I have heard this passage as well as a similar one in Matthew and Mark preached on these money programs on the radio, as though it was concerned with investments. This is part of a comprehensive program on money management which involves paying off debt and tithing, as though financial freedom is the same as spiritual freedom. But is this the best use of these texts?
Others see this passage as one which grants different levels of reward based upon the “success” of our Christian work. This “success” is often measured by the usual statistics of success such as how many have joined the cause or how much money was given or even how big the church is. But is our standards of success the same as God’s
Let us examine what this text in Luke is truly saying.
Exposition of the Text
There are several things we have to examine in order to understand what this text is saying. The first of these is that Jesus is on the last leg of His final trip to Jerusalem from which He would make the exodus described in Luke 9 on the Mount of Transfiguration. This exodus refers to the death which He was about to suffer and the resurrection on the third day. So in a sense, Jesus is going into Egypt and captivity, not Jerusalem. This link becomes clear in the Book of Revelation where Jerusalem is called both “Sodom” and “Egypt”, “where our Lord was crucified”. In Egypt, He would suffer death, but on the third day He would arise from the dead. On the 40th day, He would ascend back to heaven, there to prepare a place for us in the Promised Land.
Jesus had come into the house of a notorious sinner man named Zacchaeus who had come to faith in Jesus. He was now a son of Abraham. The events in this passage either take place while at Zacchaeus’ house or just after He resumed his journey on the Jericho Road. This was a narrow twisty journey of about 12 miles along a cliff face on one side with caves that bandits often hid and a sheer drop into a canyon on the other. The reason the pilgrims were on this road was because they did not want to defile themselves by taking a much shorter journey through Samaria. In other words, they would rather cross over the Jordan into Gentile country and then re-cross at Jericho and take this dangerous road. This, indeed is irony. What is even more ironic is this is where the Parable of the Good Samaritan takes place, which Luke records. The Priest and Levite were so concerned about ritual defilement that they passed by on the other side of the road, pretending not to see the badly injured man. When one considers that the road was narrow and the Priest and Levite had to pass by on the cliff side while looking up shows the incredible means they took not to help this man.
Another key to the interpretation of this passage is that there seems to be two parables intertwined with each other. This means that the interpretation of one is the key to the interpretation of the other. The parable that provides the key to understanding the other starts in verse 11. The occasion for this saying is that the pilgrims going up with Jesus to Jerusalem had high expectations for Jesus. This can be seen in the Palm Sunday enthusiasm which greeted Jesus. The waving of the palms was significant in that they were the symbol of independence from Greek tyranny during the revolt led by the Maccabees some two hundred years earlier which brought a short period of Jewish independence. The palm branch appeared on their coins. So there were many who thought Jesus was a political Messiah who was going up immediately to receive His kingdom.
Jesus tried to dispel this notion by telling a parable. He begins by saying that a man went into a far country to receive a kingdom for himself. Those who knew of recent Jewish history knew that the Roman Emperor was the only one who could make someone King of the Jews, such as Caesar Augustus had done for Herod the Great who went to Rome to receive his kingdom and return. When he died, his son Archelaus went to Rome to receive the kingdom. The Jewish leaders did not like him and sent a delegation to Rome to plead to the Emperor not to have him made king. A compromise was reached in which he was called ethnarch rather than king. However, Archelaus was unable to maintain the peace and was deposed and replaced by a Roman procurator, the latest of which was Pontius Pilate, whom Jesus was about to meet, not to be granted kingship but to be crucified.
