There are only two ways you can respond to Jesus; positively, in faith, or negatively, with unbelief. Consequently, it makes sense to speak, as Jesus did, of people dividing themselves into two groups: sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, good fish and bad fish.
But on a few occasions Jesus spoke of three or even four groups. Think of the parable of the sower where there were four types of soil. Or the parable of the master who returned home to three types of servant in Luke 12. Here they are:
- The faithful and wise servant (v.42) who makes his master happy and is put in charge of all his property
- The abusive servant (v.45) who beats others, gets drunk, and is cut into pieces and beaten with many blows
- The ignorant servant (v.48) who does something but it’s the wrong thing and receives a few blows
Since many Christians identify themselves as servants of the Master, this parable is troubling. Is Jesus saying he’s going to beat some of us? Is he going to cut some of us into pieces?!
As I have explained elsewhere, the wrong way to read this story is to conclude that there are degrees of judgment and that God will punish you in accordance with the badness of your behavior. You may have heard that God beats or scourges his children as a sign of his love, but that’s not true. Jesus never beat anyone.
The key to unlocking this parable is found in the last line:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48)
Who has been given much?
It’s a mistake to insist that a parable has to make one, single point. Jesus was a genius story-teller who could use one story to communicate multiple messages to multiple audiences. In addition, his words are timeless. There were truths Jesus wanted to communicate to Jews then and there are truths he wants to communicate to us now.
So who is Jesus referring to in this parable? Who has been given much?
It could be a lot of people but let’s stick with the first-century context and say Jesus was referring to the Jews. The Jews had been given the promises of the Patriarchs, the Law of Moses, and all the Old Testament prophecies regarding his arrival. In contrast with the Gentiles, the first-century Jews had the inside track when it came to receiving the grace of God. Jesus said the master comes and serves his servants (v.37), which describes how Jesus came as the Servant-King (Matt. 20:28).
With that in mind, let us consider the three servants in the story.
1. The faithful and wise servants were (and are) those who were watching for Jesus and received him when he came. Just as the master gives these servants all his possessions (v.44), Jesus conferred on them (and us) a kingdom and makes us co-heirs with him of all things (Luke 22:29, Rom. 8:17).
2. The abusive servants are those like the Pharisees and legal experts who use the law (a.k.a. the “much” that they had received) to abuse and beat people. Jesus said the Pharisees killed, crucified, and flogged his servants (Matt. 23:34). They murdered Stephen (Acts 7), beat Paul (Acts 23:2), and would’ve stoned an adulterous woman if Jesus hadn’t intervened. But their greatest abuse was they turned people away from God (Matt. 23:13).
3. The ignorant servants are those who, like Saul, are trying to be good and do the right thing, but their faithless religion is based on “ignorance and unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13).
Who was cut to pieces?
In the story the master cuts the abusive servants to pieces. This describes what Jesus did to the Pharisees with his tongue on several occasions (eg: Matt 23). He tore strips off them with his harsh words because they kept people from God. The religious leaders saw themselves as “God’s men” but Jesus said, “You are the devil’s men” (John 8:44).
In the story the master assigns the abusive servants a place with the unbelievers (or hypocrites – see Matt. 12:49), much like Jesus did with the Pharisees when he called them “sons of hell” (Mt 23:15). This in itself is an act of mercy, because only a hard truth can crack a hard heart.
What are the heavy beatings?
The abusive servant is lazy and “will be beaten with many blows,” or “thoroughly thrashed” to quote the Message Bible. Conversely, the misguided but hard-working servant is “beaten with few blows.”
Some commentators say Jesus is talking about stewardship (which he sort of is), giving you the impression that if you’re not a good steward he’ll beat you (which he definitely won’t).
Others use this passage to promote performance-based Christianity. They say it’s better to do something for Jesus – even the wrong thing – because a few blows are better than many blows. Both interpretations miss grace.
Remember, the good things that the servants have been entrusted with are the law and the prophets. Those who have the law but don’t keep the law – the lazy servants – are beaten with many blows. Who is beating them? The law!
Jesus said the Pharisees didn’t practice what they preached (Matt. 23:3-4). They were lazy law-keepers and they knew it. Their own consciences would’ve condemned them as lawbreakers and this is probably why many of them were miserable jerks.
Paul described the law as the ministry that condemns and brings death (2 Cor. 3:7-9). But note that it is not the law that kills; it is sin inflamed by the law (Rom. 7:9).
One of the greatest lies we have been sold is that sin is pleasurable. It is not! Sin is pain upon pain. Sin will destroy your health, your marriage, your family, your career, and then it will destroy you. We can see the fruit of sin in the lives of the religious leaders. Many of them became murderous thugs, dealers in death, and killers of women. They stole from the poor and devoured widow’s houses. These abusive servants were themselves victims of sin’s abuse.
The “many blows” is a reference to the destructive power of sin. Sin hurts everyone but is especially potent towards those living under the law. The law – or a well-developed conscience – amplifies sin’s destructive power (1 Cor. 15:56). Try and live under the law and you will be beaten again and again. You’ll be as wretched and miserable as a Pharisee.
What are the light beatings?
Some say the light beatings are a reference to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. He makes you feel a little pain so that you don’t feel the bigger pain of sin. I disagree. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of grace, not the spirit of pain. Jesus called him the Comforter not the Tormenter. For sure, God responds when we sin, but not with beatings. Not even light ones.
So what are the “few blows” dished out to the misguided servant?
They are the regrets that come when the servant realizes his hard work is for naught and he has done nothing to please his master. Think of Paul referring to himself as “the chief of sinners” because he persecuted the church. Think of the Jews who were cut to the heart when they heard the gospel (Acts 2:36). Think of the godly sorrow we all experience when we realize we have messed up and grieved our Father.
The blows or regrets of the misguided are few if we repent, but the blows of the stubborn are many because they refuse to change and so remain under the dominion of sin.
Meanwhile, back in the 21st century
The punch-line of this story is not that you will be judged according to your knowledge of sin or your productivity. The point of the story is this:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. (Luke 12:48)
What is the “much” that has been given? In the first century it was the law and the prophets which pointed to the coming Messiah. But for us the “much” is something greater. It is Jesus himself.
And what is the “much” that will be demanded from you? It is not your good behavior or your results for these are nothing in comparison with what you have been given. You have been given Much therefore Much is required.
God has given you all grace in his Son Jesus. So what does he expect to see in you? The answer is in the question.
The Much that will be demanded is the Much that has been given. It is nothing less than Jesus himself, because nothing less than him will do.
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