Jesus' Parables for Disciples
58. Faithful Head Servants (Luke 12:41-48)
Jan Luyken (1649-1712), detail of 'The Faithful and Wise Steward,' etching, in Bowyer Bible, Bolton Museum, England.
"41 Peter asked, 'Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?' 42 The Lord answered, 'Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47 That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:41-48, NIV)
If the first two parables Jesus told about his Second Coming focus on watchfulness, the next parables focus on faithfulness. Our generation shuns words like "duty" and "obligation." Instead, we exalt ideas such as Maslow's "self-actualization." But there is a very real sense in which our self-actualization as people will come to fruition in learning to be faithful, dutiful servants of Jesus. I know it runs across the grain of our somewhat selfish souls, but then, Jesus' teachings often did grate on self-absorbed people.
"Peter asked, 'Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?'" (12:41)
Jesus' first parable concerning being ready for the delayed master (12:35-38) concerns all of a master's servants. The second mini-parable about the thief coming in the night dealt with the owner of the house (12:39-40). So Peter is trying to figure out whether Jesus is speaking of the Twelve or of all Jesus' disciples.
Jesus doesn't really answer Peter's question (posed only here in Luke, not in the parallels in Matthew and Mark). But now he shifts to a pair of parables about head servants charged with caring for servants under them. It's as if Jesus indicates that these next two parables apply to the Twelve as church leaders, and then, by extension, to all those who have leadership responsibility in churches, which are known in the New Testament as the "household" of God (Ephesians 2:19).
"The Lord answered, 'Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time?'" (12:42)
The chief protagonist in the next parable is "the faithful and wise manager." The noun is Greek oikonomos, "manager of a household or estate, (house) steward, manager."551 This word is modified by two adjectives. The first adjective is Greek pistos, "pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust, trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust/faith."552 The second adjective is Greek phronimos, "pertaining to understanding associated with insight and wisdom, sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise."553
The steward isn't just anyone, but one whom the master (Greek kyrios) appoints to this leadership function. The verb is Greek kathistēmi, "to assign someone a position of authority, appoint, put in charge."554 The main duty mentioned here is to give his fellow servants their food allowance at regular stated intervals. The noun is sitometrion, "a measured allowance of grain/food, food allowance, ration."555
The steward that Jesus holds up for acclaim is not doing something particularly flashy or creative. He is just continuing to do his duty, day after day, without fail, without forgetting, without unexplained lapses. His virtue is faithfulness. You can count on him.
"It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions." (12:43-44)
When the master returns from a journey and finds that in his absence his steward has been doing what he was told to do without slacking off, the servant will be rewarded.
The reward is a promotion. The verb in verse 44 is kathisētmi, "appoint, put in charge," that was used in verse 42. But now the steward's responsibility moves from just the therepeia, "servants" (verse 42).556 Now he is appointed over all the master's possessions, Greek hyparchō, "what belongs to someone, someone's property, possessions, means."557
I think of Joseph in the Old Testament, who through faithfulness, rose rapidly from being a common slave to being in charge of both Potiphar's household as well as his entire estate. "Everything he owns he has entrusted to my care," Joseph tells Potiphar's wife who is trying to seduce him. "No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife..." (Genesis 39:4, 8-9).
"But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk." (12:45)
Jesus has told a parable about a faithful head servant to show the rewards of faithfulness. Now he makes the protagonist abusive in order to indicate the punishment for unfaithfulness.
Notice the element of delay in the master's return that was present in the first little parable in this series (12:35-38) -- "My master is taking a long time in coming" (12:45). Surely, Jesus is preparing his disciples for a delay in his own return. The Greek word is chronizō, "to extend a state or an activity beyond an expected time, delay, take a long time (in doing something)."558
In this instance the abusive head servant begins to beat his fellow servants. The verb is Greek typtō, "to inflict a blow, strike, beat, wound."559 Instead of acting as a servant, the head servant is acting as the master and taking upon himself a master's prerogatives to discipline. He is indulging his whims. Moreover, the head servant has abandoned the self-discipline that got him appointed head servant in the first place. He gorges himself with food and wine, and goes about drunk rather than sober. Drunkenness is the very antithesis of the qualities of being wakeful and watching that the initial parables stressed (12:35-38).
