NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
This theme of applauding those who do good work for the Master’s in a faithful way was part of the Jewish Zohar, under the section on abbreviations. It says, “Lishma1 – for the Creator’s sake. Man’s selfless intention to act only to please and bring joy to the Creator.”2 In the same book, this was also clearly stated, “…behold what great joys the Holy One has prepared for the just and upright in the world to come. How favored are those who come in with a pure heart and mind, blessed also are they who in the world remain steadfast and firm and unmoved as pillars of right and truth.”3 Sounds something like what the apostle Paul would write. Of course, Paul was Jewish, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. But now the Lord turns to the one who shirked his duties and responsibilities.
We have the impressions of early church scholars on this parable. Origen writes: “We earnestly believe that we are incapable of explaining such things, unlike those who infer from the perceptible events of the Scriptures more inspired meanings. These are spiritual meanings that Solomon calls ‘divine’ and which Jeremiah calls ‘faculties of the heart4 and which Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews calls ‘faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.’5 The persons in the first group are those who in addition to the ‘five talents’ gained five more, trading with them and capitalizing on their ability. Successfully negotiating and zealously teaching, they traded and acquired five more talents. Indeed, no one readily benefits from another’s ability unless he has that ability, to begin with. A wise man grows in wisdom, a trustworthy man in trust.”6
I agree with this scholar and theologian who arrived at his conclusion after having traveled and lived in the Middle East. We must keep in mind that a story from one culture may not be as easily explained to those raised in another. The whole idea of a business man going off for a long time and leaving his supervisors and employees behind to run the estate after he has established a budgetary fund for them to use at their discretion is foreign to most western thinking. But when we concentrate on the main idea of responsibility and accountability, then we can find the same moral in many such stories.
But Origen has more to say about these servants giving their report. About the servant who was given five talents of silver and brought those back with five more, Origen says: “Note this: What each man knows, he can teach to another, up to the level of as much as he knows. This he can teach to another and no more. Therefore whatever someone has in himself, by teaching this to another, he gains it in the other, making that person have what he too has. Consequently, he who had received the “five talents” is said not to have gained more than the five which he had and “he who had received the two talents” not more than the two which he had.”7
In my study of church history, and after talking to one of my most respected mentors, Dr. Charles W. Conn, I was made aware of this factor in church growth and development. Martin Luther took those who joined him in the reformation as far as his own theological understanding of salvation by grace, not works, and his personal experience had taken him. Also, John Wesley took those who followed his teachings on sanctification as the second work of this same grace to the same level as his own cognizance and experience. Then, those in the early Pentecostal movement has taken those who joined them in accepting the baptism in the Holy Spirit as empowerment from on high to do the work in their calling, as far as their own understanding allowed. But each of these eras brought new challenges for God’s people, so what is the next step? In the Scriptures, it is clear that His second coming now comes into view.
When we look at the record of these movements, after several decades and centuries members seldom moved any further in their theological understanding of God’s words, especially that of the Fruit of the Spirit, the Gifts of the Spirit, and the Ministries of the Holy Spirit, and so the movement leveled off. In time, they began to decrease in membership and enthusiasm. The young people no longer found anything challenging or exciting in the repeated use of old hymns and the formal worship that had become stagnant. In some cases, the age of the congregants kept getting older and older until finally the doors were closed because of the lack of attendance and financial support.
That is why the term “revival” is so important. It means to resuscitate the glow of the Spirit, the joy of worship, the demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit in gifts and ministry. I’ve often thought of those churches that have become so steeped in tradition that they have no interest in evangelism and growing in the word and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as potted plants instead of trees planted by the rivers of living water. They want all the attention they can get but produce no fruit. They are more for display than for dynamics.
Verses 24-25: “Then the servant who got one bag of money came to the master. The servant said, ‘Master, I knew you were a very hard man. You harvest what you did not plant. You gather crops where you did not put any seed. So I was afraid. I went and hid your money in the ground. Here is the one bag of money you gave me.’”
Now comes the pitiful servant who did not understand the phrases: “No risk, no reward; or “No pain, no gain.” The excuse he gave on why he did not attempt to invest what was given to him because his master was a “very tough man,” is self-defeating. He knew that his master would accept no excuses, alibis, or apologies. If this servant had suffered a fall that paralyzed him or a heart attack that left him too weak to function, then the master would have had understood and showed compassion. But no such thing happened.
Another reason for his lack of productivity was that he knew that his master, “harvested where he did not plant.” In Middle East terms, this is indicative of leasing out land with an agreement that the tenant share in the harvest. The term: “gathered crops where you did not plant seed,” is a repeat of this same tactic, except when put together, the first suggested that the tenant paid for leasing the land through rent, while the second tenant paid for leasing the land in-kind. That means, if it was an apple orchard, then a portion of the apple crop was to be brought to the owner who could then turn around and sell them without bearing any of the cost of planting, nurturing, watering or harvesting the crop.
Origen gives his thoughts on these excuses: “How are we to understand the phrase that our Lord truly reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not sift? In this way, it seems to me: The righteous man ‘sows in the Spirit,’ from which he will also ‘reap eternal life.’8 Everything that is sown and reaped for eternal life by the righteous man, God reaps. The righteous man belongs to God, who reaps where not he but the righteous man has sown. So we may say that the righteous man has ‘scattered and given to the poor.’9 The Lord, however, gathers to Himself whatever the righteous man has ‘scattered and given to the poor.’ Reaping what he has not sown and gathering where he has not winnowed, he counts as having been done to himself whatever the faithful have sown or winnowed for the poor. He says to those who have done good to their neighbors: ‘Come you, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom which was prepared for you. I was hungry and you gave me to eat.’10”11
However, these excuses did not please the master. What had this servant done to receive the one bag of money in the first place? Wasn’t it given to him out of faith and trust in his ability to use it to enlarge his portion of the business so that it earned a return on his investment? I feel strong enough to say that had he invested it but there was a crop failure or some other catastrophe, the master would have accepted that as part of the risk. Therefore, the real misfortune was his failure to even try.
Verse 26: The master answered, ‘You are a useless and lazy servant! You say you knew that I harvested what I did not plant and that I gathered crops where I did not put any seed.”
The list of excuses given by this dysfunctional servant is still with us today. First, leaders today are hearing this cop-out: “Your expectations were too high for a person with my limited abilities.” Then the second excuse: “Your demands were more than I could cope with because of the impediments involved.” The third apology: “I’m not used to working on this level of expertise because of my lack of opportunity for training.” And the fourth alibi: “I figured it was best not to try and mess it up than trying and getting it all wrong,” is the lamest.
But as we can see, the man’s employer saw it as a clear example of negligence brought on by a lack of real commitment. The servant who was given the most was liable for increased failure, if not more, than the servant who was given so little. This nonproductive servant was using the same excuse we find in Ezekiel: “The Lord isn’t fair!”12 Then again, he may have had the same attitude as those in Malachi: “We did what the Lord All-Powerful told us, but we didn’t gain anything.”13 But in reality, his answer to his master was a weak and passive defense.
1 Lishma, is a Hebrew phrase and means, “for Her Name” It is often referred to as an “Awakening from Above,” because it is endowed on those chosen to be enlightened because their human minds cannot grasp such deep truths without help from above.
2 Zohar op. cit., p. 27
3 Ibid. The Initiation of Rabbi Hiya, folio 4a
4 Jeremiah 4:19
5 Hebrews 5:14
6 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 66
8 Galatians 6:8
9 2 Corinthians 9:9
10 Matthew 25:34-35
11 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 58
12 Ezekiel 18:25
13 Malachi 3:14