Great Texts of the Bible
The Good and Faithful Servant
Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.—Matthew 25:21.
The plain ethical purpose of this parable is to teach the need for fidelity to duty in all human concerns. The great idea on which it is based is that man is the depositary of a great trust. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who went into a far country and left his property to be administered by his servants. We have all of us as children been puzzled by the unaccountable fact that God is unseen, and that the Governor of the universe seems to take no active part in its affairs. This is Christ’s answer to the puzzle: God has delegated the administration of His world to His servant, man. In man there is a Divine capacity for truth, and duty, and righteousness: and still further to guide and strengthen that capacity in its development, God has given him a code of instructions, which goes by the name of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Obeying that code of moral law it is in the power of man to administer the world rightly as the vicegerent of God, and to develop his own highest self in the process. Time and talent—every form of human gift and opportunity—are part of the wealth of God which is invested in man, and the one business of man in this theatre of human life is to be a faithful steward of the trust reposed in him.
The Text defines—
The Life that Christ Approves.
The Rewards that Christ Dispenses.
The Life that Christ Approves
“Good and faithful servant.” Here are the elements of a great life. Christ does not say a great life is brilliant. He does not say a great life is splendid. He does not say a great life is illustrious. He does not say a great life is heroic. A great life is all these and more, but Christ does not say so. He simply says “good and faithful.”
1. Goodness is a fundamental and essential element of Christian character. It is a household grace, adapted to every changing circumstance, and to every occasion. Some of the Christian graces seem not to enter into every act of life, but are called out in peculiar emergencies. Patience and resignation exhibit themselves only under the ills of life, or in the dark hour of adversity; but Christian goodness, from whatever position it is viewed, is equally conspicuous.
There is one place where the difference between the good man and the bad man is hidden out of sight, and that is when both are kneeling at the foot of the Cross. But till men are brought there in repentance, the gulf which separates the desire to serve God from the disregard of His will is as wide as from heaven to hell. Nor can we do a greater mischief to our consciences than by trying to teach them that because we are weak therefore all Christian goodness is worth nothing, and there is little to choose between living one way and living the other way. On the contrary, weak as we are, we are expressly told that our goodness is in kind the same as our Lord’s. “He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” The little good of which we are capable is for all that in its nature heavenly, and comes directly from the other world. Our weakness may make us incapable of attaining much of it: and our want of earnestness may rob us of still more. But still in its kind it is of heaven and not of earth, and nothing on earth can be compared with it in value. We cannot be as true and just and unselfish as we should be; and we are not as true and just and unselfish as we can be; but for all that, what truth and justice and unselfishness there is upon earth is of the same priceless heavenly quality as shall be found in the other world.1 [Note: Archbishop Temple.]
(1) “Good” and “goodness” are used in different senses. We say that fruit is good, when it is agreeable to the sense of taste. An article of husbandry is good, when it is happily adapted to the purposes for which it was constructed. Goodness, as existing in the Deity, embraces that principle which leads the Divine Being to bestow blessings upon His creatures. Goodness, as applied to man, must be taken in a restricted sense; it refers to the moral qualities of his heart. It consists in the possession of the Christian graces. The Apostle has enumerated, “Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” The supposed possession of any one grace gives us no right to profess Christian goodness. The Apostle says, “Add,” lead up, alluding to the chorus in the Grecian dance, where they danced with joined hands. The allusion is a beautiful one, showing the intimate connexion existing between the graces of the Spirit. Where one truly exists, they all exist, and nearly in the same strength and maturity. Christian goodness is necessarily associated with Christian holiness. It implies not merely a state in which the sympathies of human nature are easily excited, and lead to acts of kindness towards the bereaved and distressed, but a state in which fruit is shown unto holiness, and the end eternal life. It is not a mere negative state, in which there is no marked development of unsanctified nature, but the good man, like Barnabas, is full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. When the work of creation was completed, from the beauty and harmony of the parts, and their perfect adaptation to accomplish the Divine purposes, everything was pronounced to be very good. No higher appellation could be given. And man now becomes good only so far as, by the renewal of the Holy Ghost, he bears the impress of his original nature.
