NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
The excuse of the last servant reminds me of the little boy who took an object off the shelf of his father’s bookcase to play with. When the father confronted him, the boy dug it out from under his blanket with the excuse, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to play with it.” The father then asked, “Then why did you hide it?” The little lad replied, “Because I didn’t what you to see that I took it.” Very self-incriminating, isn’t it! This servant was guilty of what Eliphaz said to Job back in Abraham’s day, “What you say clearly shows your sin…you are trying to hide your sin by using clever words.”1 What Jesus was really trying to get across to His followers was that when He returned, rationalizing their mistakes would not be enough to deflect their disenfranchisement. Why? Because this lazy servant had an option available that he did not consider or take the time to explore.
Verse 27: “So you should have put my money in the bank. Then, when I came home, I would get my money back. And I would also get the interest that my money earned.”
Our Lord’s disciples were no doubt acquainted with Jewish laws on charging and paying interest. I can imagine that as Jesus finished this parable, His disciple Matthew, the accountant, shook his head in agreement. Everyone knew about the money changers that came to every village and set up their tables with collection boxes.
Maimonides, in his commentary on this subject, states: “How would the money changers collect the shekels? In each and every city, they positioned two chests before them. The bottoms of the chests were wide, and the tops narrow like a ram’s horn, so that the money could be deposited in them, but could not be removed from them easily. Why did they have two chests? One to deposit the half-shekels for the present year, and one to deposit the half-shekels for the previous year, for the collectors would demand payment from the people who did not give in the previous year.”2 The law pertaining to this says: “When you loan something to another Israelite, you must not charge interest. Don’t charge interest on money, on food or on anything that may earn interest. You may charge interest to a foreigner. But you must not charge interest to another Israelite. If you follow these rules, the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do in the land where you are going to live.”3
A well respected Rabbi points out, that the wise sages of the past view the temptation of charging a fellow Jew interest akin to the temptation that the original serpent used to seduce Eve, which is then compared to the snake in the Garden of Eden described in Hebrew as ‘biting’, hence the word ‘bitten’ that represents the damage inflicted by being charged interest.” And, say the sages, “It does not matter whether the interest payment consists of money or food or some other consideration.”4 In any case, the estate owner gave the unprofitable servant an example of an option he should have used.
A translation of Matthew from Hebrew reads here: “…you should have put my money on the table into the hand of these bankers, where it would have been not only safe, as if buried in the ground, where you hid it, but also would have made some increase, and would have been returned with interest.”5 The Greek word trapezitēs. used only here in the New Testament, refers to “ledgers or tablets” kept by bankers. The fact that these money changers could make loans to the non-Jews and charge interest signifies where the increase of the estate owner’s deposit would have come from. So when the ax falls, not only is the lackadaisical servant separated from his money but parted from the master’s employment. A similar fate befell Israel because of her noncommittal ways.6
Early church scholars looked at this final condemnation and had several things to say as to what it meant in their minds. For instance, Gregory taught: “The servant was trapped by his own words when his master confirms, ‘Yes, I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered. I expect something of you that I have not given. I expect much more than merely what I gave you to trade with.”7
Then Chrysostom shares this: “You ought to have invested my money with the banker. You ought to have spoken to someone and received his advice and been admonished. Are bankers bad people? That is not for you to say. What could be more gentle than this? Those who give money at interest keep close accounts on its repayment. But you have not done anything with it. You ought to have given it to someone else to work with and required them to report to you. I require it back with increase, that is, with some good works to boot. You ought to have done the easy part and left with someone else the part that is more difficult.”8
Had this been all there was to the master’s scolding of the unproductive servant, he may have been tempted to ask for a second chance. Now that he had learned his lesson, and seen how beneficial the labor was of the other servants, he’d be able to copy their model of investment and become a more productive member of the staff. But the master was not finished yet. He was back now and had no plans of going away again and putting them in charge of his estate. He would be in charge from now on.
Verse 28: So the master told his other servants, “Take the one bag of money from that servant and give it to the servant who has ten bags.”
As we have seen, although the amounts varied, the responsibility for what was done with it was the same for each servant; even though one servant had more than the other, they all had money. There is one thing that God has given all His children, and that is the Gold of the Gospel. No matter what land we live in, and regardless of the name over the church door, we all have the Gospel. Some have more understanding of it than others, but still, all have it. When basing the rest of the parable upon this same premise it becomes self-explanatory.
Verse 29: “Everyone who uses what they have will get more. They will have much more than they need. But people who do not use what they have will have everything taken away from them.”
