Some two thousand years ago, following a startling prophecy concerning the ‘conclusion of the system of things,’ Jesus raised an intriguing question before his disciples:
“Who really is the faithful and
discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them
their food at the proper time? 46 Happy is that slave if
his master on arriving finds him doing so.
47 Truly I
say to YOU, He will appoint him over all his belongings.
"And the Lord said: 'Who really is the faithful steward, the discreet one, whom his master will appoint over his body of attendants to keep giving them their measure of food supplies at the proper time? 43 Happy is that slave, if his master on arriving finds him doing so! 44 I tell YOU truthfully, He will appoint him over all his belongings.'" ―Luke 12:42-44.
with the twelve disciples, anointed Christians
would carry on the work of faithfully and discreetly feeding the Lord’s
sheep. The Apostle Paul understood the nature of this stewardship as
revealed in his first letter to the congregation at
Corinth. “Let a man
so appraise us as being subordinates of Christ and stewards of
sacred secrets of God. Besides, in this case, what is looked for in
stewards is for a man to be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 4:1-2)
What sort of food were the disciples expected to provide? Jesus left them in no doubt. “Work, not for the food that perishes, but for the food that remains for life everlasting, which the Son of man will give YOU; for upon this one the Father, even God, has put his seal [of approval].” (John 6:27) The food would both remain, and impart everlasting life. Rather than offering physical food subject to decay, Christ’s teachings would constitute spiritual food that would prove life-giving and everlasting. These same teachings would not undergo change or require clarification. They were clear words of truth intended to remain.
It is noteworthy that Jesus did not appoint his disciples “over all his belongings” on that occasion. The account indicates that at some future time, Jesus would “arrive” and inspect the slaves to determine whether they had discharged their duties faithfully and discreetly. The slaves whom he approved would then be appointed “over all his belongings.” Elaborating on this, Jesus continues in Matthew chapter 25:
“Keep on the watch, therefore,
because YOU know neither the day nor the hour.
14 “For it is just as when a man, about to travel abroad, summoned slaves of his and committed to them his belongings. 15 And to one he gave five talents, to another two, to still another one, to each one according to his own ability, and he went abroad. 16 Immediately the one that received the five talents went his way and did business with them and gained five more. 17 In the same way the one that received the two gained two more. 18 But the one that received just one went off, and dug in the ground and hid the silver money of his master.
19 “After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 So the one that had received five talents came forward and brought five additional talents, saying, ‘Master, you committed five talents to me; see, I gained five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things. I will appoint you over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 Next the one that had received the two talents came forward and said, ‘Master, you committed to me two talents; see, I gained two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things. I will appoint you over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’
24 “Finally the one that had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be an exacting man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not winnow. 25 So I grew afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 In reply his master said to him, ‘Wicked and sluggish slave, you knew, did you, that I reaped where I did not sow and gathered where I did not winnow? 27 Well, then, you ought to have deposited my silver monies with the bankers, and on my arrival I would be receiving what is mine with interest.
28 “‘Therefore take away the talent from him and give it to him that has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone that has, more will be given and he will have abundance; but as for him that does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 30 And throw the good-for-nothing slave out into the darkness outside. There is where [his] weeping and the gnashing of [his] teeth will be.’ ―Matthew 25:13-30.
helps the reader grasp the import of Jesus’ earlier words. During the
same Olivet Discourse he expands on what it means to be a faithful slave. The slaves are summoned and committed his belongings. Each individual
slave is assigned a portion thereof. On his Master’s return, accounts are
settled and each faithful slave receives his reward.
