THE UNPROFITABE SERVANT
For the parable read Luke 17: 7-10.
Strictly speaking the contents of these verses can hardly be called a parable. The usual introductory words “the kingdom of heaven is like unto’’ are altogether absent; besides, the parable does not even say “a certain man had a servant”, or something similar. The introduction is in this case an appeal, “But which of you, having a servant. . . .” Hence the usual form of a parable is altogether absent. Nevertheless, the verses ought to be treated in connection with the parables. For, first of all, the words complete the thought of the entire section of parables running from Lk. 15 through Lk. 17:10— the series of parables begun with the lost sheep is rounded out by this story. And, secondly, although the usual form of the parable is absent, the story implied is parabolic, and intended as such, as the application given in vs. 10 sufficiently shows.
The Chief Lesson
The story speaks of a servant returning home from his day’s work of plowing in the field. The servant spoken of is a bond-servant, a slave who belongs entirely to his master. Such a slave does not go home from his day’s work expecting that his master will don slave’s apparel and serve him. On the contrary, when he arrives home it is his duty to prepare and serve his master the evening meal, afterward he may eat and drink himself. Does the master thank him for working so faithfully, for serving him before he ate his own supper? Of course not: as his slave, that is the man’s duty. So, Jesus continues, “likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which, are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” From this conclusion it is evident: a. That the bond-slave represents man. The picture is exact, for man as the creature of God is wholly God’s; over against his fellow creatures he may speak of “mine” and “thine”, but in relation to God all that he has and is, is not his own but the Lord’s, b. That as the slave was kept to serve his master, so man is obligated to do what is commanded of him. In relation to God he has no free time, no possessions, etc., of his own. God commands man to serve him with all that lie has. c. That when man has done all that is commanded of him, he is an unprofitable servant. Unprofitable means: worthless, good for nothing, useless. Quote, the parable does not teach that man is an unprofitable servant if he fails to do as commanded, but when he has done all that was commanded. Hence, even Adam before the fall was such an unprofitable servant. How much more, then, the Christian, who always falls far short of doing all. The sinner is worse than unprofitable—he is wicked and rebellious.
Perhaps it seems strange that Scripture should call a faithful servant who has done all “unprofitable”, “worthless”, good for nothing”. Yet, this is exactly the case. God, the Living God, is the All- Sufficient and Self-Sufficient One. We cannot add to Him; we cannot bring Him anything that was not first given to us. It is forever impossible for the creature to ever be other than on the receiving end. If we walk in His way, it is His grace that enabled. We are always debtors to Him, He never is to us. Besides, never for a moment does the Living God need us. Acts 17: 24, 25.
Naturally, this parable does not imply that God does not reward His servants. It only emphasizes that He does not owe a reward, He is not beholden to bestow anything upon us even were we perfectly obedient. Never must the Christian look upon the reward of grace as something merited, and which we can claim upon the basis of our work. Nay: that attitude must be far from the Christian. He must understand his unprofitableness: as sinner and as creature. The rewards God gives and will give are His free goodness. There is no room for glory other than in the Lord. It is His free grace that He deigns to make those who are worse than unprofitable servants His children, heirs of eternal life.
The Occasion of the Lesson
The immediate occasion of this lesson of the non-meritorious character of good works must be sought, first of all, in the immediate connection. The thought undoubtedly runs as follows: In vs. 3 and 4 Jesus emphasizes the solemn duty of forgiveness toward the brother that repents of his sin, even until seven times in one day. The apostles felt their inability to perform what Jesus set forth as their duty, and they turned to the Lord with the request, “Lord increase our faith”. And that correctly so. Before they could perform what was commanded them, they needed to receive strength of the Lord, the strength that can move mountains. But if then, by their own admission, they need to receive the strength from the Lord to fulfill their duty, it follows that the reward cannot be of merit, and so the Savior used the occasion to emphasize the lesson of the non-meritorious character of good works.
If now this parable be taken in connection with the previous five parables of Lk. 15, 16, a beautiful unity becomes evident. The parables interweave and form one perfect pattern, acting correctively upon one another. The parables of Lk. 15 (lost sheep, lost coin and prodigal son) point out that salvation is of free grace and not of works. Chapter 16 shows in the parables of the unjust steward that although we are saved by grace and not by works this does not mean that works occupy no place at all in the scheme of salvation. The parable exhorts the Christian to do good works, to be faithful in his stewardship. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus makes clear that failure to be a steward of God as in the case of the rich man means eternal destruction hereafter. To be without good works is fatal. But, lest that emphasis upon good works again
be misunderstood, the Saviour added the parable of the unprofitable servant. There is a reward for faithful stewardship, but it is not of merit lest any man should glory. All salvation is of grace.
