NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 49: “He will begin to beat the other servants. He will eat and drink with others who are drunk.”
As this undisciplined servant becomes more and more self-indulgent, he will grow more and more abusive to those who serve under him. Early church Bishop Cyril of Alexandria had this to say: “Those who pretend to understand the principles of the good life are not thinking as they should but are only clothing themselves in the appearance of virtue. They will be cut down on that fearful day of judgment. This is a judgment from the Spirit and results in a perpetual alienation.… Grace will be stripped away from his polluted soul, and his part will be reckoned with the hypocrites. Jesus calls hypocrites those who are so stripped and yet continue to teach others how to live. They succeed only in making things worse for those learning the life of discipleship. Further, Jesus teaches that those who have not carried out faithfully the ministry given to them in this present life from the Lord will not receive another from Him.… For the removal Jesus reveals is not a bodily one but the stripping of their adoption as sons from the Spirit. Moreover, they are punished because they lived a life of disrespect. They will gnash their teeth when they consider the reason for their pain and the exceedingly severe character of their punishment.”1
The implication here is that the servant in charge totally dismisses ever having to answer to the head of the house for his degrading actions since he does not expect him to return anytime soon. If you examine the genesis of the Catholic and Protestant denominations, you will find that at their beginning they were committed and dedicated to the truth and the power of God’s Word, especially the coming Judgment Day. But as time went by, the more they became comfortable being part of this world’s order, the less they insisted on the virtues and morals of God’s kingdom. Soon, it became hard for people to see any difference between those who claimed to be in Christ with those who are in the world. Today is would be hard to spot any believer on city sidewalks who truly stand out because of their obvious dedication to the holy virtues in Christ’s teachings.
Verse 50: “Then the master will come when the servant is not ready, at a time when the servant is not expecting him.”
But it will all come to a screeching halt. The Master will find this disobedient servant and give the proper punishment for his failure to remain faithful and true. In one early church writer’s mind, this will be done in this world. He writes: “He will cut him off means that the Lord will cut him off from the fellowship of Christians. The unfaithful servant will neither be glorified with the saints nor gently punished with those who have committed venial sins. Instead, he will be thrown in with the hypocrites and infidels, where he will suffer the destruction of those whose behavior he imitated. A good priest is glorified above all others, not only on account of his own righteousness but also on account of theirs as well since he is the inspiration for their righteousness. In the same way, a sinful priest is punished more severely than anyone else, not only for his own sins but also for theirs, since he made himself the cause of their sin. The Lord calls them not only hypocrites but also infidels because every hypocrite is an infidel, but not every infidel is a hypocrite.”2
But bishop Cyril of Alexandria has a different view. He says: “When in ancient times Adam came into being, God made him a partaker of His own Spirit, giving to his nature a most perfect beauty. For ‘He breathed on his face the breath of life.’3 For to truly give life is to have the Spirit of life, that is, of Christ. But because Adam was deceived and slipped into sin, he was cut off from the Spirit. For it pleased our God and Father “to bring all things together under one head in Christ.’4 and to restore the ancient beauty to human nature. We have received this through grace, but the stealthy entrance of sin stripped it from us. For Christ breathed into us after the resurrection, restoring ancient beauty to us. ‘Receive,’ He says, “the Holy Spirit.’5 And so the Spirit is united with us. For ‘he who unites himself to the Lord is one with Him in spirit.’6 Surely, just as we have been compelled to be zealous in our efforts by a sense of devotion, we are receiving the utmost fullness since we now have the pledge of the Spirit at the appropriate time. We are deprived of that same foretaste of the Spirit when we stand accused in our own sin since the gift of the Spirit is cut off and sent away from us as in the time of the judgment. We affirm that it is this judgment that Jesus speaks of when He mentions cutting something apart. For one such as this who has the Spirit is not delivered over to punishment.”7
Verse 51: “Then the master will punish that servant. He will send him away to be with the hypocrites, where people will groan and grind their teeth in anguish.”
Here is where we need to remind ourselves that Jesus is telling a parable intended to warn His followers that because He has not, nor will not, give them the exact day and hour when He will return, that they may be tempted to begin believing that such return has been put off or even canceled. Furthermore, that they will then become neglectful in carrying out His great commission, and serve as the salt of the earth and light of the world. He wants them to know that the period of grace given by God to all who desire to be part of the great kingdom of heaven coming into the world, will not last forever. So we should refrain from trying to find an application for every bit and piece of this story to the church. The lesson is to remain faithful, steadfast, and unmovable. In everything you do, calculate the fact that time is slowly running out on the church, just like it did on Noah. So keep the light shining, continue to spread the good news, and let God take care of the rest. The reason this is so important is that those who forsake the narrow path of forgiveness and holiness and begin walking on the broad way of immorality will ensure their destination to destruction, not everlasting life.
So as we see in this story, the actions of these servants might be explicable if they have come to the conclusion that they miscalculated the time, and even forgivable if they start thinking it has been delayed. But some have even given up on it ever happening. That may be due to what the Preacher in the Old Testament said: “Sometimes people are not immediately punished for the bad things they do. Their punishment is slow to come, and that makes other people want to do bad things too.”8 That, my dear friends, is frightening.
