I never paid much attention to Labor Day when I was growing up, although I was glad to have a day off from school. The holiday originated in the 19th century in the USA, and celebrates workers and promotes workers’ rights.
We are experiencing a very interesting development in our country right now. There are lots of jobs available, and very few seem to be jumping to get back into the work force. One reason – I imagine – is that people are afraid of exposure to other workers who might have COVID-19. Another reason might be that some are reluctant to reenter the workforce because they are getting along okay on unemployment benefits and don’t need the work.
There are other reasons, but my message today is not an attempt to deal with that problem. I am more interested in a worker problem that Jesus introduces in today’s text.
Matthew 24:45-51 NET
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes. 47 I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But if that evil slave should say to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves and to eat and drink with drunkards, 50 then the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee, 51 and will cut him in two, and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This passage is part of what has been called the Olivet Discourse or the eschatological discourse of Jesus. It is called the Olivet discourse because Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives when he taught it. It is called the eschatological discourse because it has to do with the last days, and eschatos (ἔσχατος) is the Greek word for last.
The best way to understand the eschatological discourse is to bear in mind that the disciples had asked three questions:
“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 NET).
Jesus had just told his disciples that the Jerusalem temple was going to be destroyed. That was the “these things” they were curious about. So part of the eschatological discourse was Jesus explaining what was going to happen really soon – within the next generation, which is about 40 years. Jesus told them that it would be a terrible time of danger and anyone who could would escape Jerusalem. The rest would undergo horrible suffering. The siege of Jerusalem from AD 66-70 fulfills this prediction completely. Jesus’ lament about the pregnant women, or those nursing infants is especially relevant, since the siege cut off supplies to the city, so some of those with small children eventually resorted to cannibalism. Josephus estimated that a million people died in the siege, and the battles with the Roman soldiers that ensued.
But the disciples also asked Jesus what would be the sign of his coming. Jesus knew that he was not going to come back in just 40 years, so he had to answer that question differently. Every generation there is a new teaching cropping up that insists that we are living in the very time the Lord is going to come back. Jesus told his disciples not to believe any of those teachings. There will be NO SIGN before the coming of the Lord. The only signs Jesus mentioned in specific answer to that question were lightning and buzzards. Lightning speaks of the sudden, unexpected nature of the coming. Before you know what is going on, Jesus will break through the clouds. Buzzards show up after the prey is dead. Likewise, the sign of the Jesus coming is the Jesus coming himself. His point is that there will be no getting ready just before the event. We have to be ready now.
The disciples also asked about the end of the age. They thought the destruction of Jerusalem would certainly be the end of the age, but Jesus knew that it would not be. Jesus taught that the age would last a much longer time, with many signs appearing and disappearing throughout the age, like labor pains. Comparing all four synoptic Gospels, those labor pain signs include:
◦ False Messiahs ◦ Wars, rumors of wars, revolutions ◦ International strife ◦ Famines, earthquakes, pestilences (like COVID-19) ◦ Fearful events, great signs from heaven ◦ Apostasy and schism ◦ Persecution, false prophets ◦ Martyrdom ◦ Increased wickedness ◦ Love grows cold, family betrayal ◦ Gospel preached to all nations
We are living in that age now. The signs do not point to the age’s end, and they will not increase in intensity just before the end. The whole point of the signs is that they come and go throughout the age, just as labor pains throughout labor. They merely show that the labor is happening.
Today’s text, along with all of Matthew 25, contains material from the eschatological discourse that is only included in Matthew’s Gospel. In it, Jesus answers a question that the disciples should have asked, but didn’t. The question is “What kind of people do we need to be if we are going to be ready for Jesus when he returns?”
We are most familiar with the three parables in chapter 25. Those parables answer that question. To summarize what they teach, consider this:
The parable of the ten virgins teaches that we should stay prepared for Jesus’ return and not grow lazy or complacent. In other words, we need to stay committed and labor on.
The parable of the talents teaches that we should be diligent to invest the time, talents and treasure that we have now because we will be held accountable by Jesus when he returns. In other words, we need to use our resources for his kingdom and labor on.
