Each of these pictures in Matthew 24:36-51 has been alike in stressing the sudden nature of Christ’s return. But each has also added its own unique elements. The picture of the flood has reminded us that many persons will be lost. The picture of the two men working in the fields and the two women grinding at the mill points to a radical separation and reminds us that we are not saved by being close to a believer. The picture of the thief reminds us that our souls are valuable and that it is prudent to be ready.
What about this next picture, the contrast between two servants? This is an explanation of what being ready means. Being ready means continuing to carry out what Jesus has left us in this world to do. We find the same idea in two of the three parables in chapter 25. In one parable faithfulness is demonstrated by the wise use of the talents Christ has given (Matt. 25:14-30). In the other it is seen in selfless service to those who are hungry or thirsty or have other needs (Matt. 25:31-46).
How are we to evaluate these two men? Not much is said about the good servant, only that he gave the other servants their food at the proper time. But a great deal is said about the bad servant. His service is marked by three vices.
1. Carelessness. He neglects his work because, he says, “My master is staying away a long time” (v. 48). This reminds us of 2 Peter 3:4: “They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ ” But, says Peter, they “deliberately forget” that God did judge the world in ancient times by water and that he has promised to do so again by fire at the final day (vv. 5-7). Besides, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (v. 8). What seems delayed to us is not delayed with him. Therefore, says Peter, “…Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (v. 17).
2. Cruelty. The second vice of the wicked servant is cruelty to his fellow servants, because he began “to beat” them (v. 49). This is like the Pharisees who Jesus said would pursue, flog, kill and crucify his servants (Matt. 23:34). Only here it is not merely the apostles and missionaries who are beaten. It is the underservants, and the one who is doing the beating is a person who claims to be a servant of the Lord.
3. Carousing. Finally, the Lord denounces the wicked servant for his carousing since he has begun “to eat and drink with
drunkards” (v. 49). This is like those living in the days of Noah, who were “eating and drinking” and “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (vv. 38-39).1
The passage says of the good servant only that “it will be good” for him when his master returns. But of the bad servant it says, “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” (vv. 50-51).
Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer of the last century (1801-1885), is reported to have said: “I do not think that in the last forty years I have ever lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” The anticipation of Jesus’ return was one of the strongest influences behind his efforts to assist the poor and on behalf of foreign missions. He was expecting to meet Jesus face to face, and he was watching for him. Shaftesbury was ready for his Master to come.
So I ask again: Are you ready? This is an extremely sober matter. To be ready is salvation. Not to be ready is to perish.
1 I have borrowed these three points from William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 873.