In a letter to his youngest boy, James Hinton wrote: “If you haven’t been perfect, you must not be discouraged, but must only try again and the more. And remember, the art is to do at once; delay is the great enemy. If you do at once what you are told, you can hardly imagine how beautifully everything will go. Only think of your ship; you see as soon as ever the wind says to it go, it goes at once. It doesn’t wait a moment; and if it did, would it get on well, do you think? You know it wouldn’t. Why, it would topple over, and its friend, the wind, in its very help, would only hurt. Now we ought to be like ships before the wind, and the wind should be love, moving us at once. Do you know, the Spirit, God’s own Spirit, is called by the same word that means the wind? And I dare say one reason is that He fills the sails, and that they yield freely and happily to Him, like ships before a favouring breeze.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of James Hinton, 215.]
(2) In our ordinary interpretations of this parable, we are in some danger of laying the emphasis on power rather than on character. We say, “The servant made the best of his power, and the result was correspondingly large.” We draw the practical lesson, “The more faithfully you use your talents, the more you will accomplish.” We perhaps tend to forget that it is the moral quality of the user that gives character to the result; that a smaller result, as the outcome of faithfulness, is more in God’s eyes than a larger one without it; that to God there is no large result, no good result, without goodness; that God demands interest on character no less than on endowment, and that interest on endowment counts for nothing without interest on character; that quality fixes the rate of interest on quantity. We may go into the other world with the reputation of great or brilliant or efficient men. It will count for nothing if we are not also good men.
We have heard of the Roman who, to show that he could not be dispirited by fear, or intimidated by suffering, calmly placed his right hand upon the burning altar, and there steadily held it, without emotion, until it was consumed. We have heard also of the distinguished martyr of whom it was said, “In an unguarded and unhappy hour he had subscribed to doctrines which he did not believe; an act which he afterward deeply repented of, as the greatest miscarriage of his life. And when he was subsequently led to the stake, he stretched out the hand which had been the instrument in this false and discreditable subscription, and, without betraying, either by his countenance or motions, the least sign of weakness, or even of feeling, he held it in the flames till it was entirely consumed.” In the one case we admire the man, in the other the moral principles of his heart. Though the acts were similar, the one showed the martial man, the other the good Man 1:2 [Note: O. C. Baker.]
With special clearness Dr. Martineau shows that, as the Greek proverb, which Emerson so aptly quotes, well put it, “The Dice of God are always loaded,” and goodness must ever in the long run win the victory. It would be difficult to find in English literature a more perfect combination of depth of thought with beauty of expression than is presented in that section of A Study of Religion, in which Dr. Martineau illustrates “The Triumphs of force in History,” and shows how rude strength always gives way at length before intelligence; how intelligence, when it chiefly subserves the ends of pleasure or of gain, is sure to be worsted in the struggle with moral principle, and how in our present civilization the unobtrusive elements of Christian faith and love are gradually over-mastering all lower and coarser forces and tending to become, in the course of centuries, the dominating influence in the social and political life of humanity.1 [Note: Life and Letters of James Martineau, ii. 442.]
2. Faithfulness imparts the quality which answers God’s test of moral value; and value and award in the Kingdom of God turn upon quality, and not upon quantity. Faithfulness spans the differences of ability. No difference of endowment can put one out of reach of that test. It follows endowment down to its vanishing-point, and binds the possessor of an infinitesimal fraction of a talent to raise his fraction to the highest power as stringently as it binds the holder of five or ten talents. The servant with the smallest capital was condemned simply because he did not use it. On the other hand, endowment never rises out of the atmosphere of faithfulness. No measure of ability ever exempts from duty. No amount of brilliancy compensates for unfaithfulness.
There is no lack of great works going on for our Lord to which we may safely attach ourselves, and in which our talent is rather used by the leaders of the work, invested for us, than left to our own discretion. Just as in the world there is such an endless variety of work needing to be done, that every one finds his niche, so there is no kind of ability that cannot be made use of in the Kingdom of Christ. The parable [of the talents] does not acknowledge any servants who have absolutely nothing; some have little as compared with others, but all have some capacity to forward the interests of the absent master. Is every one of us practically recognizing this—that there is a part of the work he is expected to do? He may seem to himself to have only one talent, that is not worth speaking about, but that one talent was given that it might be used, and if it be not used, there will be something lacking when reckoning is made which might and ought to have been forthcoming. Certainly there is something you can do, that is unquestionable; there is something that needs to be done which precisely you can do, something by doing which you will please Him whose pleasure in you will fill your nature with gladness. It is given to you to increase your Lord’s goods.1 [Note: Marcus Dods, The Parables of Our Lord, i. 263.]