The unfaithful servant now lives for himself and not his master. He neglects his responsibilities toward his fellow servants, and, instead, looks to his own comfort and luxury, signaled by "eating and drinking." I wonder about the self-indulgent luxury that we Westerners display to the world. If we are living for ourselves, we cannot at the same time be under discipline as a faithful servant to the Master. How much would we be willing to give up of our luxury before we said, "Enough! I won't go any farther."? How faithful are we really? Or are we just fair-weather Christians?
"The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers." (12:46)
The master's coming in Jesus' parable is swift, but the unfaithful servant is clueless. He doesn't "expect" the master. The Greek verb is prosdokaō, "to give thought to something that is viewed as lying in the future, wait for, look for, expect."560 Nor does the abusive servant "know" or anticipate this hour of returning.
The punishment seems to be horrible, far beyond what would seem appropriate. Luke uses the verb dikotomeō, "cut in two," of dismemberment of a condemned person. Some suggest that Jesus may have meant this figuratively with the meaning, "punish with utmost severity," but there is no support for this interpretation.561
In addition to dismemberment, the unfaithful steward is assigned (tithēmi) the portion (meros) or reward of the unbeliever, the faithless. The second sentence of this verse seems to go beyond the punishment of the servant in the parable, to the eschatological (end-time) application of this concept where the unfaithful and unbelieving are cast out into outer darkness, far from the joys of table fellowship in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:29-30; 8:12; 13:50;18:8-9; 22:13). (See Appendix 2G. Introduction to Eschatology.)
Though the unfaithful steward had been a servant, since he refused to believe that his master would return to correct him, he is allotted a place with the gross unbelievers. He is stripped entirely of his relation to the master's household. How horrible!
I guess I am a bit naive. I assume that the average person with some Biblical knowledge reading these parables would apply them to Jesus' Second Coming. Recently, after I preached on these parables, a visitor came up after the church service was over and said, "I think you are somewhat more conservative than I am." What he was saying was, "I don't believe that Jesus is coming again."
The more I thought about it, the more shocked I was. But this man follows a whole tide of liberal scholars who are embarrassed that Jesus didn't come immediately, or within the lifetime of the Twelve. Jesus expected to return immediately, they contend, but he was wrong. At best, they conclude, he was mistaken. At worst, he would be considered a false prophet.
The assumption is that Jesus envisioned no delay. But we've noticed that delay is built into two of the parables we have just studied (12:38, 45). "The early church put these words in Jesus' mouth," liberal scholars contend. In order to understand what really happened, we must "demythologize" the Bible, they say. In the 1990s the Jesus Seminar concluded that few of the words in the Gospels can be attributed without question to Jesus himself. It is a circular argument. Since they don't accept the words as from Jesus anyway, how can they accuse him of being mistaken?
I reject those assumptions. Yes, the Gospel writers shaped the sources they had received in order to emphasize certain elements of Jesus' life. All historians do the same. But honest historians use their materials with integrity. I believe that a careful study of the Gospels indicate that the Gospel writers were men of integrity, that what they have recorded is believable -- unless you reject even the possibility of miracles and the supernatural. If that is the case, your assumptions of what must be true or false cloud your evaluation of Jesus.
I've chosen in this series to try to get at what Jesus is saying, and let his words speak for themselves. The Pharisees saw the same miracles and heard the same teachings as the multitudes. But because Jesus threatened their belief-system and power structure, they rejected him, and ultimately killed him. I am convinced, however, that when you see and hear the real Jesus, if you come with an open heart, you will embrace him and follow him.
If Jesus is coming again, then you and I must be ready. We must be faithful. We must take our responsibilities seriously and not fall into self-indulgence and seeking luxury. If Jesus is not coming again, what does it matter? I chose to believe Jesus and to take his words seriously.
"That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows." (12:47-48a)
Jesus concludes with some pretty sobering words. A servant will be beaten in accordance with his knowledge of what his master wanted. The Greek verb here is derō, originally, "skin, flay," but in the New Testament only in imagery, "beat, whip."562 America is awash with the theory that corporal punishment of children is equal to child abuse. So the idea of beating anyone is repugnant. Let's not judge Jesus' words by twenty-first century values, but by standards of his time. Using rods to punish was extremely common. Fathers would discipline their children with a rod; masters would discipline their servants with a rod. Punishment of criminals would sometimes be with a rod or whip. (For example, see Deuteronomy 25:2-3; Psalm 89:32, Proverbs 10:13; 13:24; 14:3; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15; and Hebrews 12:10-11.) Discipline was not designed for cruelty, but for instruction.