QUESTIONS: This parable has been used to justify slavery; what is your opinion on this matter? According to the theory of a “covenant of works” Adam could have earned eternal life had he remained obedient; in what way does this parable disprove that? Catholics speak of works of supererogation: what do they mean thereby, and how does the parable condemn such a position? In what sense can man even apart from sin be called “unprofitable”?
THE UNJUST JUDGE
For the parable read Luke 18: 1-8.
A proper picture of the setting of this parable is highly necessary to understand the point of the story aright. The last part of chapter 17, verses 20-37, treats of the coming of the kingdom of God in its final glory; it stresses: a. That this final coming does not lie in the immediate but in the more distant future, vss. 22-25. b. That this final coming will be preceded by days of great sensuality and excess, vss. 26-30. c. That faithful watching will be necessary the more the day approaches (vss. 31-33), and that only the faithful will participate in the salvation then revealed (vss. 34-37). Vs. 1 of chapter 18 continues this same line of thought, and introduces the parable the purpose of which is “that men ought always to pray, and not to faint”. The emphasis falls upon the last words, “and not to faint”, i.e. and not “lose heart”, “be discouraged”. This includes that circumstances will be such that believers may lose heart and be discouraged and so give up praying. It will seem as though God does not hear their prayer for deliverance. They will be tempted to give up in despair. Lest this take place, Christ tells the parable as an object lesson; they must not cease praying, in time God will deliver.
The lesson of the parable is not that if we only keep on asking for something (no matter what it is) God will eventually grant it. Of course not. Yet prayer is not infrequently so construed. The context speaks of the final and glorious coming of the kingdom—it is for this and all connected therewith that Christians must perseveringly pray. Positively expressed, the lesson of the parable is that God will certainly hear the prayer of His people for complete deliverance although it may seem for a while that he does not hear their cry. The church must not lose heart, she must not be discouraged—The Lord will deliver his people when the time is ripe for it.
Elements of the Parable
The poor and defenseless widow seeking help and deliverance with the duly constituted authority represents God’s elect church. The church is as a widow, since her Lord and Husband is in heaven. The world with Satan at its head is her adversary, persecuting and hounding her through the ages and bringing bitter tribulation upon her especially just prior to Christ’s return. The widow appealed to the judge. The judge whose calling it was to do justice and to defend the widow, cared not about God or man and refused to take up the widow’s cause. The widow persisted in her appeals to the judge. The judge finally, not because of a change of heart, but out of sheer weariness of her frequent annoyance, took care of her complaint. So, the church must persist to cry to the Lord for deliverance. Even though God does not hear at once, the church must continue to cry. She must not faint, but keep on praying for the day of Christ’s return, which is the day of her justification. In this world the church never is justified; the authorities that be never give the church true justice. Apparently even the Lord is not interested, for He permits this persecution and trouble to continue. The church must not despair. If the unjust judge finally granted the widow her request, shall not the righteous God avenge His own elect? He certainly will; He will rend the heavens and bring deliverance. He will do that speedily (vs. 8).
Vs. 7c, “though he bear long with them” not only implies a period of waiting twixt the cry and its answer, but it also implies the reason for God’s waiting. “Though he bear long with them” may equally, and perhaps more properly, be translated: “though he is long-suffering over them”. The period of time twixt the present and Christ’s return, during which the church must wait patiently for her redemption, is the period of God’s longsuffering. Not that God is long-suffering over the wicked world, as some would have it. That cannot be, among other reasons because the text says that God is long-suffering over them, i.e., “his own elect” as the verse itself explains. If you consult what II Pet. 3 and James 5 have to say of this long-suffering, it is evident that God’s long-suffering is that manifestation of God’s grace according to which He longs to deliver His people but can and does wait until the appointed time. As the farmer patiently waits for the crops while they grow and does not make the mistake of harvesting before time, or of plucking out weeds when there is a danger of harming the crops, so God does not prematurely
bring the day of Christ with its salvation for the church, but waits until the measure of sin is full and all the elect are gathered together. He, as it were, holds back his intense longing to avenge His elect and punish the wicked, until the proper time. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, He has not forgotten His people and never will; God’s waiting His people must account to be unto their salvation (II Pet. 3:15). In the meantime, His people must remember that God will avenge them speedily. There is no checking of sin, there is no retardation, everything is hurrying on as fast as it possibly can to that great day when all that is Crooked shall be made straight, and His church shall be justified.
