The Unprofitable Servant

Posted on 31 August 2013


 

If you’re learning just now that the Bible mentions an unprofitable servant, you might guess that this servant comes to a bad end.  And you would be right – but only half right.  The Bible actually tells us about two different types of unprofitable servants.  We will see that their situations are very different.

 

In the King James Version of the Bible, the word “unprofitable” appears only seven times.  If you check a concordance, you find that there are six different words (one Hebrew and five Greek) translated as “unprofitable” in seven different verses.  Of those six words, the only original-language word that appears as “unprofitable” more than once is Strong’s number G888.  That’s the Greek word pronounced “achreios.”

 

When you check “achreios,” you find that – aside from the two times it’s translated as “unprofitable” – it isn’t used anywhere else in the Bible.  There are a couple of words that are related to it, but “achreios” is only used twice.  It appears in Matthew 25:30 (“unprofitable servant”) and in Luke 17:10 (“unprofitable servants”).  We will see that even in just two uses, there are important spiritual lessons to be learned in connection with this word.

 

 

An Unprofitable Servant in the Parable of the Talents

 

Matthew chapter 25 consists of three parables.  Each one is concerned with the coming of the Lord Jesus on the last day.  The second parable is called the parable of the talents, and that’s where we find the word “unprofitable” used.

 

The talents in this parable aren’t special gifts or abilities that some people have (like a talent in art or music).  These talents are money.  The parable begins at Matthew 25:14:

 

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

 

In the parable, a man prepares to leave and travel to a far country.  He entrusts his talents to three servants, leaving more with one servant than with another.  The man determines the amounts based on his judgment of each servant’s ability, as we read in Matthew 25:15:

 

And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

 

In verse 19, we read that the lord of those servants comes back “after a long time.”  He checks to see what the three servants have done with his money.  What does he find?

 

The servant to whom the five talents were entrusted has traded with them and earned five talents more, as we read in Matthew 25:20:

 

And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

 

This servant hears the wonderful words we read in Matthew 25:21: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

 

And the servant who had been entrusted with two talents has also doubled the money left with him.  This servant also hears his lord say “Well done.”  However, the servant who had received the one talent “went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money” (verse  18).  We read in Matthew 25:24-25 how he justifies himself:

 

Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:  And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

 

This servant has not used the talent that was entrusted to him.  There was no growth or increase; and there is no compliment for this servant, as we find in verses 26-27:

 

His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

 

This servant is called “wicked and slothful.”  What happens to the servant?  We find out in the last three verses of this parable, Matthew 25:28-30:

 

Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.  For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 

The talent that had been given to this servant is taken from him, and he is cast into “outer darkness.”  Besides being wicked and slothful, this servant is also called unprofitable.

 

It’s easy to read this parable quickly and assume you have understood it, but it’s actually not so easy to understand.  In fact, the Lord has placed a trap in this parable.

 

It appears the unprofitable servant is being punished because he didn’t use the talent that was entrusted to him.  Based on this understanding, we might reason that people who do the Lord’s work will be rewarded.  We might conclude – incorrectly – that we can be like the two good servants, who worked and each doubled their talents, and so we will be saved if we do that.

 

This is what has been called a works-based, or do-it-yourself salvation plan: if we work and do certain things, then we will be rewarded and saved.  However, from many other verses we know that this parable is not teaching that.  In fact, when we look closely we find something in the parable that proves we aren’t saved by our own effort.  Notice verse 29:

 

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.        

 

Here, the Lord tells us “every one that hath shall be given.”  These words tell us about the inheritance the elect will be given in the new heavens and the new earth.  Every one of them “hath,” and every one of them “shall be given.”  And what is it that every one of them has?  It is salvation!   The servant who is called unprofitable never had it.  He is the servant who “hath not.”

 

Each of the two servants who received approval was made “ruler over many things.”  These two servants were God’s elect.  That’s why they wanted to serve their master, who represents the Lord in this parable.  They wanted to serve the Lord because they were children of God.  When their master returned (and that is a picture of the Lord returning on the last day) they were made rulers over many things – a picture of eternal life.  On the other hand, the servant who hid his master’s money is denied the inheritance and eternal life, so he loses everything.  He was an “unprofitable” servant.

 

Unprofitable Servants with the Right Attitude

 

The second place where we find the Greek word “achreios” is Luke 17.  There we find another parable, and it’s about “unprofitable servants.”  The parable begins at Luke 17:7:

 

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?

