“Who really is the faithful and discreet slave…?” (Mt. 24:45)
Imagine you are reading this verse for the first time. You come across it without prejudice, without bias, and without an agenda. You are curious, naturally. The slave Jesus speaks of is given the greatest reward possible—an appointment over all of the master’s belongings. You might feel an immediate desire to be that slave. At the very least, you will want to know who the slave is. So how would you go about doing that?
The first thing you might do would be to look for any parallel accounts of the same parable. You’d find there is only one and it is located in the twelfth chapter of Luke. Let’s list both accounts so that we can refer back to them.
(Matthew 24:45-51) “Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Happy is that slave if his master on arriving finds him doing so. 47 Truly I say to YOU, He will appoint him over all his belongings. 48 “But if ever that evil slave should say in his heart, ‘My master is delaying,’ 49 and should start to beat his fellow slaves and should eat and drink with the confirmed drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day that he does not expect and in an hour that he does not know, 51 and will punish him with the greatest severity and will assign him his part with the hypocrites. There is where [his] weeping and the gnashing of [his] teeth will be.
(Luke 12:41-48) Then Peter said: “Lord, are you saying this illustration to us or also to all?” 42 And the Lord said: “Who really is the faithful steward, the discreet one, whom his master will appoint over his body of attendants to keep giving them their measure of food supplies at the proper time? 43 Happy is that slave, if his master on arriving finds him doing so! 44 I tell YOU truthfully, He will appoint him over all his belongings. 45 But if ever that slave should say in his heart, ‘My master delays coming,’ and should start to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day that he is not expecting [him] and in an hour that he does not know, and he will punish him with the greatest severity and assign him a part with the unfaithful ones. 47 Then that slave that understood the will of his master but did not get ready or do in line with his will will be beaten with many strokes. 48 But the one that did not understand and so did things deserving of strokes will be beaten with few. Indeed, everyone to whom much was given, much will be demanded of him; and the one whom people put in charge of much, they will demand more than usual of him.
The next thing you might do is to identify the key elements in these two accounts. The trick is to do this without making any assumptions, sticking only to what is clearly identified in the verses. We will try to keep this at a high level in our first pass.
Both accounts contain the following elements: 1) A single slave is appointed by a master to feed his domestics; 2) the master is away while the slave performs this duty; 3) the master returns at an unanticipated hour; 4) the slave is judged on the basis of performing his duties faithfully and discreetly; 5) one slave was appointed to feed the domestics, but more than one is identified upon the master’s return.
The accounts differ in the following elements: While Matthew’s account speaks of two slaves, Luke lists four. Luke speaks of one slave who gets many strokes for knowingly disobeying the will of the master, and another slave who gets few strokes because he acted in ignorance.
There is more in the parables, but going there at this point would require us to engage in some deductive reasoning and to draw conclusions. We are not quite ready to do that yet, since we don’t want bias to creep in. Let’s get a little more background first by looking at all the other parables Jesus spoke that relate to slaves.
- The Parable of the evil vineyard cultivators (Mt 21:33-41; Mr 12:1-9; Lu 20:9-16)
Explains the basis for the rejection and destruction of the Jewish system of things.
- The Parable of the marriage feast (Mt 22:1-14; Lu 14:16-24)
Rejection of the Jewish nation in favor of individuals from all nations.
- The Example of a man traveling abroad (Mr 13:32-37)
Warning to keep on the watch as we do not know when the Lord will return
- The Parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30)
Master appoints slaves to do some work, then departs, then returns and awards/punishes slaves according to their deeds.
- The Parable of the Minas (Lu 19:11-27)
King appoints slaves to do some work, then departs, then returns and awards/punishes slaves according to their deeds.
- The Parable of the faithful and discreet slave (Mt 24:45-51; Lu 12:42-48)
Master appoints slave to do some work, then departs, then returns and awards/punishes slaves according to their deeds.
