Serving An Absentee Master

Over the past two weeks, we have looked at Jesus as the Son of God – God the Son, and as the Son of Man. Deity walked among humanity – a truth that distinguishes the faith of a Christ-follower from that of every other faith on Earth. Today, we ask, “What did he want of us? What does he want of us?”

The Nobleman

Immediately following his interaction with the tax collector, Zaccheus,1 Jesus told a parable to the crowd, and we are informed that the parable was presented specifically because Jesus “was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately.”2

Jesus’ parable opens by saying, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return.”3 Prior to making this journey, the nobleman called in ten of his servants and gave them ten mnas to divide among themselves, each mna being equal to about three months’ wages.

The mnas were given with the specific instruction that the servants should “do business” with the money until the nobleman returns.4 He did not give the servants any timeline for his return, and it really does not matter when he returns. All the servants need to know is that he is leaving, he has instructed them to transact business, and he will return.

The nobleman is very specific to note that it is he who will return, and not someone else. It was not uncommon for a candidate to travel to Rome to be confirmed by the Senate and never return, or for someone else to return in their place. There was no way to know for certain who might show up six months, or a year down the road.

The Danger

As an example of this danger and uncertainty, consider the singular example of Herod the Great, who through fits of jealousy, suspicion, fear, and self-protection, murdered his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law. He suspected two of his sons of conspiring to kill him, put them on trial for this conspiracy, and though acquitted, he later tried them for high treason and they were executed.

The murder of Herod’s two sons left another son, Antipater, in line for the throne. Accordingly, Antipater was brought to trial, charged with the intended murder of Herod, and later executed. Herod was so exceedingly brutal, and so universally despised, that in his will he ordered that a stadium be filled with citizens who were to be executed upon his death, lest there be no mourning when he passed on.5

At the death of Herod the Great, roughly thirty-five years prior our parable’s telling, the very scenario Jesus described had played out for this audience. Herod died and left Judea to his son Archelaus, but to complete the transfer of power, Archelaus was required to go to Rome to have this inheritance approved. There were many in Judea who did not want Archelaus to rule over them, so the citizens sent fifty men to argue their position before Caesar Augustus, who did ratify the inheritance, but declined to grant Archelaus the title of “King.”6

We need to understand that there is a significant element of danger connected to what the master has instructed his servants to do. It might be safer to wait and see if the master actually does receive the kingdom before engaging in business in his name. He might be overtaken and killed on his way to Rome, or on the way back, assuming he is awarded a kingdom by the Roman Senate.

If the servants enter the marketplace as this man’s agents, transacting business in his name and with his money, they are committed to him, to his cause, and his kingdom. If, indeed, he does not return, they are done for. They will probably be executed, as were those who supposedly posed a threat to Herod’s throne.

The Nobleman’s Intent

The relevant question as we read this parable is, “What is the master looking for?” Most expositors of this passage emphasize the profit angle. The servant who doubled the money7 is applauded, as is the one who increased it by fifty percent,8 while the servant who hid the money in the ground9 comes across to us as shameful, and disappointing.

While it is possible to use this parable to teach the clever use of gifts and resources, I do not believe that is what Jesus is trying to say. I am persuaded that the nobleman is not interested in profit at all. He is looking for confession. He wants his servants to go into the marketplace and face the very dangers mentioned above.

The master is gone. Now we see what sort of backbone, loyalty, and courage these servants have. The minute they make their first trade in the marketplace, they are aligned with the nobleman and his reign. The issue is not stewardship or profits. The issue is loyalty, alignment, and confession.

The master has said, “Do this. I am coming back with a kingdom.” The question with which each of us must wrestle is, “Do I dare engage in the business interests of an absentee master?” We must determine whether we believe in his cause. We must decide if we trust that he is returning. We must determine in whose name we put to use those resources with which we have been entrusted.

The Reaction of the People

The reaction of the populace is everything we feared. The people did rebel against the would-be king. We are told that they hated him, and sent a delegation after him10 to testify against him, saying, “We do not want this to reign over us.” The term “man” is not actually in the text, but is supplied by the translators, since we know they are referring to the man, but the people’s intentional choice of verbiage is terribly insulting to the nobleman.

When we apply this to Jesus, our nobleman who has ascended to receive his kingdom, we see a very similar reaction in society since the day he ascended. “We don’t want that to reign over us,” the carpenter peasant who would be king. The hatred of the world toward Jesus is the same hatred the citizens in the parable had toward the nobleman.

Regardless of their hatred, and despite the objections of the delegation sent after the nobleman, he did receive his kingdom, and he did return to check in with his servants. It is at this point that we see differences in how the translational committees wrestled with the term πραγματεύσασθε (pragmateusasthe).

A Translational Difficulty

Of the twenty-four translations I consulted, nineteen of them looked at the story from the vantage point of profitability. This is certainly a legitimate translation of the term above, but not the only one, and it is difficult to determine if it is the most appropriate translation.

The rule to follow, when using a lexicon, is that the first definition given is the primary definition, and subsequent definitions are substituted when there is a compelling reason for doing so. In this case, we do not have agreement between two of the most respected lexicons.

Thayer translates this as “thoroughly, earnestly (διὰ) to undertake a business,” while Arndt and Gingrich translate it as “gain by trading, earn.” The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament offers a primary meaning of “to do business, to trade.” When we have disagreement like this, we must let the context lead us in the correct direction, and I will demonstrate below why I believe the context shows us that business transactions rather than profit is what the nobleman is looking for.

