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Parable of the Servants, based on Matt. 25:14-30, by Joe Ellis, Nov. 15, 2020

Let me begin with a question that might not seem particularly important but actually has a huge impact on how we understand this parable: Who is Jesus talking to? When I’ve heard this parable, I’ve often assume he is talking to me and other Christians — I’m not wanting to be egocentric — I’d be OK with saying that Jesus is talking to me and other Christians throughout history and across the world. But the challenge is that Jesus isn’t talking to me and other Christians throughout the world. He’s talking to the disciples. This is important because the way that I and many other Christians have interpreted this parable would have made little sense to the disciples of Jesus. Our interpretations often go along these lines: the man going on a journey is Jesus. His journey began after His ascension (that’ when He officially left). The servants in this parable are Christians. Christians will be judged at the the end of time, when Christ returns, on what they do with the talents entrusted to them. The ones who do nothing will suffer judgment. The one’s who multiply what they’ve been given will hear praise, “Well done, good and trustworthy slaves — enter into the joy of your master.” That’s what I’ve heard, which is great for the part of me that’s performance driven and loves getting gold stars. It’s not so great for the part of me that worries I’m not doing enough. Yet there are a few challenges with that line of interpretation — one is that Jesus’ 1

disciples never would have understood this parable as about the second coming of Jesus. That would have made no sense to them. They were having a hard enough time believing that Jesus would actually be crucified — let alone believing that he would rise from the dead — let alone believing that he would ascend into heaven — let alone that he would return in a second coming where he would judge the living and the dead. All true, but way beyond what the disciple were capable of understanding. From our vantage point, reading the letters of Paul, and Revelation, we have a mental model for the second coming of Jesus, and we’re waiting for Jesus’ return. Yet that concept was far beyond what the disciples would have been able to comprehend. Which begs the question — who is Jesus talking to? Is Jesus talking to the disciples in way that they would understand? Or is he talking over their heads to us? The way you answer that will reveal something about what you believe took place in the incarnation. In the Gospels, does Jesus speak in a way that takes seriously His disciple’s history, and politics, and culture, and readings of Scripture? Or does he ignore all that, stand outside any definite historical moment, and speak to no one in particular about concepts that the people listening would not have been remotely able to understand? The way that we answer that question (and I’ve asked it in a way to let you know what I think), say a lot about the incarnation. One is a picture of Jesus as God with us. The other is a picture of God with no one in particular. Let’s imagine that Jesus actually is speaking to His disciples in a way that they’ll be able to understand. What might have he been saying to them? 1

This parable is part of a conversation that beings in Matthew 24 with the disciples. This conversation begins when Jesus and His disciples leave the temple and Jesus prophecies that the temple will soon be destroyed as a sign of God’s judgment upon Israel. This will also be the sign that Jesus is in the right, and represents God’s true Israel. This is so important I want to repeat it: Jesus prophecies that the temple will soon be destroyed as a sign of God’s judgment upon Israel. The destruction of the temple will also be the sign that Jesus is in the right, and represents God’s true Israel. In the conversation that follows, which includes this parable, Jesus is helping His disciples understand all this. On a historical note, in 70 AD the temple was destroyed by the Romans, exactly as Jesus said would happen as a sign of God’s judgment on Israel. How doe this fit in with the disciples’ context of history, culture and Scripture? Two weeks ago we looked at the Beatitude where Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. I mentioned that this word comfort was a throwback to Isaiah 40, which says “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” This was a word to a people who were separated from their land longing to return. This was a word of comfort to a people who felt separated from their God, and wanted reconciliation. This we call exile. Isaiah 40 is a word of comfort, a promise that this exile would soon end. Isaiah 40 promises not only will they return to the land, they will be reconciled with God. God says to Isaiah, “Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might...”. Through Isaiah, God is promising that He will return to His people. 1

In a context where the people were waiting eagerly for God to return and dwell among them, Jesus tells a story about a master who has gone on a journey and has returned. In the parables of Jesus, as well as in many other Jewish parables, the King or master most often represents God, and the figure of the servant or slave represents Israel. Jesus is talking to His disciples about a master returning from His journey and dealing with His servants — the disciples would have naturally heard Jesus telling a story about what would happen when God finally returned. When we hear this story, we’re thinking of our own point of history, waiting for the second coming of Jesus. We think the disciples were located somewhere at the beginning of this story, shortly before the master left. The disciples would have heard it from the other end. They would have thought that Jesus was saying that God would very soon return to the people. The disciples would not have heard this as a story about Jesus going away and his personal return, but about what’s going to happen when God shortly returns. This is a parable of judgment. Notice that in this parable, Jesus spends the most time talking about the fate of the third servant. If this is a parable about what happens to individual Christians if they squander their gifts and abilities — its enough to make you sweat, or at least read quickly past it. But Jesus doesn’t quickly brush past the third servant, he spends the most time on the third statement, and his words are not kind: “Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus slows this story down and has us dwell on the judgment of the third and 1

