Perspective is crucial. Sometimes when we are going through particularly difficult situations, everything seems hopeless and pointless. Only after some time do we gain perspective so that events come into focus and the lessons become obvious. Perspective in life can work in two directions. Usually it is reflective, as we look back and consider what has happened in relation to subsequent events. But perspective can also be prospective. We can act now in light of what we hope will happen in the future. A couple who saves prudently now for their children's future education or for their own retirement lives prospectively. That kind of perspective is harder, because it requires faith and counts on events that have not yet occurred. It is very different from living strictly according to present needs and gratification.
Christians are supposed to live prospectively. Believers know that Jesus is returning and that all will give an account for their stewardship. So in this passage Jesus gives a series of three images to underline the importance of living prospectively. The parable of being prepared (vv. 35-36), the parable of waiting for the Son of Man (vv. 39-40) and the parable of the kinds of stewards (vv. 41-48) call us to reflect on our view of the future. The nature of the future helps to determine present priorities. Jesus wants to make sure disciples are prepared for what is to come. Faith means trusting God, not only for the present but also for the future, by walking faithfully with him until he returns. What God will do affects what we do.
Jesus launches right into the exhortation and parable: Let your loins be girded (Greek) and keep your lamps burning. These two images both suggest being prepared. So the NIV rightly renders the first as be dressed ready for service. Tying up one's garment around the waist is a picture of constant readiness to move quickly (Ex 12:10-11; 1 Kings 18:46; 2 Kings 4:29; 9:1; Is 59:17; Eph 6:14; 1 Pet 1:13). The perfect participle, acting as an imperative, makes the point: keep yourself ready. The image of lamps burning adds to the sense of watchfulness. Even in the dark hours of the night you must be ready. Watch at all times. A variation of the image is Matthew 25:1-13.
Now Jesus makes a comparison. Like servants who wait for their master to return from a wedding celebration, disciples should be ready for their Lord to appear anytime at the door. Wedding feasts could last for as long as a week, so the time of someone's return was not always predictable. Servants had to be ready to serve whenever the master broke loose from the party to return home. Disciples should live in the same expectation.
Jesus offers a beatitude for those who heed his advice (v. 37); NIV introduces it with it will be good. The NRSV more closely follows the Greek: "Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes." The beatitude has an interesting twist: when the master returns, he will serve the servants who are faithful. Jesus has always placed a high premium on service, and here he shows that he will honor faithfulness with service. It is not at all common for masters to serve slaves, but God's grace shows the extent of God's love. The chief steward leads the stewards in service. He will share the meal at the table of fellowship and serve the food. The imagery suggests the blessing of being totally accepted by Jesus.
But Jesus does not tell his disciples when the master will return. The allusion to the second or third watch gives a general time frame, though the exact time is uncertain because it is not clear if Luke intends a Jewish three-watch or a Roman four-watch schedule. Either way the time frame is "deep night," somewhere between midnight (Roman time) and 2:00 a.m. (Jewish time). Luke uses the Roman schedule elsewhere (Acts 12:4), but a Jewish setting might suggest the other possibility. Either way the point is clear: the disciples must be ready because the return may be at any moment, even deep in the night when one normally would not be prepared. Constant vigilance is expected.
Jesus extends the call to readiness by comparing his return to a thief's robbing a house at night. Just as a man would never leave his house exposed if he knew a robber was going to try to enter it, so the disciple should be ready for the Son of Man's return. For just as we do not know when a thief may come, so we must be ready at all times. The Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour. There is spiritual exposure in lack of preparedness. The thief image suggests that the risks of unpreparedness are great.
Peter catches the importance of Jesus' remarks and asks who the parable's audience is. He may be distinguishing between the crowds and the disciples, or he may be asking about distinctions between the disciples and the leadership. The answer is not as easy as it might at first appear. That leaders are included is obvious from the passage's stewardship imagery. The problem is that when Jesus returns to render judgment, all are subjected to it. But only some disciples are asked to care directly for the Lord's children. If the judgment is for all, then the ministers to the community are any who associate with the community. So it would appear that Jesus has in mind all disciples, not just the leaders and not all humanity.
