This is the second post in a series of reflections on Matthew 24-25, in which Jesus is sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem. Knowing that his time is near, he is teaching them what is yet to come, beyond the cross, beyond the resurrection: Jerusalem will be laid low; and one day, the Son of Man will return in power and glory.
The disciples, understandably, want to know when things will happen. But Jesus insists that no one, not even Jesus himself, knows the day of his return–only the Father (24:36). As discussed in part 1, the lesson for the disciples is therefore to stay alert, to be watchful and ready (e.g., 24:42, 44; 25:13).
He reinforces the lesson with a parable about a householder who goes off on a business trip, leaving one of the servants in charge:
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? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 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 hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 24:45-51, NIV)
Presumably, the servant is temporarily given additional power and authority. But note that his job is described in terms of care, namely, making sure that the other servants have been properly fed. If he discharges that role responsibly, and the householder finds him doing so when he returns, the servant will be rewarded with even greater responsibility, a sign of the householder’s trust. That servant is described as faithful and wise.
But it’s also possible that the servant will act wickedly, using his newfound power to lord it over the other servants and to indulge his appetites. He says in his heart (literally, as versus the NIV’s “says to himself”): “My master is staying away a long time.” Surprise—the master returns unexpectedly, catching the servant in the act. Jesus probably doesn’t mean that the householder literally cuts the man to pieces, but the consequence is severe and final.
In this parable, it isn’t watchfulness per se that is rewarded, nor the lack thereof that is punished. The wise servant isn’t watching out the window for the master’s return. He simply knows his responsibilities and carries them out faithfully. His master finds him doing so not because he’s anticipated the day of the master’s return, but because he’s been diligent from day one. It’s his faithful service that is rewarded.
Conversely, the wicked servant isn’t punished for misjudging the time of the master’s return. Rather, the master’s absence has revealed what was in the man’s heart: a lust for power, a propensity toward self-indulgence. “He’s not coming back for a while” is a foolish rationalization; he continues in his wickedness, thinking that the day of reckoning is so far off that he needn’t worry.
It is this corruption for which he is punished. He is assigned the fate of the hypocrite who appears worthy of responsibility on the outside, but is full of wickedness on the inside (an echo of Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, e.g., 23:25-26).
What does it mean to be watchful? It doesn’t mean trying to calculate the day of Jesus’ return, nor watching the sky for signs (cf. Acts 1:7-11). There is the anxious watchfulness of one who fears getting caught playing hooky, but that’s obviously not what Jesus commends.
Rather, the faithful servant, knowing that the householder may return at any time, works diligently to discharge the responsibilities with which he has been entrusted. The servant who wants to be found worthy of that trust will actually look forward to the day of his master’s return.