worthless servant. Throughout the New Testament, Christians are never spoken of as receiving this sort of judgment. Never. If this servant represents Israel, what might Jesus be saying? Nothing new. So Isaiah 40 says, “Comfort my people.” The prophet Malachi offers a different take on what will happen when God returns to His people. Malachi recognizes that the may not be a cause for celebration. Remember Jesus is telling this parable right after he talked about the destruction of the temple as a sign of judgment. That’s right in line with what God says through Malachi, “Suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come... But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?... So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me.” So, when Jesus tells a story of the master coming in judgment on the third servant, he’s just preaching the book of Malachi: the leaders of Israel have been faithless, violent, corrupt, and unjust. They’ve kept to themselves the priceless gifts God has given them. They’ve just buried it in the ground. The Lord I coming and with Him —judgment. We’ve talked about God and Israel, where doe Jesus fit in this picture? He fits in on three levels. First, Jesus is the faithful servant. Everything Jesus said and did throughout his ministry underscores the point that He is the embodiment of Israel, faithful Israel. Through His ministry Jesus called all to 1

repent and follow him, join God’s true Israel. Jesus is faithful Israel. In His parable, Jesus is the good and faithful servant who gained five more bags of gold on top of the five He was given. This parable is a promise that when accounts will be settled, God will make abundantly clear who represent true Israel. The temple and its leaders will be in ruin, yet the people who gather around Jesus will endure, will be glorified, will be shown to be in the right. The destruction of the temple was a revelation of judgment. The resurrection was a revelation of glory, God’s vindication of Jesus as the good, faithful servant. The second way Jesus appears in this parable is as the master. As we unpacked in a sermon about 7 weeks ago, everything that Malachi says God will do when He comes, we see Jesus do. In Malachi, God says that He will come and if the people are unrepentant he will enter the temple in judgment and then he will curse the land. In Matthew 21, Jesus follows Malachi to a T. Jesus enters the temple in judgment, he flips over the tables, he kicks out the money changers, he brings the sacrificial system to a halt. In Jesus, God enters the temple in judgment, symbolically acting out the doomed fate that await the temple and it leaders. Malachi then says God will curse the land. Jesus immediately leaves the temple and curses a fig tree which withers on the spot. Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH who has come to His people. The message is clear — Jesus offers the people a choice: follow him to peace, or turn away towards destruction. Jesus tells a similar parable in the Gospel of Luke. Shortly after He stands outside Jerusalem weeping, “If you, even you, had only known on this day that would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your 1

eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you. Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH, God, offering a choice to follow him to peace, or turn away towards destruction. Jesus came to Jerusalem as the embodiment of YHWH, but they missed Him. I believe Jesus appear in a third way in this parable. I’m not sure He intended to appear in this way, but I see him there all the same. We’ve talked about how Jesus embodies YHWH as the master in this story. Jesus embodies true Israel, as the faithful servant. Yet Jesus also embodies faithless Israel, as the servant who buried the bag of gold. We said Jesus presented the choice between peace and destruction — yet Jesus takes on Himself that destruction Jesus enters Jerusalem prepared for his own destruction. Jesus enters Jerusalem to endure the same fate that would later befall the city and the temple — utter ruin. What happens to Israel — even faithless Israel, happens to Jesus. Once in Jerusalem, Jesus became the faithless servant who buried the bag of gold and was cast into the outer darkness. Once in Jerusalem, Jesus would be improperly tried, violently beaten, and forced to endure the horror of the cross. Jesus endured the fate of the wicked servant. On the cross Jesus embodied the worst in us, so that through faith we might become identified with the best in Him. On the cross, Jesus embodied faithless Israel so that we might be called a part of faithful Israel, children of God. 1

This does not apply only to the Jews Jesus was addressing. Paul says in Romans, “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks God.” Jesus tells a parable of judgment for the faithless servant Israel. We can all be included. Jesus presented the choice to the people of Israel, they could either repent and follow Him or they would face the judgment of God as their temple and city are destroyed. The same choice continues to this day. We can reject Jesus, reject his offer of salvation, reject His taking our punishment on Himself. Or we can follow Jesus, receive this gift of mercy, receive God’s grace despite our own unfaithfulness. We can receive Jesus, who took on God’s wrath on our behalf so that we might become children of God. Our sins paid for in full. We are evidence of the way the Spirit has multiplied in Jesus the treasures of God. This is what we celebrate and remember in the Lord’s Super. When we come to the body and blood of Christ, we come with everything in us that could be called a failure, wicked, lazy, stupid, abandoned, cast off — all the attributes of the faithless servant — we bring these to the Table. Jesus stakes them in Himself — His body. Yet as we eat His body, and drink His blood, we become Him. We join ourselves to the faithful servant. We become God’s true Israel. We are children fo God.


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