As Jesus’ kingship was not of this world as He would tell Pilate, the Roman Emperor could not make Him king. His Kingship would have to be conferred upon Him by the Heavenly Father in heaven. This was the journey Jesus was about to undertake. Jesus then relates that the leaders of the Jews in Jerusalem absolutely hated Jesus and did what they could do to prevent this from happening. Under no circumstances were they going to permit Him to rule over them,
At the end of the second parable which follows in verse 13, Jesus relates the fate of those who would not have Him rule over them. When Jesus was to return, they were to be summoned and condemned to death. So this parable clearly refers to the upcoming situation. The Kingdom was not going to happen according to the expectations of the people. His servants were going to have to wait for Jesus to return as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
This provides the context for the second parable about the ten servants. The fact that Jesus called them “His” means that these are Christians being referred to. The fact that it mentions ten which is a perfect number rather than eleven or twelve which were the number of the disciples seems to indicate not just His disciples but all who would be His disciples over the age, which includes today. Each of them was given one silver mina, which represents the spreading of the gospel of the Kingdom until the return of Jesus. This has some similarities to the parable of the talents found in Matthew and Mark, but there are considerable differences as well. As a preacher, I have repeated illustrations in different contexts, so why not Jesus, the master illustrator?
The servants of Jesus are summoned at the end of the age at Jesus’ return to give account of their ministry, apparently before He summons His enemies to judgment. The first servant said that the mina he was given had gained ten more. Notice that the servant was given the mina in the first place and that it was the mina which is given credit for the increase, not the servant. The gift of grace grew from grace. The ten minas is a perfect number which means that this servant’s ministry was one hundred percent effective in accomplishing whatever task was given. The Lord simply says “Good” and tells the person that he will rule over ten cities.
The second servant’s mina earned five more, and he was likewise proportionally rewarded. We do not know the results the next seven achieved. But the tenth servant was called to account who would be called “evil” by the Lord. He was more than useless. He did not want to obey Jesus’ command by a claim of fear. He saw Jesus as being hard and unfair in His dealings. This was not a correct understanding of Jesus who gave His life for the sins of the world. What He took that was not His was the judgment for the sins of the world, so that all who would believe on Him would be saved. If this is unfair, then it is unfairness to our great advantage. We should desire to be treated with such grace rather than to be judged “fairly” in which we would face certain condemnation.
The tenth wicked servant is condemned from his own words. By Jesus telling him such, He is not affirming that the man’s view of Jesus was correct. Rather, Jesus is showing that this servant truly did not believe on Him. We read in the Scripture that perfect love casts out all fear. The fact that the servant was afraid clearly demonstrates that his heart had not been changed. Because of this, the servant shared in the condemnation which Jesus would pronounce on those who did not want Jesus to rule over them. In a passive aggressive way, this servant was saying the same with his actions that the Jewish leaders were saying with their words.
In the other Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that He expects us to occupy ourselves in the work of ministry until He returns, just like He does here in Luke. He warns us to be ready when He returns. Like the ten wise virgins of Matthew 25, we are to have oil burning in our lamps. Jesus also reminds us that we will be blessed servants indeed if He finds us busy about the Lord’s business. But if we get slothful and drunken, beating the other servants because we feel the Lord has delayed his coming, we will be cursed instead.
What is the work in which we are to be occupied? The Great Commission of Matthew 28 gives us a good place to start. Because Jesus has been given all authority from the Heavenly Father in both heaven and earth, we are to make disciples throughout the entire world. This is evangelism in which people are won to Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel. Baptism is the sign of this conversion as well as a sign of the second part of the commission which is to teach them everything which Jesus had taught and commanded them to teach. This is nurture or discipleship. Or we could see this as Paul states in Corinthians, “I planted (evangelized), Apollos watered (nurture), but God gives the increase.” And we need not fear because He promises to be with us, even to the end of this age.
The main point of the parable, then, is not that we should invest money at interest for the kingdom. It is about using the gifts God has given us and being obedient to His commands. It is not concerned with statistical comparisons as though the servant who gained ten was twice as good as the one with five. If so, the prophet Jeremiah would be at the bottom of the heap of rewards as he does not appear to have won a single convert. As we have noted, it is the mina that did the work, not the servant. If we compare this to the parable of the sower, the man scattered seed everywhere without distinction. Some of the seed he cast was consumed. Other seeds sprung up but did not survive to produce fruit. And the rest produced various amounts. None of this was the result of the sower. So instead of comparing how good or poor a servant we are in relation to someone else, we should spend our time occupying ourselves with the work of the Kingdom, doing what He has called us to do faithfully. What we dare not do is to be rebellious and refuse to work.