Hence, God’s people ought always to pray and not to faint, knowing that their prayer shall soon be heard.
QUESTIONS: Aimee Semple McPherson and others teach that if we only continue praying and believe God will grant our petition for bodily healing, etc. What is wrong with this teaching? Why does Christ compare the church to a defenseless widow? What is the difference between God’s forbearance and God’s long-suffering? In what sense is Christ coming quickly? May the church avenge herself of her enemies? Prove and explain in connection with vs. 8b that as the end draws near there will be only a few, comparatively speaking, that continue steadfast in the faith.
THE PHARISEE AND THE PUBLICAN
For the parable read Luke 18, 9:14.
Occasion and Scope
The parable of the unjust judge emphasized perseverance in prayer; this parable emphasizes true humility of heart as the requisite of acceptable prayer. Vs. 9 states “and he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others”. Who these certain were is not stated. Some think of Pharisees present in the audience, others prefer to think of disciples who in some way had revealed the same disposition so peculiar to the self-righteous Pharisees. Certainly, this much may be said, that the attitude of self-righteousness was not then, and is not now, limited to a peculiar group, but repeatedly becomes evident in every son of man as he is by nature. The purpose of the parable is evidently a clear warning against all self-exaltation and an exhortation to humility before God. Hence also the final application, “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (14b).
The Two Men
Two men went up to the temple to pray. Both were intent upon a religious act, both were engaged in a religious performance. Outwardly, there was in so far no difference. Inwardly, there was a great difference. Besides, one was a Pharisee, i.e., a representative of the sect that sought their righteousness by the works of the law. The Pharisees appeared very pious, and the populace looked upon them as paragons of virtue and piety. The other was a Publican. The publicans were tax-gatherers in the employ of Rome, generally hated, and not infrequently guilty of extortion. The populace generally thought as little of the publican from a spiritual viewpoint as they thought highly of the Pharisees.
The Two Prayers
The prayer of the Pharisee was really no prayer. This is indicated already in the words, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself”. This means more than that he stood by himself: it means that he prayed with his thoughts on himself and spoke to himself. Before his mind was the “holy” Pharisee, not the thrice holy God. He was in the temple but not at all conscious of himself as a sinner before God. That his prayer was in the real sense no prayer at all— but wicked abomination, becomes evident, furthermore, from all he says and from what the publican prays and he fails to pray. There was in his prayer no confession of sin, no humiliation in dust and ashes. Hence, there was no real thanks—only self-exaltation. The Pharisee extolled his own virtues. He complimented himself for fasting twice a week, and for tithing all he had. The Old Testament required Israel to fast but once a year, the Pharisees observed a weekly fast, this Pharisee did it twice a week. The law required tithing of the year’s main income, the Pharisees tithed even their thummim and cummim, this Pharisee tithed all he had. In his mind he was very pious. In reality he was very wicked; the righteousness of God and his own depravity were not at all in his mind.
In contrast to the Pharisee the prayer of the publican is simple, yet infinitely glorious. The publican stood “afar”, afar from the holy place, for in his mind he was far from God. His sin weighed on his mind. He saw only his own wickedness. It was not so much certain sins as the fact that he was a sinner in his very nature that he confessed before God. His only plea was for mercy.
Vs. 14a tells us, “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other”. God gave the Publican the mercy he asked, and also in his own consciousness he went home with the sweet experience of the blessedness of the man whom God forgives. The Pharisee went home without the peace of God in his heart, that peace for which he felt no need whatsoever. He returned home, justifying himself; he was not justified of God.
Vs. 14b expresses the abiding lesson thus, “For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”. Cf. Ps. 138:6, Prov. 21:4, James 5:6, I Pet. 5:5.
QUESTIONS: Do Christians ever assume the attitude of the Pharisees? When only does man pray as the publican prayed? Is it always wrong to thank God that we are not as other men are? In view of this parable may we call the prayers of wicked men good and pleasing to God?