 

Notice that the Lord is telling us about specific types of work that a servant does.  From elsewhere in the Bible, we know that a field can represent the world.  The parable continues with Luke 17:8:

 

And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?

 

Even after working hard in the field, it is still not time for the servant to relax.  There is more work to do.  The master expects the servant to serve him until he has “eaten and drunken.”  Only then can the servant eat and drink.

 

This short parable has only two more verses.  In Luke 17:9-10 we read:

 

Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.   So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

 

These servants, of course, are working for the Lord.  They will eventually “eat and drink,” so they represent God’s elect.  In telling this parable, the Lord shows us the kind of attitude He wants His children to have.  After faithfully serving the Lord, even if it was for most of a lifetime, they are to realize that it was only their duty to do what they did.  They are to think of themselves as “unprofitable servants.”

 

 

How Can Both Be Unprofitable?

 

From our two parables, we’ve seen that both the saved and unsaved servants are called “unprofitable.”  Why does the Lord consider even dedicated, hard-working servants to be unprofitable?  To answer this question, we must think about what it means to be profitable.

 

When anyone is hired for a job, the person doing the hiring expects the new employee to be profitable.  The hope is that the employee will make or save more money for the employer than he or she costs the employer.  In other words, if the employee is profitable, then what he gives back to the employer will be of more value than everything the employer gives him.

 

When we try to apply this standard to our relationship with God, we see that it’s an impossible situation for us.  How can any individual give God more than He has given that person?  He has given us life and any abilities we have to be productive, and He has given us the materials we use in any work we do.  Besides all this, He continues to sustain us.  It’s impossible to give God more than He has given us.

 

For a person whom God has saved, the situation is even more lopsided.  The Bible shows us that God paid for that person’s sins before the foundation of the world.  Then, God had to arrange the circumstances that existed at the time when God saved him.  God may have begun that work many years earlier – maybe even centuries before that person was born.

 

Think about it.   Let’s say that a guy named Harvey was the first one – maybe even the only one – in his family to be saved.  God still had to work in his parents’ lives, and their parents’ lives, etc. to make sure that Harvey was wherever he was when he heard the Gospel and was saved.

 

God also had to work in the life of the person who brought the true Gospel to Harvey.  That too made it necessary for God to work and plan long in advance of the day when God’s messenger brought Harvey the true Gospel.  When we start to understand how complicated the process is and how much God had to do for each of His children, we see that it’s really impossible for anyone to be a profitable servant.

 

 

Conclusion

 

We’ve read two parables about a man and his servants.  In the Matthew 25 parable of the talents, we read about a servant who was obviously not saved.  (Incidentally, the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:12-27 is very similar to the parable of the talents.)  And in the Luke 17 parable, we read about servants who faithfully serve the Lord and represent the elect.  In both cases, the man to whom the servants belong represents the Lord.

 

After reading these parables, we might begin to wonder just who is God’s servant.  Amazingly, even the man who conquered the ancient kingdom of Judah and destroyed the temple at Jerusalem is called God’s servant.  In Jeremiah 27:6, we read:

 

And now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant; and the beasts of the field have I given him also to serve him.

 

God even calls Nebuchadnezzar His servant.  Perhaps God wants us to realize that He may use anyone to accomplish His purpose.  Therefore, anyone who is doing something that God wants done – regardless of whether or not the person is saved – is one of God’s servants.  So it is possible for anyone, even a lifelong atheist or someone who follows a non-Christian religion, to be one of God’s servants.  However, the Bible puts much more emphasis on a different group of servants.  That group is the elect and, to a lesser extent, those who are identified with God’s kingdom even though they aren’t saved.  We read something about them in Matthew 7:21-23:

 

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.  Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?  And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

 

Notice what the Lord tells us about the way these unsaved people think.  They assume they are saved because of their works, yet the Lord tells us that He considers their work to be “iniquity.”  We know that a “do-it-yourself” salvation plan is prevalent throughout Christian churches today.  The Lord’s statement in Matthew 7:23 appears to be directed at these local congregations and their false gospel.

 

In contrast to their way thinking, we read in Luke 17:10 about the humble attitude the Lord’s saved servants should have.  They know that nothing they do can merit salvation or an additional reward after they have been saved.  They know God’s servants are “unprofitable.”  Do you?

 

 





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