Ezekiel learned a lesson when the Lord spoke this to him: “Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, ‘Son of man, why do people quote this saying about the land of Israel: ‘Trouble will not come soon; what is seen in visions will not come’? Tell the people that the Lord God will end that saying. They will not say that about Israel anymore. Now they will quote this saying: ‘Trouble will come soon; what is seen in visions will happen.’”9 No doubt Jesus was thinking the same here. He didn’t want His disciples and followers to put off getting ready for a more convenient time. As Isaiah was told, “The shepherds don’t know what they are doing. Like their sheep, they have all wandered away. They are greedy. All they want is to satisfy themselves. They come and say, ‘I will drink some wine. I will drink some beer. I will do the same thing tomorrow, but I will drink even more.’”10
Anyone who has read Eusebius’ Church History will find out how soon this happened in the early Church when Paul and Peter had their confrontation in Antioch, Syria over believing Jews not eating with their Gentile brothers. The Lord expresses even more disappointment on those who were supposed to be leaders not doing their job, “You shepherds of Israel have only been feeding yourselves. It will be very bad for you! Why don’t you shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat sheep and use their wool to make clothes for yourselves. You kill the fat sheep, but you don’t feed the flock. You have not made the weak strong. You have not cared for the sick sheep. You have not put bandages on the sheep that were hurt. Some of the sheep wandered away, and you did not go get them and bring them back. You did not go to look for the lost sheep.”11
This attitude can only develop when such leaders do not believe God is watching or that the Son may not be on the doorstep ready to appear. The words “cut him asunder” in the KJV of verse 51 may give some the wrong impression. The context of, “appoint him his portion with the hypocrites,” suggests what we label today as “being fired,” or “being dismissed,” to join the other pretenders. However, others believe that our Lord was saying that such incompetent and deceiving leaders will be cut off, much like the branches of the vine Jesus spoke about earlier and sent to join those who were unproductive. As a matter of fact, the Persian Version of Matthew reads, “he will separate him from himself,” and the Arabic version renders it “he shall cut him in the middle.” This shows the Middle East concept that such words implied “dismembering”.
Since Jesus was speaking to Jewish followers, some say that the Jews did not have such a form of punishment. However, in the book of Hebrews we read: “Some were killed with stones. Some were cut in half. Some were killed with swords.”12 We read the following account written around 100 AD on the death of Isaiah: “Beliar lived in the heart of Manasseh and in the heart of the twelve princes of Judah and Benjamin and of the eunuchs and of the councilors of the king. And the words of Belchira pleased him exceedingly, and he sent and seized Isaiah. And he sawed him in two with a wood-saw. And when Isaiah was being sawn in two Balchlra stood up, accusing him, and all the false prophets stood up, laughing and rejoicing because of Isaiah.”13
A similar Arabian document written around 100 AD also speaks to Isaiah’s death: “Ibn Ishaaq also reported an Israelite interpolation which said that when Isaiah was passing by a tree, it opened, and he entered therein; but Satan saw him and held onto the loop of his garment so that it stuck out. When they saw it, they brought a saw and sawed the tree, and him with it. Indeed, from Allah we come and to him we return.”14
This account in the Arabic story actually comes from a Jewish source. There it says:
“Manasseh killed Isaiah. Raba said: Manasseh brought him to trial and then killed him. Manasseh said to him: Your teacher Moses said, ‘For men shall not see Me and live,’15 and you said, ‘I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up’.16 Your teacher Moses said , ‘For what great nation is there, that has God so close to them, as the Lord our God is available whenever we call on him’,17 and you said, ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found’.18 Your teacher Moses said, ‘The number of your days I will fulfill19 but you said, ‘And I will add on to your days fifteen years’.20 ‘I know’, thought Isaiah, ‘that whatever I may tell him he will not accept; and should I reply at all, I would only cause him to be a willful murderer.’ So He quickly pronounced the Divine Name and was swallowed up by a cedar tree. The cedar, however, was brought and sawn asunder. When the saw reached his month he died. And this was his penalty for having said, ‘And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.’21”22
And, according to John Gill, such type of death is spoken of by the Jews where they say: “the priests went before Mordecai, and proclaimed, saying, whoever does not salute, or wish prosperity to Mordecai, and to the Jews, ‘he shall be cut into pieces’, and his house be made a dunghill’.’”23 But writers point out that cutting people in half was also practiced by those generally called heathens.24
However, Gill goes on to say, “It must not here be understood literally, that this wicked servant should be put to such a corporeal death; but that he should be punished in the severest manner, and should be the object of the fierce wrath and sore displeasure of God.”25 I’ve taken the time to point all this out so that you may get a better idea of what the disciples of Jesus and the early followers and leaders of the church may have understood by our Lord’s comments here. But there is little doubt that Jesus was speaking of people being cut off in the spiritual sense of their being separated from true believers and any inheritance that will come to those who remain true and faithful to their calling. Unfortunately, that cutting off will not be temporary, it will be forever.
1 Cyril of Alexandria, ibid.
2 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 51
3 Genesis 2:7
4 Ephesians 1:10
5 John 20:22
6 1 Corinthians 6:17
7 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 278
8 Ecclesiastes 8:11
9 Ezekiel 12:21-23
10 Isaiah 56:11-12
11 Ezekiel 34:2-4
12 Hebrews 11:37
13 The Martyrdom of Isaiah, From – The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament by R. H. Charles, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913, Ch. 4:11 – 5:3
14 Stories of the Prophets, by Al-Imam ibn Kathir, Trans. By Muhammad Mustapha Geme’ah, Al-Ashar, Prophet Shia (Isaiah)
15 Exodus 23:20
16 Isaiah 6:1
17 Deuteronomy 4:7
18 Isaiah 55:6
19 Exodus 23:26
20 II Kings 20:6
21 Isaiah 6:2
22 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Yebamoth, folio 49b
23 Targum on Esther, Ch. 8:15
24 Thomas Gataker in Adversaria Miscellanea,.London: Samuel Gellibrand, 1659, p. 455
25 Gills’ Exposition of the Bible Commentary, Matthew 24:51