<A sermon I did for seminary chapel>
I would like to go over a very familiar parable of Jesus. It is the parable of the Faithful Servant. It is found in Matthew 24:45-51 However, I would like to go through it with a bit of a missiological spin to it.
An expression that has been commonly thrown about in the late 20th century up to today in Missions is “Finishing the Task.” The idea is that God has a missional task for His people and that particular task is almost done… or perhaps can be almost done. Groups like Student Volunteer Mission, Discipling a Whole Nation and AD2000 have used this phrase or a similar one like “Evangelizing the Whole World in This Generation” to inspire people to do certain things. When this is tied to Unreached People Groups and linking it to a dubious interpretation of Matthew 24:14, the idea has sprung up that once Missionaries have shared the gospel to every single unreached people group on earth in a way such that they can now form an indigenized church, the task of missions is done, and Christ can finally return. Until then, Jesus is waiting in heaven for us to Finish the Task.
I don’t believe in that interpretation, and, frankly, I don’t really like the expression FINISHING THE TASK. I prefer the expression FAITHFUL TO CHRIST’S MISSION. Why is that? It is because I believe that the first one puts the focus in the wrong things.
First of all… Finishing the task has the focus on… finishing… or being done. This doesn’t sound bad. However, I believe that it commonly leads to problems. Decades ago I ran on the track team at my high school, believe it or not. Watching runners near the finish line— most of them would slow down before they reached the end. Why? Because they are so focused on the finish line that they lose focus on running. The same happens with jobs where people often begin to work less hard as one nears the end of one’s time on the job. But perhaps even more common is for people to do the exact opposite. It is tempting to be lazy or sluggish until a deadline nears. Perhaps teenagers are supposed to take care of the house while the parents are gone. They might be tempted to leave it a mess until just before mom and dad get home.
They hope they can get everything done just in time. Or perhaps one is a seminarian and should be faithfully studying every day. But it is tempting to not study very hard until right before the test. Focusing on the finish line often leads to laziness and lack of quality in one’s work. I believe it is better to focus on faithfulness to the work and on the one who assigned that work
Second, I don’t really like the term “Task” in the expression Finishing the task. Over time, people tend to become confused about what their task really is. Early on it may seem clear that their task is to act as ambassadors of Christ, serving as witnesses of Christ, and following the example of Christ. But as time goes on, there is a tendency to drift away from this. The task often becomes something that may sound like it is the same… but is very different. Maybe the task is now… Growing the number of people in my church… or Growing the people who are part of my sect or denomination… or me planting as many churches as fast as possible… or get people to dress and act like me rather than like people in their own culture…. or see how many people I can get to say the sinner’s prayer. Some of these may sound right and good… but they really aren’t the mission that Christ has given the you or the church
So with all of that in mind, let’s go to Matthew 24:45-51
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 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. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
When we first look at this, it is tempting to see this as a contrast between Saint and Sinner— between the Narrow Path and the Wide Path. However, there are no unsaved in this story.
This is about two servants… trusted and competent servants of the Master.
In fact, it is not even about two servants, but only one. And only one Master. This one servant has been given the job to maintain the Master’s business of the household including those who serve within the household until he returns. The Master leaves, and this servant is doing a good job taking care of things.
But then one day the servant realizes something. The Master has not returned as soon as he expected. The servant will have to keep doing his job for longer time… not sure when it will end.
This is the challenge. We can handle almost anything except time.We can be enthusiastic and committed for a day… a week… maybe a month. But as time goes on, it becomes harder to keep the motivation going— even more so when it is unclear when the end will come. The servant can choose NOT to focus on when the master returns… but in doing each day what the master wants, in the way the master wanted it done. This decision is identified as being for a faithful and wise servant, one who pleases the master.
But that is not the only possibility. The servant could become focused on when the master returns, and allow his understanding of his task to drift. He still does his job generally. He still keeps the household running. He still handles the accounting. He still feeds the people under his care. We know that because the business has not collapsed, the bank has not foreclosed on the house, and the other servants have not starved. But he is no longer doing things the way the master wanted. He begins seeing the other servants not as people but as tools to get his job done and make his life easier. When they fail to do this, he beats them.. He uses the benefits accorded to him to increase his comfort and extend his authority and power. He is not stupid… he knows the master could return, but he probably thinks that he can get warning when the master will return and can get things in order in time. But much like the seminary student who thinks he or she can figure out when there will be a pop quiz in class, this servant is likely to be shocked and disappointed. He will not know when the master will return. He was focused on the wrong thing. Jesus calls this servant a wicked servant. It may be true, but frankly, few of us can keep our motivation and focus unchanged year after year.
As I suggested before, I don’t believe the parable is about good versus evil in the classic dualistic sense. The servant corresponds to a disciple of Christ. But the story gives warning that it is all too easy to lose track of what it takes to be a good disciple— faithful to the mission of Christ— following the example of Christ.
Let me give a parallel story from church history. A few years after Pentecost, Philip of the Seven traveled into Samaria to be a witness of Christ to the people there. He followed the example that Christ gave. Jesus healed the people and shared the good news. He did not use His power and authority to abuse them. When they did not want to listen to Him, Jesus simply went to another village. When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples to Jewish, Gentile, and Samaritan villages, He ensured that they would bless the people and in no way harm them. In fact, if the people of the village did not want them there, Jesus instructed them to leave and take nothing from them… not even the dust that stuck to their sandals.
I believe Philip was a good and faithful servant. He was focused not only on the mission of Christ, but sought to follow the example of Christ.
A few centuries later, things changed. In the late 400s, Emperor Zeno, of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, ruled over Samaria. The Byzantines were Christians and they had legal authority and military power now over the Samaritans. Emperor Zeno was the Christian leader given responsibility over the land and people of his dominion. Emperor Zeno decided to require all Samaritans to become Christianity. At this time there were between 1 and 2 million Samaritans in his realm. The Samaritans, understandably, revolted. So, tens of thousands were killed by the Byzantine army. A few decades later, Emperor Justinian, also the Christian leader of the land, essentially made being a Samaritan illegal. To avoid charges of being a criminal, they had to convert to Christianity. Again the Samaritans revolted and tens of thousands more Samaritans were killed by the Christian Byzantine army.
Some time later the Muslims invaded. At first they were better than the Byzantine Christians. However, they also gradually gave in to the temptation to abuse power and lose track of their own mission… so much so that by 1000 AD, there were only around 1000 Samaritans alive— a 99.9% reduction of their numbers.
I cannot speak for the leaders of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, but I believe that the Christian Byzantine emperors felt like they were good servants of God. By using their political and military power to require Samaritans to convert, I think they felt that they were doing the task of bringing people into the church. And Samaritans rebelling against the Christian rulers probably felt like them rebelling against God and so killing these rebels could certainly feel like finishing the task. Using the power God gave them to force people to become Christians might sound like doing the Lord’s work. Nevertheless, I believe they were bad servants. They had lost track of the mission given to them by Christ, and had become abusive much like the servant in the parable became abusive.
Probably none of us will have an army that we can control… or have millions of people that we use or abuse. But all of us will have to decide whether in church, in school, or the mission field… what type of servant will we be. Will we be focused on finishing or on being faithful. Will we have our attention caught up in tasks, or on Christ has has sent us on mission.