Unfaithful servants

Jesus doesn’t tell us about all ten servants: just three. That’s just enough to make the point that among the faithful, there are different capacities, and just enough to make the point that not all the servants are faithful.

Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief…

At least he kept it safe. Better than losing it. But he wasn’t going to keep it. What he had was taken from him and given to the first (faithful) servant.

What was wrong with this man? Why, when his colleagues were working hard, nailing their colours to the mast by faithfully developing their master’s interests, did he do nothing?

Fear, apparently. Here is what he said:

I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.

That’s the reason he gave. Whether or not it was an excuse, attempting to cover up other reasons, that’s what he said and the master took him at face value. He was afraid of his master. Was he afraid of failure? Was he afraid that if he somehow let this harsh man down, he would have it in for him?

Fear can paralyse action.

A farmer in the southern part of the United States was sitting on the steps of his tumbledown house. A stranger stopped for a drink from the farmer’s well and asked how the cotton was coming along.

“Ain’t got none,” was the farmer’s reply.

“Did you plant any?” asked the stranger.

“Nope,” said the farmer. “Afraid of the bollweevils.”

“Well then, how’s your corn?”

“Didn’t plant no corn either. Afraid there weren’g gonna be enough rain.”

The stranger persisted. “How are your potatoes?”

“Didn’t plant none. Scared of potato bugs.”

By now the stranger was frustrated. “Well, what did you plant?” he asked.

“Nothing,” replied the farmer, “I just played it safe.”

It’s a bit light-hearted in comparison with what is happening in Jesus’ story, but it’s an illustration of what fear can do. It was the third servant’s fear of his master that prevented him from putting his share of the investment to work.

He was afraid of his master, but you have to wonder about his opinion of him. Look at what he said about him:

  • He accused him of being a severe man. Austere, if you like.
  • He accused him of taking what he had not deposited.
  • He accused him of reaping what he did not sow.

He made his master sound like a bandit who swoops on unsuspecting communities to pillage them.

But is that the picture that the rest of the story give of the master? Was he really like that?

We’ll come to that in a moment, but first we notice that the master decided to take the servant’s words at face value. He would judge him on the basis of his own opinions. No attempt to justify himself or argue against what the servant had said, but if that is what the servant thought, then why did he not at least take the money to the bank where there would have been some interest paid? If the master really was the kind of man the servant claims he was, that would have suited well. But the servant had not even acted in line with his opinion of his master.

As far as the accuracy of that opinion is concerned, what do you think? The master actually seemed to be a generous man, prepared to entrust a section of his wealth to his servants. Not only was he generous in his investment, he was generous with his reward and with his praise.

But instead of seeing the opportunity to work for his master as a privilege, the third servant saw only what he believed to be a grasping man whom he feared and resented.

It’s always convenient to attach blame for your own shortcomings on what you believe are the defects of someone else.

Take a moment to think a bit more about how the servant’s view of his master affected him and how our view of our King affects how we serve him.

A distorted view of the King limits our effectiveness.

It is hard to give yourself generously as a steward if you don’t believe that your King is generous. It is hard to take risks for the King if you don’t believe he is generous. If you believe him to be mean-spirited and grasping, you will believe that he doesn’t deserve your service.

The famous Bible commentator from three hundred years ago, Matthew Henry, made an insightful comment on the third servant in the Matthew story of the talents.

The spirit of a slave; I was afraid. This ill affection toward God arose from his false notions of him; and nothing is more unworthy of God, no more hinders our duty to him, than slavish fear. This has bondage and torment, and is directly opposite to that entire love which the great commandment requires. Note, hard thoughts of God drive us from, and cramp us in his service. Those who think it impossible to please him, and in vain to serve him, will so nothing to purpose in religion.

Henry was spot on. If you think God is impossible to please you will either drive yourself to distraction trying to please him, but believing that your goal is always going to be just out of reach, or you will be tempted to give up and walk away.

So much of what we do flows from what we think of God. John Owen said that the greatest unkindness we can do to the Father is not to believe that he loves us.

If we are convinced that he is generous and gracious, then we will not find it hard to be generous and gracious. It will be our delight to serve him and be good stewards of whatever opportunity he sends our way.

A distorted view of the King may mean that we are not true servants at all.

We’ve already thought about the king’s opponents and we will return to them in the final part of this story. They were rebels who did not want to accept the rule of the king. But when you think about it, the third servant was not so different. Basically, he refused to serve the king. There is not a lot of difference between refusing to serve the king and making a declaration that you won’t accept his rule. The third servant’s heart was not so different from that of the rebels, even if he received a different punishment.

His punishment was to lose what he had.

There were people who thought it wasn’t fair that he should end up with nothing while the first servant got even more. But equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcome.

The flip-side of the principle that faithfulness is rewarded with increased responsibility is that unfaithfulness results in a withdrawal of trust. Someone who is faithful in little can be entrusted with much; someone who is unfaithful with little cannot expect to hold onto even the little he has.

John Ortberg tells a story about his aunt Florence. He recalls how, after she died, his grandfather offered his mother a box of old dishes he had found in the attic. It turned out to be an exquisite set of china. Ortberg describes them:

“Each plate had been individually painted with a pattern of forget-me-nots. The cups were inlaid mother-of-pearl. The dishes and cups were rimmed with gold.”

The strange thing was that neither Ortberg’s mother (who had been in the family for twenty years) nor his father (who had grown up in the family) had ever seen the set before.

Eventually they discovered the story of the china. Florence had been given the pieces over a period of years; people would give her a piece to mark some special occasion. Whenever she received a new piece, she would wrap it carefully in a piece of tissue, put it in a box and store it for a special occasion. Sadly, no occasion special enough ever came along. The precious gifts stayed in the box.

Don’t allow fear, a distorted view of God, or the wait for “just the right time” to prevent you from making best use of your share of kingdom life.

Next: The rebels.

Previous: Faithful servants.

Part one: The return of the king.

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