The Faithful Servant

<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.

Backpedalling in Samaria

One of the chapters in my book, “Missions in Samaria.”

Samaritans gather atop Mount Gerizim in Israel to hold end of ...

In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace, over a million residents, with a vibrant (Samaritan) faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might wonder what happened to the Samaritan faith. Did it lose the war in the battle of ideas/ideologies? Or perhaps they were lost to assimilation in conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion. And yes, over 2000 years there were many Samaritans who converted, often willingly and sometimes unwillingly, to Christianity or Islam.

The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not simply die so much as it was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed. This part is a bit sad, but we learn from both the good and the bad.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christian writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, both to non-Christians and to Christians who were not of the same form of Christianity as the emperor. This was so true that Coptic Christians in Egypt welcomed Islamic invaders in the 7th century to free themselves from the tyranny of the Christian rulers of Byzantium. The oppression often showed itself in violence. Samaritans experienced this oppression in terms of taxes, laws, and violence.

Despite the centrality of Christianity to Byzantium, there seems always to have been a certain savagery in the empire. The belief of the early church that Christianity and killing were fundamentally incompatible had long since been abandoned in Byzantium past as it had in Western Europe. The conversion of Rome to Christianity in the fourth century had led to a rapid reinterpretation of warfare as potentially undertaken in service to God; the Christian soldier could fight for his emperor safe in the belief that the emperor’s cause was that of God. <Endnote 7>

During the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491AD) tensions grew. According to one account, the emperor had required Samaritans to convert to Christianity. When they refused, they revolted and this led to a violent response killing tens of thousands of Samaritans. Some argue that the story is backward and that the revolts preceded the demand to convert. Either way, conversion was less connected with embracing the good news of Christ voluntarily, and more connected to risk of the sword and death.

During the time of Emperor Justinian during the next century an edict was established that virtually made being a Samaritan by faith, illegal. There were a series of revolts by the Samaritans that led to violent reprisals by the government. This resulted in the Samaritan population reducing from the hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. <Endnote 8>

The Islamic invasion gave some reprieve, but special taxes and periodic forced conversions and killings, especially during the Abbasid Caliphate and Ottoman Empire, took their toll. By the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Samaritanism reached its lowest point with just over 100 adherents. Since then, under the British mandate, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian Authority, Samaritanism has grown such that it has in 2020 over 800 adherents.

Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities, both of approximately equal size. One of these is on Mount Gerizim, while the other is in a suburb of Tel Aviv. There seems more of a tendency today to see Samaritanism as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor to that faith. In fact, their similarities to Judaism greatly outweigh their differences. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith in the God of Abraham.

Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to Samaritans with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.

This should serve as a warning to us. There is often a tendency in religion to focus on power. When the Samaritans appeared to have power, in the 4th to 2nd centuries BC and the 5th and 6th centuries AD, this was when they were attacked most viciously, by the Jews in the first case and by Christians in the second case. Their perseverance was not only a testament to the strength of their faith but also their relative weakness around larger and more aggressive faith groups. Their weakness made them less threatening to those around them.

Christians were called to love friend and enemy, not fear and attack. Why would Christians often choose violence over love? There are obvious answers— sin, selfishness, and tribalism. But these terms are abstract. Sometimes we must personalize it, and try seeing a situation from an uncomfortable position.

Consider some situations from Biblical lands. It is easy to cheer with the Israelites as they marched around the walls of Jericho as the walls begin to give way. It, however, takes a special effort to picture oneself as a father (or mother) in Jericho standing on the walls of the city looking out, fearful for himself and his family and friends, as his world (literally) crumbles around him. The same can be said today as many Christians seem to find it easy to side with the Israelis in the West Bank, while being shockingly unsympathetic of the plight of Muslim and Christian (and Samaritan) Palestinians.

The answer, is not to pick a side. When Joshua was alone (in Joshua chapter 5. read it now if you don’t remember), he saw a soldier dressed for battle. Joshua asked if this soldier was on his side or the enemy. The answer was neither. He was of the army of God. Joshua immediately responded bowing down and taking direction. The question is not whether God was on the side of Israel or the side of the Canaanites. Neither was it whether God was on the side of the Jews or the Samaritans, nor the Israelis or the Palestinians, nor the Christians or the Muslims. The question is are we on God’s side— or not. Jesus has told us that if we truly love Him, we keep His commandments. If we don’t keep His commandments, we are not on His side. Pretty simple, but it is hard to let go of the temptation to try to bargain with God to follow us rather than we follow Him.

This chapter is a bit sad because it looks like what Jesus and the early church did was destroyed. There is some truth to that, but not entirely. Many Samaritans chose to follow Jesus. Gradually they assimilated into the broader Body of Christ, losing their cultural identity. (This is not the book to decide if this lose of cultural distinctives is a good thing or not.) Additionally, there are examples that we can look back on for positive inspiration.

For example, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius forbade special taxes upon the impoverished Samaritans; the Christian Germanus helped the Samaritans continue their rite of circumcision after the authorities had forbidden it; the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem declared to the Ottoman Turks that the Samaritans, like Jews and Christians, were people of the Book and ought not be persecuted; and the American E.K. Warren built medical and educational facilities for the fragile community at the beginning of the twentieth century. <Endnote 9>

These first chapters described a complex history with a wide range of relations between Jew and Samaritan, and between Christian and Samaritan. But what does this mean to us today? Even though Samaritanism has grown almost 700% in the last 100 years, it is still unlikely that many of us will interact with a Samaritan in our lifetime. But since few of us are likely to live in a completely monocultural society, we have the blessing of the story of the many groups, including the Samaritans, that shared Palestine over the centuries. For the Samaritans, there were have painful times (2nd century BC and 5th and 6th centuries AD to name just a couple), there has been (relatively few) highpoints such as the 1st century. We can learn from the 1st century church. Still, our role is not to recreate the 1st century church, but create, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the 21st century church. So the following chapters will suggest some patterns and lessons.

This chapter is more historical. However, the book looks at Samaria as both a historical location where missions was effectively and ineffectively done, and a metaphor for a certain type of missions that we are able to do well or poorly every day.

I have not published the book yet… and maybe never will (we shall see). But if you want to read it, you can access it rhrough my previous post.