reminder that even when opportunities are equal, some people make more of what is given to them than others. It works with time, for example. Everyone gets twenty-four hours in a day. There are people (I’m tempted to say like Jack Bauer) who manage to accomplish far more in their twenty-four hours than others: their output and fruitfulness are intimidating.

While it is true that demands of work and family may vary and affect the amount of discretionary time available, and it’s also true that some people get by on a lot less sleep than others, the important challenge is to make sure that you make the most of what is given to you. Whatever your capacity.

It’s also important to notice that the reward for good work was more work, not retirement in a sun-kissed resort! The returning king allocated further, increased responsibilities to his servants. They went from being stewards of the equivalent of a few months wages to being stewards of five or even ten cities.

Faithfulness in small things will always be noticed by God and should always be valued. The small things and small places function as a testing ground and faithfulness in them leads to greater responsibility, if not in this life, then in the next.

There was, sadly, another servant who followed a different course of action.

Next: The Unfaithful Servant.

Previous: Introduction to The Return of the King.

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