With this outline we begin the study of the third and last group of parables. As was stated in Outline 1 (cf. Beacon Lights of Oct. 1), the third and last group of parables all deal with the consummation of the church and kingdom. All treat of the return of Christ on the clouds of glory, and of the rewards and punishments then meted out. The idea of judgment, the judgment of the kingdom, both as it pertained to the Jewish nation and as it would be finally, dominates in these parables. If our chronology is not amiss, then all these parables were spoken during the last days of Jesus’ public ministry, i.e., during the period immediately preceding His crucifixion.
For the parable of the Pounds, read Luke 19:11-27.
This parable was spoken in the vicinity of Jericho (vs. 1). The story could not help but remind the people of what had taken place here at Jericho some thirty years before. The palace of Archelaus, the hated tyrant, still stood in Jericho. This ruler who had inherited Judea as his domain from Herod, had travelled to Rome—as was the custom—with much money to influence the Emperor to crown him king of Judea. His fellow-citizens hated him and sent fifty representatives to Rome, where eight thousand more joined them, to appeal to the Emperor Augustus to deliver them from the cursed Archelaus. They failed to attain their purpose. Archelaus was made king, and returning as king by a bloody purge rid himself of his opponents, and built a marvelous palace at their expense. The inhabitants of Jericho, naturally understood quite well when Jesus told the story of a nobleman who went to a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.
As to the various features of the parable we should note: a. That it speaks of a nobleman who went to receive a kingdom and then would return as a king. b. That it speaks of fellow-citizens who did not want him crowned and who sent an embassage to the far country that they would not have this man as their king. c. That it speaks of servants who each received a pound to labor with as stewards during the lord’s absence, d. That the lord did return, and at his return made an accounting of the servants. The faithful, were rewarded according to their diligence, the one unprofitable servant had taken away from him even what he had. The fellow-citizens that would not that he should reign over them were slain before the king.
From vs. 11, “And as they heard these things, he added a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear” it is evident that Jesus spoke the parable to take away a serious misunderstanding. The Jews of that day, not excluding even the apostles, expected the Messiah to establish a reign of glory as soon as he appeared, and that with Jerusalem as the capital. The parable was spoken to show that Jesus would go to a far country (heaven) there to receive the crown, after that he would return. Further, whereas the Jews imagined that all would hail the Messiah, Christ made plain that the fellow- citizens did not want this man to reign over them. At the cross they certainly clearly manifested
this; the Messiah was rejected and nailed to the accursed tree. The servants, in distinction of the wicked Jews and all outspoken enemies of Christ, represent the apostles and followers of Christ—we might say the church members. While Christ remains in heaven they are called to work, to work in His interest, and thus employ the pound entrusted to them. It should be noted that all receive a pound— none more, none less. In this respect the parable differs from that of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), and the two must not be confused. While the parable of the talents refers to the distinct and different talents each has received and with which each is called to labor according to the number of talents he has received, the parable of the pounds has reference to those gifts of God which all believers have in common (His Word, His sacraments, etc.) and with which each is called to work. As in the parable not all the servants produced an equal number of fruits, so in the church not all labor equally as diligently with the means of grace. As there is one who does not labor at all, so there are church members who although they do not deliberately break with Christ and His church and say, “We will not that this man be king over us”, they in actuality fail to use their opportunities, wholly neglecting to employ the pound entrusted. It should further be noted that when the king returns he rewards the faithful servants, disapproves of the wickedness of the faithless servant, and metes out punishment upon the wicked.
Hence from the parable is evident: 1. That twixt Christ’s first coming and second coming there is a period of time during which he is in the far country receiving the kingdom. Christ is today in heaven, and lord over all. 2. That the period of His absence is for the church a period of active waiting, a period during which His servants are called to labor with their pound. 3. That when He returns He will punish not only those who deliberately expressed they would not serve him, but also those church members who were that only in name and did not make use of the goods entrusted by the Saviour of them as stewards. 4. He will reward the faithful according to their faithfulness.
QUESTIONS: The word “nobleman” in the original actually means “the wellborn one”; in what sense can this be said of Christ? Who are represented by the fellow-citizens? Who are the servants? What axe the pounds which the servants are called to employ? Is mere outward affiliation with the church sufficient to guarantee a place in the final coming of the kingdom? Will there be any difference in the glory of the servants when they receive their reward? Explain.