Matthew 24:42, 45, 46

We cannot be exactly sure when our Lord will return. We know from the signs that it will be soon. We do know that before his appearing there will be a time of trouble such as never was, distress of nations with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring. Our Lord warns us to expect rough times ahead both ecclesially and personally. How are we going to cope? Are we prepared? How will we keep our bearings in times of uncertainty? How do we deal with the (psychological) pressures this world places on us all and our loved ones?

Christ had a message for us all in Matthew 24 when he warned that the days before his return would be as the days of Noah. The days of Noah were notorious for violence and evil. But the Lord does not draw attention to this as much as to the materialism that prevailed, eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage (Matt 24:37–39). The distinction between the sons of God and the sons of men had become so blurred that in the end only eight people remained as true representatives of the sons of God. There may have been more than this that called themselves sons of God in Noah’s day but the flood took them all by surprise and they perished with the rest of the wicked.

So will it be at the judgment, says Christ (v40,41). Men working in the field and women working at the mill will appear to be working together in a common cause, but one shall be “taken” and the other “left”. The word “taken” means “to take to one’s self, as when a man takes a wife”. The word “left” means “to send away”. Both individuals are called to judgment, but the Lord accepts one and the other is sent forth into the world to experience the time of trouble predicted in the Scriptures.

The remainder of the Lord’s discourse is an exhortation to “watch and pray” (Mark 13:33). What is it that the Lord wanted believers to watch? Current events? In Mark 13:34 the Lord likens his absence to a householder who “left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch”. Christ’s concern was for his “house” or “home”, as the word properly means. He expected the doorkeepers to be on the watch, not so much for the signs without, as the work within.

This is the sense of what Christ says in Matthew 24:45: “Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?In the master’s absence, his servants are to show wisdom and faithfulness. The Lord subsequently illustrates these qualities in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the parable of the talents or faithful and unfaithful servants. The usual Greek word for ruler is archon, but here the expression “made ruler” (Grk kathistemi) is better rendered as “one set down, appointed or placed”. The work assigned to the Lord’s servants is not so much rulership as mutual service to one another. The idea is well illustrated in the meaning of the word “household”. This is not the usual Greek word for household but is the Greek word therapeia translated “healing” in Luke 9:11 and Revelation 22:2. We can readily recognise the English word therapy in the Greek and it literally means “waiting on, service, attendance, tending, medical treatment”. Hence, the word here translated “household” means more particularly “a body of attendants”. The ecclesia is to be a community of attendants, therapists or healers and in prospect constitute the leaves of the tree of life for the healing of the nations. In the succeeding parables they are represented as “waiting on” their master. Whilst he is away each servant must give nourishment to his fellow-servant in due season.

The Lord’s words make it clear that watchfulness is more to do with watching the spiritual health of the other members of the household. The whole community is responsible for this service. All are to be interested in their fellow-servants’ well-being—it is not something to be franchised out to a few specialists. We must give priority to dispensing “preventative medicine” in the form of good nutrition, for the “meat” must be given “in due season”, that is, at the proper time, when there is opportunity, before lost coins become lost sheep. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure.

The Lord has identified two issues here. The first is that a servant must be in a position to deliver nourishment. The second is that he must do it in a timely way—when there is opportunity. In Matthew 25 he now tells two parables. The first describes how a servant can provide meat; the second is about faithful use of opportunity. Together they answer the Lord’s own question, “Who then is a faithful and wise servant?” (He has reversed the order.)

Before telling the parables however, the Lord warns against two things. Perceiving that the lord delays his return, some wicked slaves might begin to smite their fellow slaves and to eat and drink with those getting drunk. In what way could this happen? In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul warns those that thought nothing of eating in the restaurant-temples of Corinth that they ran the risk of ‘wounding’ the conscience of those who had previously worshipped the idol. The word “wound” here is the same as “smite” in Matthew 24. The issue here is far broader than idols. In any situation where some brethren have more fully come to terms with than others, they have a responsibility to tarry for those that are still wrestling with the issue. There is no merit in forcing our superior knowledge on those that are possessed of a simpler understanding. This calls for large-mindedness and patience. This is all part of the responsibility of watching.