The servant who knows what his master wants is held responsible to take action. If he doesn't believe his master, that doesn't alleviate his punishment. He knew it and refused to believe it and act upon it. What the servant is expected to do in Jesus' words is to "get ready." The Greek verb is hetoimazō, "to cause to be ready, put/keep in readiness, prepare."563
Servants, disciples are responsible for what they have been told, and must use that knowledge to prepare themselves for what is to come.
If verses 12:47-48a explain the concept of relative responsibility for punishment, then verse 12:48b summarizes the concept into a principle.
"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (12:48b)
We see the same principle illustrated in Jesus' Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Some servants are given more than others, and more is expected of them than those who were given less.
My dear friend, these parables Jesus has been giving apply to us -- to you and me. Jesus is the Master. We are the servants, some of us are head servants. We have been given responsibilities to fulfill in this age between Jesus' First Coming and his Second Coming.
Some have been given much and have produced much for our Lord. I think of the heroes of church history: St. Patrick, the English priest who won Northern Ireland to Christ; and St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up great wealth to embrace poverty and simplicity, who began a powerful monastic movement that has touched literally millions of lives and is with us today. I think of Martin Luther and John Wesley, of the cobbler-preacher William Carey, the first Protestant missionary. I think of Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.
Some of these individuals were rich in the world's goods, but most came from poor homes. The riches they were given were spiritual, not material. I think of the David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem, who, the Scripture declares, "served God's purpose in his own generation." (Acts 13:36)
I want to do that. I want to serve God's purpose in my own generation.
I want to be a faithful servant.
I want to be trustworthy among men, and trusted by my God.
But I have failed perfection. I have sinned. Yet I struggle to rise to my own expectations of myself and fulfill the dreams I believe God has put in my heart.
You, too, desire for God to use you. You have received much from the Master, and it is now in your hands to do with it what you can. To prepare for his coming.
You fall short. You, too, fail. But you do not quit. You do not give up. Neither do you allow yourself to fall into self-indulgence and luxury. Instead, you seek His Kingdom and His righteousness. Your heart is on the Lord, and he is leading you to do something important for him.
My dear fellow servants. I encourage you as I encourage myself with the words of Christ:
Be dressed and ready for service.
Keep your lamps burning.
Be watching for him.
Even if he is delayed, don't fall asleep.
Be a faithful and wise manager.
Feed the servants under your care.
God has given you much.
Be worthy of that sacred trust he has in you.
Jesus, I come to you on behalf of my fellow servants. Help us to remain faithful. Help us to keep on serving you, even when we are discouraged. Even when it doesn't seem that we are accomplishing anything. Help us to be the faithful servants that you delight to find serving in your household. Forgive us -- forgive me -- Lord, when we fail you. Cleanse us and set us back on the way of service ... until you come. Come soon, Lord Jesus! Amen.
"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Extra Credit. What is the answer to Peter's question in 12:41? Did Jesus intend these parables for the Twelve or for all his disciples?
- Head servants must be both faithful and wise "managers" (12:42-43). How do we learn to be faithful? What is the process by which we can be restored in faithfulness if we have neglected it? How do we learn prudence and wisdom?
- In the parable, the master rewards his head servant with responsibility over all his possessions (12:44). What is the spiritual analogy of this part of the parable? Which of Jesus' promises for the future does it refer to?
- Why are church leaders tempted to become petty masters rather than servants to their fellow servants? What is the sad analogy to this parable's beating, and luxury, and drunkenness. (Rule: In your answer, no denomination bashing. Don't look at others' failings. Look at the potential that exists in you and in your own congregation. There's plenty of blame to go around.)
- Do you believe God has entrusted you with "little" or "much"? What can you be doing to maximize your potential as a productive servant in God's household? Because you have been given much, what "more" do you think God is now asking of you?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Oikonomos, BDAG 698.
 Pistos, BDAG 820.
 Phronimos, BDAG 1066.
 Kathistēmi, BDAG 492.
 Sitometrion, BDAG 925.
 Therepeia, BDAG 452-453.
 Hyparchō, BDAG 1029.
 Chronizō, BDAG 1092.
 Typtō, BDAG 1020.
 Prosdokaō, BDAG 877.
 Dikotomeō, BDAG 253.
 Derō, BDAG 218-219.
 Hetoimazō, BDAG 400-401.
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