Three specific English translations, I believe, understand exactly what the nobleman is looking for. Young’s Literal Translation says, “that he might know what any one had done in business.” The New American Standard Bible translates it, “so that he might know what business they had done.” Getting a little closer to the actual culture to which this parable was addressed, the Aramaic Bible in Plain English translates it, “that he may know what everyone of them had traded.”

The nobleman is less concerned with the profitability than he is with how many journal entries are on the business ledger. The servants can set up a table with a small sign in a back corner of the market in hopes that no one will see them, or they can expose themselves boldly and proudly, as loyal servants of their master. Even the original instruction, “Do business with this until I return,” indicates the true interest of the nobleman.

The Results

Upon examining the servants’ business ledgers, the first has doubled the value of what he was given. We could be quick to say, “Aha, see, the issue is indeed profitability.” But look at the commendation of the master. “And he said to him, ‘Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, you are to be in authority over ten cities.’” The commendation is given, not because he was profitable, but because he was faithful. The second servant was similarly rewarded for his faithfulness. These two servants exposed themselves in trusting obedience where significant risk was involved.

If we look at the parable through the biased lens of capitalism, we are impressed by the greatness of the reward – ten cities. But to be completely candid, I am certain I would not want what these first two men were given. The reward for faithfulness in the kingdom of God is increased levels of responsibility. The first servant in the parable is placed in charge of ten cities, and the second, five cities. From this point forward, they have a great deal required of them. I would not want to be mayor of even one city, let alone five or ten. The surest way to not be given responsibility in the kingdom of Jesus is to be unfaithful or irresponsible with what I am already given.

Misjudging The Master

Finally, we are presented the third servant, the one who buried his mna, having done nothing with it. The simple peasant in the Middle East, particularly given the political instability of the current circumstance, will protect his valuables by burying them, just as this man has done with his mna.

By combining Luke’s account of the event with Matthew’s account we know this servant buried his mna in a knotted handkerchief. The third servant presents the mna to the master and explains his actions this way,

I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in, and reap what you did not sow. – Luke 19:21, NIV-1983

In explaining his actions this way, the servant indicates his belief that he has done the right thing, despite the master’s clear instructions to the contrary. The servant protected his master’s money, and returned it exactly as it was left with him. In a sense, the man is actually boasting. “Count it if you want. It’s all there.”

The master knows this servant confessed no loyalty to him before the hostile community. He did not even identify himself with the master in the smallest of ways by investing the mna to collect interest. This servant took no risks at all.

In his boast, the servant confesses his fear of the hard, exacting man who takes up what he did not lay down, and who reaps what he did not sow.

What the servant has described is a Bedouin Arab, famous for the Great Arab Revolt during the first world war. The Bedouins exist even today in Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Egypt. And we have archaeological evidence dating their existence as far back as 850 years before Christ.

The Bedouins roamed the deserts, surviving and profiting by raiding neighboring settlements. One of the best known of these is Shaikh Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the Howeitat tribe of the Bedouins, a historical figure beautifully portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the 1962 classic film Lawrence of Arabia.14 In order to grasp the stern character and reputation of the Bedouins, consider this indignant response from Auda to Lawrence when Lawrence accused Auda of being a servant:

Auda: (shouting to the crowd) “I am Auda abu Tayi! Does Auda serve?”
Crowd of Howeitat Tribesmen: “No!”
Auda: “Does Auda abu Tayi serve?”
Crowd: “NO!!”
Auda: (to Lawrence) “I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies’ tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because I . . . am a river . . . to my people!

Returning to our parable, if his master is a Bedouin Shaikh, then such a master will be impressed by both the servant’s actions, and his fear. However, this servant has completely misjudged his master, who is described in the opening statement of the parable as a nobleman.

The late John Wooden said:

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.15

The Nobleman’s Response

What is interesting about the interaction between the servant and his master is that the master does not shatter the servant’s misconception, but rather acts on the basis of it. “You thought I was a hard and exacting man? Then I will leave you with that image of me. Feel the wrath of that kind of man.”

He said to him, “By your own words I will judge you, you worthless slave. Did you know that I am an exacting man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Then why did you not put my money in the bank, and having come, I would have collected it with interest?” Then he said to the bystanders, “Take the mina away from him and give it to the one who has the ten minas.” – Luke 19:22-24, NASB

We run into difficulty any time we attempt to impress upon God our image of who we want him to be. When we do so, we are left to deal with that image of God.

The king, in this parable, did not burst through the confusion to give the unfaithful servant a proper image, but left him to deal with the image he had created for himself. The first two servants, regardless of what kind of image they may have had of their master, were faithful to him, doing exactly what he instructed them to do. In the end, they learned what a wise, gracious, and righteous king he was.

Our master has entrusted us with the good news of his kingdom, his mercy, and his grace. “Put this to work,” he says. “I am coming back.”

Blessings upon you my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

– damon

DamonJGray.org
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1. Luke 19:1-10
2. Luke 19:11, NASB
3. Luke 19:12, NASB
4. Luke 19:13, NASB
5. Roach, D., (December 24, 2012). Who Was Herod the Great? Retrieved 7/15/2016 from https://biblemesh.com/blog/who-was-herod-the-great/
6. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 253). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
7. Luke 19:16
8. Luke 19:18
9. Luke 19:20
10. Luke 19:14
11. Bailey, K. E., (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. (pp. 400-401). Downers Groove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
12. Matthew 25:25
13. Luke 19:21, ESV
14. Lean, D. (Director). (1962). Lawrence of Arabia [Film]. London, England: Horizon Pictures.
15. Kiszla, M. (06/06/2010). Wooden: Your Character is What You Really Are. Retrieved 05/19/2016 from http://www.denverpost.com/recommended/ci_15236365.

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