3. When we think of the world’s great men, when we get to know them intimately in their lives, there is perhaps nothing so arresting as the fidelity which we discover there. When we are young we are ready to imagine that the great man must be free from common burdens; we think he has no need to plod as we do and face the weary drudgery daily; we picture him light-hearted and inspired, moving with ease where our poor feet are bleeding. In such terms we dream about the great in the days when we know little of them, but as knowledge widens we see how false that is. We see that at the back of everything is will. We come to see how every gift is squandered if it be not clinched with quiet fidelity, until at last we dimly recognize that the very keystone of the arch of genius is something different from all the gifts, that something which we call fidelity.
One of the latest critics of Shakespeare, Professor Bradley, insists upon the faithfulness of Shakespeare. It is the fidelity of Shakespeare, in a mind of extraordinary power, he says, that has really made Shakespeare what he is. The same is true of Sir Walter Scott. It is written on every page of his journal. If there ever was a man who was faithful unto death, faithful to honour, to duty, to work, and to God, it was that hero who so loved his country, and died beside the murmur of the Tweed. Yes, one mark of all the greatest is a fidelity which is sublime. No gifts, no brilliance, no genius can release a man from being faithful. Not in the things we do but how we do them, not in fame but in fidelity, is the true test of a man’s work, according to the teaching of our Lord.2 [Note: G. H. Morrison.]
On that great day when the nobility of England assembled in Westminster Abbey before the open tomb in which the body of David Livingstone was to be laid, all eyes were fixed on the quiet, black man, Jacob Wainwright, who stood at the head of the coffin. He was the Zanzibar servant who with his companions had brought his master’s body back from the swamp in the heart of Africa where he died, and had delivered him to the representative of the Queen at the seacoast, and had asked as his sole recompense the privilege of attending the body until he could deliver it to his friends in the distant home. Now the service was completed; and as England arose to pay her tribute of honour to the heroic man who had given his life to close the open sore of the world, all eyes were turned to the faithful servant who stood at the head of his grave.1 [Note: H. A. Stimson, The New Things of God, 224.]
The Rewards that Christ Dispenses
1. The first word of the Master is a word of recognition and approval—“Well done!” Fournier names his latest book, Two New Worlds. It is a study of the infra-world and the supra-world—a theory of the wonders of electrons and stars, a mathematical survey of the infinitesimal and the infinite. Now, here are two words that hold more wonders than two worlds. Here is the ultimate pronouncement of God and His universe upon the highest attainment of the human spirit. “Well done!”
The God of the Holy Scriptures is characteristically generous in His moral estimates of His servants. He pronounces perfect and good men in whom we have no difficulty in seeing moral defect. The epithets are freely applied wherever there is single-hearted devotion to the cause of God—to a Moses, a David, a Job, a Barnabas. And those who serve the Lord of the Kingdom ought to bear this truth in mind. It is well that we think humbly of ourselves, but it is not well that we imagine that God thinks meanly of the best endeavours of His servants. It is injurious as towards Him, and it is degrading in its effect on our own character. Religion, to be an elevating influence, must be a worship of a generous, magnanimous God. Therefore, while in the language of a former parable we say of ourselves we are unprofitable servants, so disclaiming all self-righteous pretensions to merit, let us remember that we serve One who will pronounce on every single-hearted worker, be his position distinguished or obscure, or his success great or small, the honourable sentence, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”2 [Note: A. B. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ, 213.]
2. The faithful servant is given a larger sphere of power and influence. “I will set thee over many things.” God’s rewards are never arbitrary. They grow out of the struggle that we wage, as the fruit of autumn grows from the flower of spring. All the rewards that we shall ever gain are with us in their rudiments already, just as the doom that awaits some in eternity is germinating in their heart this very hour. We see, in the light of that, why Christ associates faithfulness and rule: “Because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things.” It is because one is the outflow of the other, as is the burn of the spring among the heather. It is because, as flower from the bud, influence blossoms from fidelity.