The Lord gave two wedding parables and two coin parables. The first wedding parable, the parable of the man without a wedding garment, teaches the need for spiritual conformity as against one-sided individualism; whereas the second, that of the virgins, teaches the need of individual spirituality as against dead institutionalism.

The first coin parable, of the pounds, concerned our shared responsibility in preaching the one gospel (seen in all receiving the same coin), and the second, the talents, our personal use of opportunity in the Truth. In each case the earlier parable answers to the early phase of one’s contact with the Truth, while that spoken later relates to our responsibilities as we mature in the Truth. In both cases, there is but one result; the wedding is furnished with guests; the master’s house is enriched.

Who is a Wise Servant?

The ten virgins symbolise the ecclesia. The lamps they take with them are designed to give light by the combustion of the oil they contained. The lamp is a fitting symbol of the mind of one professing to be a disciple of Christ. God created man with a capacity to assimilate divine ideas, the oil of His Word. When this oil is burned it gives forth light; “Let your light so shine”, said the Lord, “that men may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”. God has granted us all the free will to choose how we employ the capacity we have. The wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps; the foolish had lamps, they professed to be waiting and watching, but their profession was an empty one. When the bridegroom arrived, the foolish appealed to the wise to furnish them with oil; this the wise could not do, since once the oil is in the vessel it cannot be transferred. The oil is the Word, which when in the vessel of the mind, becomes the word believed. This is faith, something that each must have in themselves, not borrow from another when a light is called for. The word wise means “prudent” or “provident”. The word “foolish” literally means “he who sees not what is proper or necessary”. All were meant to be giving the household meat in due season. Yet some did not even trouble to provide themselves with oil, perhaps in the belief that there would be common stock in the house out of which they could be supplied. To these the bridegroom’s answer was, “I know you not”! To say this, implies they never knew him, although they had professed to be waiting for him, and serving in his house. It is possible to ‘work in the Truth’ but never allow the Truth to work in us. We obviously cannot help others when we do not even help ourselves and when the Bridegroom comes it will be too late to think about Bible study. “Watch ye therefore”, warns the Lord, “for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh”.

Who is a Faithful Servant?

The parable of the talents answers the question “Who is a faithful servant?” In the parable of the pounds the servants are all given one pound; here the servants are given varying amounts “every man according to his several ability”; literally “his own power” or “respective capacity” (DiAG). The pounds represent the gospel, which all receive equally, whilst the talents represent opportunities for service. The faithful servants in this parable make other talents beside the talents they had been given, by “working” (Grk ergazomai) whilst by “trading with” (Grk pragmateuomai) the pound the servant gained ten, or increased it to ten, since in the end that servant is said to have but “ten pounds” (Luke 19:24), teaching the gospel remains God’s, but He makes over the opportunities for service to us.

The man given the one talent “retired” (DiAG) and like Achan, digged in the earth and hid his Lord’s money (lit “silver”), reasoning that he was “an austere man”, reaping where he had not sowed and gathering where he had not strawed. He was right in observing that his Lord’s demands were high; Christ demands we aim for nothing less than perfection. Where he erred was in his assessment of the character of his master. He judged his Lord to be unreasonable because his demands were apparently impossible, but the fault lay in his lack of faith, not in the master’s requirements. He might have profited from noting Israel’s experience, who, upon entering the land found they were able to render fruit to God from vineyards and oliveyards that they had not planted and were given cities they had not built (Josh 24:13).

This man hid his talent in the earth. This is the sort of person who does nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing, as did the Jews on the Sabbath. Judaism fails to appreciate that it is not that you shouldn’t do wrong by design, but that you can never do right by default. God’s righteousness is positive and active, not negative and passive. God does demand perfection, but in the end He will reward faithful service, not success.

Before his master, the one-talent man candidly confessed he feared him. John writes in his epistle that perfect love casts out fear. The only fear we should have where God is concerned is the fear of offending one we love (Elpis Israel). God will surely judge us according to our perception of Him. Each new situation in life should be seen as offering new opportunities for service. The faithful servant who does his best with each opportunity in faith and love will await his master’s call without fear.