The parable of the sheep and the goats teaches that when Jesus returns, he will make a distinction between those who only pretended to be his disciples, but in actuality were not. In other words, we need to stay real and labor on.
I want us to consider for a few moments these verses of today’s text. They are a parable as well. They help to answer that question as well. Remember, the question is “What kind of people do we need to be if we are going to be ready for Jesus when he returns?”
The parable has three sets of characters. First, there is Jesus. He is the master. Second there are faithful and wise slaves who labor on for the master while he is away. Third, there are evil slaves who do not labor on for the master while he is away.
Jesus commends his faithful and wise slaves who labor on for him (45-47).
He says… “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes. I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions.
Jesus is teaching that he has left his slaves with a job to do. We have to take care of each other while he is away. He has put us in charge of managing the affairs of his household. He has made us stewards, responsible for allocating his resources so that his work is done.
He is coming back, and when he does, he expects to find us busy, taking care of one another. Jesus makes the same point in the parable of the sheep and the goats, when he said that if we ignore “the least of these brothers or sisters of mine” it is just like ignoring Jesus himself.
So, my take on today’s passage is this. Taking care of other believers is our work, and we need to stay faithful in carrying out that charge. We need to labor on.
Jesus condemns evil slaves who do not labor on for him (48-49).
He talks about “that evil slave” who says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time’ so “he begins to beat his fellow slaves and to eat and drink with drunkards.” The evil slaves are self-centered. They take advantage of the weaker slaves by treating them cruelly, because they can get away with it. They know they’re doing wrong, and they don’t care, because the master’s gone away.
I want you to note that in the eschatological discourse, Jesus was not teaching the Pharisees, the Sadducees or the Herodians. He was teaching his own disciples. He was warning him that there would actually be professing Christians who would be wolves in sheep’s clothing. They would profess and pretend to be his sheep, but they would really be wolves. If you are looking for evidence of these wolves, just look at the sheepfold. If you see sheep who are torn up and scattered, you know the wolf has been there.
Jesus warns us of the ultimate consequences of failing to labor on for him (50-51).
He says “the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee, and will cut him in two, and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He’s talking about hell there. It is not this imaginary hell that bad people supposedly go to when they die. No, this hell is where the master is going to throw false Christians (and other bad people) when he returns.
He says four things about this hell. First, it is going to be made up of people who thought they could avoid it. But Jesus says he’s coming back on a day when those people do not expect him and an hour that they do not foresee.
The second thing he says about this hell is that it is made for hypocrites. It is made for people who say one thing but do another. It is made for people who only pretend to labor on for the master. They are actors, and they are so good at acting, that many of them even convince themselves that they are real. But they have a reservation. They have been assigned a place with the hypocrites.
Now, it is important that we understand what Jesus had already taught about hell. He had already taught – as recorded in Matthew 10:28 – that hell is where God is able to “destroy both soul and body.” Some teach that God cannot destroy someone in hell. Jesus said the opposite.
The apostle Paul called this fate undergoing “the penalty of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). It is destruction that is eternal. It lasts forever. In other words, it is permanent destruction.
The apostle John said that this place is reserved for “the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie” – and he called it the second death (Revelation 21:8). Everyone who dies today only dies temporarily, because we will all be raised at Christ’s return to face judgment. But after judgment, people who die the second death will stay dead for eternity.
The third and fourth things that Jesus says about hell here are the two emotional responses that these evil slaves are going experience once they learn their fate.
The first emotion they are going to experience is the horrible sorrow of loss. They will discover that they have lost out on the opportunity to have permanent life. Consequently, Jesus says there will be weeping.
The second emotion they are going to experience is defiant anger at the master who has chosen to punish and destroy them. This is why Jesus says that there will be “gnashing of teeth.” He is not talking about their punishment here – what they are going to suffer. He’s not talking about the pain they are going to experience in hell. He is talking about their intense hatred of the Lord who will put them there.
In the end, our Lord will be vindicated. He is going to make all things new, and there will be some who will not be part of that new creation. His message for us today is that he expects his slaves to labor on with his work until he comes. He expects us to take care of his household – to love one another, and to invest ourselves in his kingdom.
LORD, strengthen us so that we labor on for you – always ready for your return.