What is it to be faithful? It is to be full of faith. The man who has no faith is not faith full but faith empty. He is faithless. It is trusting God down to the end of the journey, through storm and sunshine, through adversity and prosperity, through good report and evil report, saying, even with the last breath, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” It is fidelity. It is being trustworthy as well as trustful. It is trusting God until men can trust me. It is being so loyal to duty, so devoted to truth, so steadfast to principle, that no lure of quick success can tempt me to be faithless. It means that I should rather be defeated than lie, that I should rather fail in business than succeed through dishonesty, that I should rather be broken in fortune and ruined in reputation than compromise my honour. And it is all this, not for a day or a year, or a decade, but for life, not merely when it pays but when it costs, not only when it is applauded but when it is hissed; it is “unto death.”1 [Note: J. I. Vance, Tendency, 227.]
3. While the reward bears a direct relation to present fidelity, like all God’s gifts it is exceeding abundant—“a few things,” “many things.” The greatness of God is that He asks so little and gives so much. A missionary left a few pages of the Gospel in an Indian village. Swifter than the arrows he shot from his bow, the message went straight to an Indian’s heart. Meanwhile, the missionary had travelled on some two hundred miles. But the Indian measured the missionary’s footprint, made him a fine pair of moccasins, tracked him over hill and valley until he found him, and gave him the tokens of his gratitude. God always takes the measure of His servant’s footprint. And though he travel never so far and never so lonely, God will overtake him—no, not that, God will go with him, God will sing to him, God will cheer him, God will rest him, God will comfort him, God will richly reward him! God’s remunerations are incalculable! For brass He gives gold, for iron He gives silver, for stones He gives iron, for a few things He gives many things!
The bounty of the Lord gives enlarged opportunity for energy and usefulness. The “few things” of earth are to be replaced by “many things” which Divine grace provides for the faithful. The close of the earthly life, which seems as the yielding up at once of the capital and the gain procured by it, is followed by introduction into a new and grander order of things, in which larger possessions and wider opportunities are intrusted to each one. The greater power appears as a wider influence and rule under God’s government. In the everlasting life procured for us by Jesus, a future is prepared for enlarged work and also for extended reward. In the heavenly kingdom, where righteousness reigns in man and extended favour comes from God, life is progressive in ever increasing ratio.1 [Note: H. Calderwood, The Parables of Our Lord, 417.]
4. The faithful servant is admitted into the Master’s own joy. “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
(1) What is the joy of God? As concerns us, one thing and only one—our goodness. Not our activity, not our intelligence, but to see us growing more and more like Himself, purer, truer, more loving—this is the sight in us that sends a new current of joy through the perfect happiness of the perfectly happy God. To reach by His grace, by His training, some new measure of His holiness, to recognize it and begin to use it and rejoice in it as His gift; to lift up our hearts with the same happiness as fills His heart when a new temptation is conquered and a new purity reached—this is to enter into the joy of our Lord.
In one of His most beautiful parables, the Lord gives us a glimpse of one of His joys. A shepherd has lost a sheep. It has wandered on to the wilds, and has missed the flock. The good shepherd goes in search of it. He roams over the storm-swept, rain-beaten moors. He peers into precipitous ravines. He descends into valleys of shadow, where the wild beast has its lair. He trudges high and low, far and wide, gazing with strained vision, and at last he finds his sheep, maybe entangled in the prickly brushwood, or bruised and broken by the rocky boulders of some treacherous ravine. “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulder, rejoicing.” That is one of the joys of the Lord—the finding of the lost! “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Can we do it? Stay a moment. Let us follow the shepherd home. “And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.” Could they do it? I know that they could come to his house, and sit down to the feast, and enjoy the good things provided, and fill the house with music and song. But could they really enter into his joy? Suppose that among his neighbours there were some who had been with him upon the wilds, who had dared the dangers of the heights and the terrors of the beasts, who had trudged with tired feet far into the chilly night—would not these be just the neighbours who would be able to enter into the shepherd’s joy? To enter into the joy of finding, we must have entered into the pain of seeking. To enter into the joy of my Lord, I too must become “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Meditations for Quiet Moments, 99.]
