Jesus exhorted his disciples to be like watchful servants, with their loins girded and their oil lamps lit. To have greater freedom of movement for working, servants would pull their robes between their legs and then tuck the garments under their girdles. After the daylight hours had passed, they relied on their lamps for illumination. God’s Son wanted his disciples to be like servants waiting for their master to return from marriage festivities and to be ready immediately to open the door in response to his knocking. (Luke 12:35, 36)
Jesus pronounced the servants fortunate, happy, or in an enviable state of joy for being prepared to welcome their master. Continuing with a solemn introductory “amen” (truly), Jesus said that the master would honor his watchful servants, having them recline at a table and girding himself to serve them. (Luke 12:37) This would be the manner in which a master would treat his friends and honored guests.
Marriage celebrations could end at various times of the night. Therefore, waiting for the return of the master required that the servants remain awake for many hours, busying themselves with various tasks. If the master arrived in the second watch (between 9:00 p.m. and midnight) or the third watch of the night (between midnight and 3:00 a.m.) and found them awake and watchful, they would indeed be happy. (Luke 12:38)
Reemphasizing the aspect of preparedness, Jesus referred to a householder who would have remained watchful and prevented his house from being broken into if he had known when the thief would arrive. With a direct application to his disciples, Jesus said to them, “You also, be prepared, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:39, 40) Thus Jesus indicated that there would be no way for anyone to determine just when he would return in glory, requiring that his disciples always be in an acceptable condition regardless of when this might prove to be.
Peter then raised the question, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us or also to all?” Jesus responded with a question, “Who really is the faithful and wise steward whom his master will put in charge over his servants, to give them their [daily] ration at the [appropriate] time?” If that steward, who was also a slave, faithfully discharged the responsibility which he had been given, he would be happy at his master’s arrival. (Luke 12:41-43)
Jesus had entrusted Peter and the other apostles with the responsibility to be teachers of fellow believers and to look out for their spiritual well-being. In subsequent centuries, others in the community of believers have rendered such service. At the time of his return in glory, Jesus will identify all who have ministered faithfully according to his instructions, proving themselves to be loving and caring slaves of their fellow servants. Like the slave of the parable, they would then have abundant reason to be happy. Continuing with the parable, Jesus added that the reward was certain and likened it to the master’s putting the faithful steward in charge of all of his possessions.
In the community of believers, a danger exists that those who are looked to as teachers and for loving and compassionate care and concern will misuse their position. Instead of continuing to minister as slaves, they may take on the role of abusive masters, forgetting their accountability to the Lord Jesus Christ. While they may speak of his coming, their bearing, words, or actions would deny that they really believed that he would return to judge them personally.
In the parable, Jesus spoke of the possibility that the slave or steward would prove to be unfaithful. In his heart or inmost self, he would reason that his master was delaying. Assuming the position of a cruel master, he would deal harshly with fellow servants (both male and female), beating them for not complying with his demands. He would indulge his fleshly desires, eating and drinking to the point of intoxication. (Luke 12:45)
The master would arrive on a day that the abusive steward did not expect and at an hour unknown to him. That worthless slave would then be severely punished (literally, “cut in two” or hacked in pieces), and his portion would be with the unbelievers (those who defiantly persisted in unbelief or unfaithfulness). This is indeed a powerful warning to all who represent themselves as stewards in the service of Christ but who in attitude, word, or deed assume a position of lordship, equating obedience to the unique rules and teachings of their particular movements as constituting loyalty to God and Christ. (Luke 12:46)
In his parable, Jesus referred to other failures on the part of those in his service. He spoke of the slave that understood his master’s will but failed to be in a prepared state and acted contrary to his will. Upon the master’s arrival, that slave would be severely beaten. On the other hand, the slave that did not understand the master’s will but made himself guilty of wrongs deserving punishment would be beaten far less severely. The judgment would be according to the responsibility with which the individual had been entrusted. Much would be required from the one to whom much had been given, and far more would be asked of the one having weighty responsibility. (Luke 12:47, 48)
Jesus’ parables call for sober self-examination. All of us who profess to be his disciples need to think seriously about whether we are prepared to welcome him as his servants who have faithfully labored in his interests, responding with love and compassion to those in need. Ignorance of his will would not shield one from an unfavorable judgment. It is vital that, individually, believers assume personal responsibility for their spiritual lives, making sure that Jesus’ example and teaching serve as a guide in daily living. Whether one’s role may be comparable to that of a steward entrusted with much or a servant with lesser responsibility, all believers need to remain prepared to welcome Christ at his return.