Some Bible commentators reason that Jesus was referring to a “faithful and discreet slave” class. They conclude that it would be unreasonable to appoint individual slaves over ALL Christ’s belongings. This would be too much for any one slave to handle, they claim, so Jesus must have been referring to a composite body of anointed slaves. Whilst this interpretation may seem plausible, Jesus’ own words indicate otherwise. Throughout his discourse he refers to the slave in the singular, calling him a “discreet one.” Continuing the parable in chapter 25, he then reveals how these slaves would be assigned talents individually: “to one he gave five talents, to another two, to still another one, to each one according to his own ability.” Nowhere does the parable allow for the slave to be considered as a group. Indeed, Jesus is moved to declare before each loyal individual slave, “‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things. I will appoint you over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’” ―Matthew 25:21-23.
However, not all would prove faithful. Continuing his prophetic illustration Jesus says, “But if ever that evil slave should say in his heart, ‘My master is delaying,’ and should start to beat his fellow slaves and should eat and drink with the confirmed drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day that he does not expect and in an hour that he does not know, and will punish him with the greatest severity and will assign him his part with the hypocrites. There is where [his] weeping and the gnashing of [his] teeth will be.” (Matt 24:48-51; Luke 12:30)
A choice lay before his disciples. Within the same household they could either prove “faithful and discreet” or “evil.” A hitherto faithful slave would have the potential to turn evil and start beating his fellow slaves.
Consider that if the slave were interpreted as a composite body, it would also mean the entire group of faithful slaves turning evil in order to become “that evil slave.” Such a scenario would leave God’s household at the mercy of wicked slaves with no one faithful to care for the belongings. However interpreting the slaves as individuals precludes such an event. An individual slave could become wicked but, other faithful slaves would be on hand to feed the domestics.
Happy is that slave, if his master on arriving finds him doing so!
When does the master
arrive to settle accounts? This question has strong implications for the
domestics who feed from the slaves. Once approved, a faithful and
discreet slave is given greater authority over the Master’s belongings. He is clearly identified as faithful and discreet by his Master Jesus
Christ ― incontrovertible proof that he now exercises rightful authority
over the household. Until the Master “arrives,” the domestics must
determine for themselves whether the slave’s feeding program is faithful
and discreet. How would this be accomplished? Jesus on an earlier
occasion answers, “Really, then, by their fruits YOU will recognize those
[men].” (Matthew 7:15) Such fruitage would include the identifying mark
of true Christians: Love. (John 13:35)
The Master’s arrival is a joyful occasion. “Enter into the joy of your master,” Christ Jesus declares. However, those slaves judged evil are ‘punished with the greatest severity.’ This judgment does not extend over decades or for some indeterminate period of time. As the announcement of faithful and discreet slaves over all Christ’s belongings is made, the evil slaves are punished and left ‘weeping and gnashing their teeth.’ The arrival is much like the judgment of the sheep and goats. Christ “arrives in his glory” and “then he will sit down on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will put the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.” (Matthew 25:31-33)
However, simply relying on a similarity between the judging of the slaves and the sheep and the goats does not determine the time of Christ’s arrival. Rather, considering the overall context of Jesus’ parable reveals the timing of this important event:
"Keep on the watch, therefore, because YOU do not know on what day YOUR Lord is coming. 43 “But know one thing, that if the householder had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have kept awake and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44 On this account YOU too prove yourselves ready, because at an hour that YOU do not think to be it, the Son of man is coming. 45 “Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Happy is that slave if his master on arriving* finds him doing so. 47 Truly I say to YOU, He will appoint him over all his belongings." ―Matthew 24:42-47.
*Lit., “having come.” Gr., el·thon´.
The New World Translation renders the Greek word el·thon´ in verse 46 as “arriving”. This is a perfectly legitimate and acceptable translation. Interestingly, the footnote to the New World Translation Reference Bible states that the literal translation of this same Greek word is rendered “having come.” This is reflected in other translations of the Bible:
"Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes."