(2) A measure of joy accompanies all good and faithful work. “The doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” Before the deed reaches completion a wave of heavenly satisfaction and joy breaks over the soul of the doer, which reveals the truth that man is in his element when doing good. Our conscience condemns us when we do an unkind action; we are pained when we fall below our ideal of true manhood; pain accompanies the dirty deed as inevitably as when the body receives a blow. The years, as they roll on, will cause us to lose many an object that we would fain keep, but they will not obliterate the memory of painful actions. “Verily we are guilty concerning our brother,” said Joseph’s brethren when they appeared before the ruler of Egypt. There was something, maybe, in the tone of the ruler’s voice which reminded them of Joseph and of their own dastardly deed. Painful was the recollection and fearsome was the whispering of their guilt concerning their brother. On the other hand, our moral nature approves kindness in the glow of pleasure which begins within in the doing of the deed. The doer becomes conscious of the music of heaven as he goes along his way. The angels of heaven seem to him to be opening doors of pleasure and joy each step he takes, and voices ring out the Divine invitation, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
Just to recollect His love,
Always shining from above,
Just to recognize its light
Just to claim its present might,
Just to know it as thine own,
That no power can take away—
Is not this enough alone
For the gladness of the day?
(3) The joy of the Lord is reserved in its fulness for the other life. Here His people fight the battle within themselves. With the great simplicity of revelation, St. James tells us the source of all disquiet, from the meanest brawl to world-shaking war: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of the lusts that war in your members?” The soul is without peace until the will rules every other power, and until that will is Christ within. The true kings unto God have known this so well that they have hardly asked for any other dominion.
I cannot describe that joy. It is something to be experienced rather than described. As the rose defines the bush, as the music interprets the musician, as the pure face explains the pure heart behind it, so, in some such way, doth God’s joy in the soul sing of the God who created the soul in His own image. I sometimes think that we have a hint of that joy when God and the soul understand each other in Christ. This picture from life may help us just here. There are in the parsonage two boys between five and six years of age. They are cousins; they are healthy; they are selfish; they are strenuous. You know the rest. The other night, after returning from a preaching engagement in a distant part of the city, I walked up to the bed on which the two lads lay, sound asleep. And the picture that met my eyes was so lovely that I walked away and back again for the third time. There they lay, cheek to cheek, heart to heart, hand in hand, even breathing in perfect unison, folded in the calm and sweet embrace of slumber. Long hours before, they had forgotten their scratched faces. Long hours before, they had forgotten the toys that caused so much misunderstanding. Long hours before, they had forgotten the unkind words they did not mean. Long hours before, they had forgotten their little heartaches and dried their childish tears. Long hours before, they had climbed the white, dreamful hills of sleep, where tearful eyes become tearless, where stormy words melt into peace, where broken toys and broken hearts are mended, where God’s angels brood above restful pillows!
And so there is one place—more tranquil than childhood’s sleep, more wonderful than childhood’s dreams!—where our souls may find whiteness, where our minds may find unity and poise, where our hearts may find forgiveness, where our hot brows may find coolness. And that place is the bosom of Jesus Christ. In Him, through whom Jehovah is reconciling the world unto Himself, the soul and its God come to a perfect understanding. Then are set in motion those deepening currents of joy which will flood us at last into that infinite ocean named “the joy of thy Lord”!1 [Note: F. E. Shannon, The Soul’s Atlas, 101.]
The Good and Faithful Servant
Baker (O. C.), in The Methodist Episcopal Pulpit, 203.
Brooks (P.), Christ the Life and Light, 222.
Dawson (W. J.), The Reproach of Christ, 37.
Farrar (F. W.), Social and Present-Day Questions, 254.
James (J. A.), Sermons, iii. 260.
Jordan (W. G.), The Crown of Individuality, 175.
Jowett (J. H.), Meditations for Quiet Moments, 98.
Llewellyn (D. J.), The Forgotten Sheaf, 99.
Matheson (G.), The Joy of Jesus, 5.
Moule (H. C. G.), Thoughts for the Sundays of the Year, 35.
Moule (H. C. G.), The Secret of the Presence, 194.
Neale (J. M.), Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, i. 301.
New (C.), The Baptism of the Spirit, 289.
Nicoll (W. R.), Ten-Minute Sermons, 115, 268.
Shannon (F. E.), The Soul’s Atlas, 86.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxvi. (1880), No. 1541.
Vincent (M. R.), God and Bread, 117.
Christian World Pulpit, lxxiv. 373 (G. H. Morrison); lxxv. 391 (J. S. Robertson).
Expositor, 2nd Ser., vi. 204 (G. Matheson).