If there is an evaluation of stewardship, then what is good and bad stewardship? What will the evaluation be like? Jesus begins by noting what a good steward is like. A steward in ancient culture was a slave who was left in charge of domestic affairs when the master was away (16:1; 1 Cor 4:4-5; Michel 1967:149-51). The steward's major responsibility was to care for the other servants' welfare, especially to allot food to them. Food might be handed out daily, weekly or monthly. A steward's job was to serve, not to exercise power. This may well be why Jesus uses the image (Manson 1957:118).
Jesus praises faithfulness with another beatitude much like that of verses 37-38. The good servant, the one who waits and is ready, is the one who serves faithfully during the master's absence. Often we think of waiting as an attitude, but Jesus sees it as translating into action. Life lived prospectively is marked by constant service to God. The Lord blesses those living faithfully as they await his return. The reward will be further, expanded responsibility. Then the steward will have responsibility not only over the house and its servants but over the whole estate. What this "promotion" represents is hard to specify. Certain texts suggest that Jesus will continue to administer the creation upon his return (19:17; 1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 20:1-6). Administrative assistants will be needed to exercise this responsibility. The reward seems to involve the future period of Jesus' rule, at which time faithfulness will be honored with more service.
But other outcomes are possible. What if the steward's service is blatantly unfaithful? Jesus raises this other side of the coin next: But suppose the servant says to himself, "My master is taking a long time in coming," and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. In light of the subsequent verses, Jesus is discussing a stewardship that goes exactly opposite of what Jesus requested. Instead of the servants' being cared for, they are abused. Resources are wasted on the steward and not shared with others. How will the Lord evaluate those who don't care that the Master is returning and who live like it, abusing others along the way?
The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. For such a steward there is no reward, only severe judgment. The key to the passage is the dismemberment (dichotomeo) imagery and the idea of having a portion with the unfaithful. The Greek speaks of the "unfaithful," but contextually, given the judgment imagery, the NIV is correct to render this term unbelievers. The steward is not given a mere beating, but a mortal blow and a total separation. It represents a total rejection—a painful death as opposed to a punishment. This type of punishment is the most severe possible. The imagery of dismemberment is rendered too softly in many English translations (for example, "punish him" in RSV; see Betz 1964). This servant is rejected—as Matthew 24:51 says, placed among the hypocrites where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Such servants may also include those who destroy God's temple in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, who in turn are destroyed by God. These are the false teachers Acts 20:26-35 warns about and leaders like those condemned in 1 Timothy 3:3. In sum, they do not end up in heaven but are exposed for their unbelief and end up in hell with the rest of the totally unfaithful.
Jesus elaborates on other degrees of stewardly unfaithfulness—unfaithfulness that falls short of eliciting the total judgment Jesus has just described. In verse 47 it appears the servant exercises poor stewardship by not acting to do what his master wants. This is something less than a blatantly disobedient stewardship. This servant suffers a beating with many blows, as opposed to the dismemberment described in verse 46 for blatant disobedience. This is the discipline of a unfaithful steward, but one with some knowledge.
Second is the unfaithfulness of one who does not know. Here the servant is still culpable for his failure, but his punishment is a few blows, a discipline less severe than the previous two. Both the possibilities in verses 47-48 have conceptual parallels in Paul's remarks in 1 Corinthians 3:15—these are saved, but as through fire. The more one knows, the greater one's responsibility.
To be associated with Jesus is to have responsibility before him. Those who are sensitive to his return and their accountability to him will serve him faithfully. God will richly reward the faithful. Those who take this accountability less seriously will be sorted out according to their deeds. Those who never really responded to the Master and ignored his return by doing the opposite of what he asked for will seal their place among the unfaithful. Those who are knowingly negligent will be disciplined, while those who act in ignorance will be less severely disciplined.
The end of the passage helps to explain its start. We should live prospectively, sensitive to the accountability of discipleship. We should wear our work clothes and keep the lamps burning, looking for the Lord's return by serving him faithfully.