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The Third Servant

The Third Servant

Jesus’ parables play a familiar role in our Christian life. We grow up with them, as they form part and parcel of our religious education. But such over-familiarity may lead us to dismiss their importance. Yet, behind every simple story lies profound teachings, and with every study. There is yet another level of meaning. Therefore, it is vital to return to these parables. In this short article, the author revisits the second of the three eschatological parables in Matthew 25 and concentrating on the third servant, presents new insights into the story.

The parable was set in the time when Israel itself was dominated by tetrarchs, servants of the ultimate ruler, the Emperor of Rome. In general, a servant of the then absent master occupied a precarious position. If the master failed to return, they would lose all grounds of legitimacy. If the master did return, then they would be held accountable for their actions.

In the parable, the servants were each entrusted with a talent. In New Testament times, scholars have estimated the talent to be a unit of weight equals to about 94 pounds.

Since the parables in Matthew 25 concerned the kingdom of heaven, or more precisely, the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the teachings referred to God’s expectations of the believers and how Christians should act in order to receive the inheritance of heaven.

First, let us consider the talent. We think of “talent” as an ability or a gift. Although we probably will not find this meaning in the original New Testament Greek, we read in verse 15 that the master gave “to each according to his ability”. But what does that mean? Is God an unjust God? Are people really unequal?

This parable brings home the point that the justice and the equality of God should be viewed in quite different terms from what we ordinarily do. Whether or not all human beings are created equal, God’s emphasis is that all people have an equal opportunity to use what they have for His glory. When the master commended the first and second servants, we can see that the language and the words that he used were identical. What is important here is not the amount that they were given, nor the amount that they were rewarded with, but the approval of the master. The more one is endowed, the more responsibility one is expected to carry. The commendation “well done, good and faithful servant” is noteworthy. What God requires of us is that we act each according to our ability.

The third servant, the one who is commonly classified as the wicked servant, is the most interesting character in this story. Why is he worth looking at if the master himself calls the servant a “wicked and slothful” man? There is much more to the story than meets the eye. Often, in the Bible, we can learn as much from the losers as from the winners. Those who are condemned reveal the most basic human failings, and in some ways, speak to us in a way that the saints on high cannot. Clearly, this servant occupies centre stage in this parable. Let us see if we can make a case for this third servant.

According to rabbinic law, it was entirely legal for the servant to hide the talent in the earth. In fact, this was the most traditional way in which money was kept safe from thieves in the time of Jesus. The servant was doing no wrong. He did not lose any money, and he returned to the master exactly what he had been given.

We can also see that this servant was an intelligent man. He said of his master: “Master I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not winnow…” He was a perceptive judge of character, and more than that, he was also able to justify his actions. By his own standards, he was blameless and did not feel even a twinge of guilt.

Where is his failing? One way of looking at this is to look at the bottom line: who got the results and who didn’t? Clearly, the first two servants each earned 100% over what they were given. The third did not. But to apply this approach would be to misunderstand the parable. If the bottom line was the most important issue, then the first servant, who made the most, would be praised above the second. Jesus’ emphasis lies not in the measurable scale of results, but the divine scale of faithfulness.

It would appear that the third servant would have proved himself more of a man had he planned and risked and lost. So, what can we conclude? God requires us to be resourceful and willing to take initiatives. He has entrusted us with His work but apart from praying and waiting, He also expects us to act, and in many instances, to have the courage to take the first step. If we can do this we will not fail in the end. All the great people in the Bible trusted in God and staked what they had for Him: Abraham left his home and all he had to go to the land of Canaan. Moses left the palace of Egypt and followed God in the wilderness. The poor widow gave up the two copper coins from which her next meal came. All of them were rewarded.

The master said in verse 29 of the parable: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

The compiler of Matthew used the parable to encourage Christians who were waiting for the second coming of the Lord: the master who went away for a long time. And as long as Jesus has not returned, the lessons from this parable apply to us today. We cannot fester in the status quo. God wants us to be resourceful. He wants us to act. He gives us a free will to be used for his glory, not to bury in the ground.