One non-canonical Gospel has an interesting comment on this by saying, that after Jesus said: “Whoever has something in hand will be given more, and whoever has nothing will be deprived of even the little they have,” He then looked at His disciples and called them “passersby.” They were shocked and asked Jesus why He said that about them. The Master replied: “You don’t understand who I am from what I say to you. Rather, you have become like the Judeans, for they love the tree but hate its fruit, or they love the fruit but hate the tree.”9 In other words, they didn’t mind what He was saying, they just didn’t like the way it was packaged. Sounds like some sitting in church pews today.
What Jesus says here has been used time and time again as an explanation for why some people get promoted and some do not. It is called the “merit system.” Plainly put, the merit system is defined as follows: “A system or policy whereby people are promoted or rewarded on the basis of ability and achievement rather than because of seniority, quotas, patronage, or the like.”
Early church writer Origen gives his understanding of what it meant in his day: “Whatever someone has from natural creation when he has exercised it, he receives that very thing also from the grace of God. In this way, he may have abundance and be stronger in what he has. Concerning not only wisdom but also every good quality, we should reflect on the words of Solomon: ‘And if there is anyone perfect among the children of men, if your wisdom is taken away from him, he will be counted as nothing.’10”11
Chrysostom sees it in a spiritual light: “One who is given a gift of preaching or teaching is given it so others may profit from it. If one does not use this gift, he will lose it. But one who uses the gift diligently will gain even more of the gift in abundance, even as the inactive recipient will lose what he received. The penalty is not, however, limited to this. The punishment, in addition, is intolerable, and the sentence is filled with heavy accusation.”12
Then Gregory also gives his assessment of what this merit system means: “Whoever does not have love loses even the gifts he appeared to have received. Hence it is necessary, my friends, that in everything you do, you be vigilant about guarding love. True love is to love your friend in God and your enemy for the sake of God. Whoever does not have this loses every good that he possesses; he is deprived of the talent he received, and according to the Lord’s sentence he is cast into external darkness. External darkness comes as a punishment to one who has fallen voluntarily into internal darkness through his own sin. The one who freely enjoyed pleasurable darkness in this world will be constrained to suffer punishing darkness in the next.”13
What I see here is our Lord saying that we should not stand around waiting to be promoted or for the Holy Spirit to give us more authority in God’s kingdom before we get involved. Some believe that if God likes them enough, that out of His generosity and favor He will give them all the support and aid they will need in promoting the message of salvation to a lost and dying world before asking them to go out. But the point here is clear. Take what you already have, use it to the best of your ability, and if God thinks He can trust you with more, you won’t have to ask, He’ll give it to you on His terms, not yours.
Verse 30: Then the master said, “Throw that useless servant outside into the darkness, where people will cry and grind their teeth with pain.”
I doubt that this unproductive servant expected this to be his reprimand. He may have thought perhaps he would only be demoted, or maybe fired, but not thrown out into the street where the beggars sat and made their living by calling out in agony for alms.
Rabbi Judah puts it in a different perspective when likening some people to this useless servant. He says: “Three things shorten a man’s days and years: To be given a scroll of the Law to read from and to refuse; to be given a cup of benediction to say grace over and to refuse and to assume airs of authority. ‘To be given a scroll of the Law to read from and to refuse’, as it is written: For that is the purpose of your life!14 ‘To be given a cup of benediction to say grace over and to refuse’, as it is written: I will bless those who bless you.15”16
The paramount thing to remember is this: the wicked and lazy servant was punished for one reason, not that he hid his money, but that he made no effort to increase the giver’s investment. The same can be said for what we do with our understanding of the Gospel. It’s not enough to study it until we can repeat it from memory; if we have not invested it into the lives of those who’ve never heard it, we not only waste our own time, but we are wasting the Gold of God’s Word. Let a word to the wise be sufficient.
Chrysostom makes a very salient point in his sermon on this text. He says: “Do you see how sins of omission also are met with extreme rejection? It is not only the covetous, the active doer of evil things and the adulterer, but also the one who fails to do good. Let us listen carefully then to these words. As we have the opportunity, let us work to cooperate with our salvation. Let us get oil for our lamps. Let us use our talents for His work. For if we are backward and spend our time in hesitancy here, no one will pity us any more hereafter, though we should wail ten thousand times.… Remember the virgins who again entreated and came to him and knocked, all in vain and without effect.”17
1 Job 15:5-6
2 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit., Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 2:1
3 Deuteronomy 23:19-20
4 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., Deuteronomy 23:20 – Ki Teytze, p. 1983
5 Gospel of Matthew, Sebastian Münster, Basel, 1537. loc. cit.
6 See Hosea 2:8-10
7 Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies 9.3
8 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 78.2-3
9 Gospel of Thomas, 41
10 Wisdom of Solomon 9:6
11 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 69
12 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 78.3
13 Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies 9.6
14 Deuteronomy 30:20
15 Genesis 12:3
16 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berakhot, folio 55a
17 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 78.3