(New American Standard Bible)
"Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes." (English Standard Version)
"Happy that servant, whom his lord, having come, shall find doing so." (Young’s Literal Translation)
"It will be good for the servant if the master finds him doing his job when the master returns." (New International Reader's Version)
"That servant is happy who is doing what his owner wants him to do when he comes back." (New Life Version)
"Blessed (happy, fortunate, and to be envied) is that servant whom, when his master comes, he will find so doing." (The Amplified Bible)
"Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing." (New King James Version)
"It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns." (New International Version)
Note that each of these translations render Jesus’ words as related to the action of ‘his coming.’ It cannot be said that this rendering is dishonest or distorted. Any good lexicon of the Christian Greek Scriptures defines the word el·thon´ as ‘having come’.
The reader cannot help but correlate the master’s “having come” (Verse 46) with the surrounding verses’ reference to his coming “at an hour that YOU do not think to be it.” (Verses 42, 44) In the very same breath, Jesus has spoken of his future coming at the Great Tribulation to render judgment as well as his coming to judge his slaves. The context links the timing of the son of man’s “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Verses 30, 42-44) to the inspection and judgment of his slaves. The parallel account in Luke places the “arriving” or the “having come” in the very same manner:
"Happy are those slaves whom the master on arriving finds watching! Truly I say to YOU, He will gird himself and make them recline at the table and will come alongside and minister to them. 38 And if he arrives in the second watch, even if in the third, and finds them thus, happy are they! 39 But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief would come, he would have kept watching and not have let his house be broken into. 40 YOU also, keep ready, because at an hour that YOU do not think likely the Son of man is coming.” 41 Then Peter said: “Lord, are you saying this illustration to us or also to all?” 42 And the Lord said: “Who really is the faithful steward, the discreet one, whom his master will appoint over his body of attendants to keep giving them their measure of food supplies at the proper time? 43 Happy is that slave, if his master on arriving finds him doing so! 44 I tell YOU truthfully, He will appoint him over all his belongings. 45 But if ever that slave should say in his heart, ‘My master delays coming,’ and should start to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day that he is not expecting [him] and in an hour that he does not know, and he will punish him with the greatest severity and assign him a part with the unfaithful ones. 47 Then that slave that understood the will of his master but did not get ready or do in line with his will will be beaten with many strokes. 48 But the one that did not understand and so did things deserving of strokes will be beaten with few. Indeed, everyone to whom much was given, much will be demanded of him; and the one whom people put in charge of much, they will demand more than usual of him." ―Luke 12:37-48.
It is clear
from Luke’s account that Jesus’ coming to judge his slaves takes place at
an unknown hour and with thief-like stealth. As the surrounding verses
reveal, this occurs at Christ’s future return [immediately before] the
Great Tribulation. The slaves are commanded to keep watching for the
householder for “at an hour that YOU do not think likely the son of man is
coming.” (Luke 12:39, 40) There would be no need to keep on the watch if
they already knew the hour of inspection. Jesus’ surprise arrival would
necessitate the slave to maintain faithfulness toward his assignment. If
the slave knew the timing of his Master’s arrival in advance then he might
be tempted to slacken off until that time, perhaps figuring that by some
last-minute activity he might redeem himself. Indeed, Jesus predicts that
some slaves would be saying in their hearts, “My master delays coming.”
Thankfully, there are many true Christians today who are faithfully and discreetly serving within the Master’s household. The domestics feeding from them appreciate the hard work in their behalf. As yet, those slaves have not been declared “faithful and discreet” by Christ nor appointed over “all his belongings.” Equally, the evil slaves await punishment from the Master. Meanwhile, it is important that those who feed from the slaves develop a discerning palate since both faithful and wicked slaves exist within the same household. Indeed, not all food is necessarily wholesome and nutritious. Just as one should take care to eat good physical food, a Christian must also learn the difference between good and bad spiritual food. The Bible counsels, “Make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) Fine food is the true Christian’s staple. By making sure of what is fine, he or she can survive spiritually. At times, this may require an honest appraisal of the food to determine if there is any value in its eating. As the apostle John writes, “Beloved ones, do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world.” (1 John 4:1)