After reading all these accounts, it becomes apparent that the parables of the talents and the Minas share many common elements with each other and with both accounts of the faithful and discreet slave. The first two speak of a task assigned to slaves by the master or King as he’s about to depart. They speak of a judgment made of the slaves upon the master’s return. The FADS (faithful and discreet slave) parable does not mention the master’s departure explicitly, but it seems safe to assume it took place since the parable speaks of his subsequent return. The FADS parable speaks of only one slave being appointed in contrast to the other two, however, it now seems safe to assume that an individual slave is not being spoken of. There are two reasons for this. First, there is a commonality shared by all three parables, so the multiple slaves referred to in the first two would lend support to the idea that the FADS parable is speaking of an appointment over a collective slave. The second reason for concluding this is even more powerful: Luke speaks of one slave being appointed but four being found and judged upon the master’s return. The only logical way for one slave to morph into four is if we are not speaking of a literal individual. The only conclusion is that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.
We have now reached the point at which we can start making some preliminary deductions.
The master (or king) Jesus is referring to in each parable is himself. There is no one else who has departed who has the authority to grant the rewards being spoken of. Therefore, it become apparent that the time of his departure must be 33 C.E. (John 16:7) There is no other year since then that Jesus can be spoken of as leaving or departing from his slaves. If someone were to suggest another year other than 33 C.E., he would have to provide scriptural evidence that the Lord returned and then left again. Jesus is spoken of as returning only once. That time has not arrived, for when he returns it is to wage war at Armageddon and to gather his chosen ones. (Mt. 24:30, 31)
No man nor group of men has continued living from 33 C.E. onward down to this day. Therefore, the slave must refer to a type of person. What type? Someone who is already one of the master’s slaves. His disciples are spoken of as his slaves. (Rom. 14:18; Eph. 6:6) So let’s look for some passage in which Jesus is commanding a disciple or group of disciples (his slaves) to do a feeding work.
There is only one such instance. John 21:15-17 shows the resurrected Jesus commissioning Peter to “feed his little sheep”.
While Peter and the rest of the apostles did much feeding of the Lord’s sheep (his domestics) in the first century, they could not physically have done all the feeding. We are looking for a type of individual who has lived since 33 C.E. until now. Since Peter took the lead in the congregation and commissioned others as older men to take the lead in the congregations, we may be looking for a group within the disciples or slaves of Jesus who are designated to feed and shepherd. After all, the FADS parable says that the slave is “appointed over the domestics”, indicating some office of oversight presumably. If so, would we be talking of the whole group of shepherds or just a subgroup of them; the shepherds of the shepherds if you will? To answer that, we need more data.
In the parables of the talents and the Minas, we find that the faithful slaves are awarded responsibility and oversight over the Lord’s belongings. Similarly, in the FADS parable, the slave is awarded oversight over all the Lord’s belongings. Who gets such a reward? If we can determine that, we should be able to determine who the slave might turn out to be.
The Christian Scriptures indicate that all Christians[i] are to receive the reward of ruling in heaven with Christ, judging even angels. This applies equally to men and women. Of course, the reward is not automatic, as indicated in each of the three parables. The reward depends on the faithful and discreet activity of the slaves, but the same reward is held out to all, male and female alike. (Gal. 3:26-28; 1 Cor. 6:3; Rev. 20:6)
This creates a dilemma, because we do not see women in an office of oversight, or being assigned over the domestics of the Lord. If the faithful and discreet slave is a subset of all Christians, one appointed to oversee the flock, then it cannot include women. Yet, women get the reward along with men. How can a subgroup get the identical reward that the whole gets? There is nothing to differentiate one group from the other. In this scenario, the subgroup gets a reward for faithfully feeding the whole, yet the whole gets the same reward for being fed. It doesn’t make sense.
A good rule to follow when faced with a logical conundrum such as this is to re-evaluate one’s fundamental assumptions. Let’s examine each premise our research is based on to find the one causing us problems.
Fact: Both male and female Christians will be ruling with Christ.
Fact: The faithful and discreet slave is rewarded by being appointed to rule with Christ.
Conclusion: The faithful and discreet slave must include women.
Fact: Women are not appointed as overseers in the congregation.
Conclusion: The faithful and discreet slave cannot be limited to overseers.
Fact: A slave of Christ is appointed to feed the domestics.
Fact: The domestics are also Christ’s slaves.
Fact: The appointed slave, if faithful and discreet, gets appointed to rule in heaven.
Fact: The domestics, if faithful and discreet, get appointed to rule in heaven.
Conclusion: The domestics and the FADS are one and the same.
That last conclusion forces us to concede that the difference between the slave and the domestics must therefore not be one of identity. They are the same person, yet somehow different. Since feeding is the only activity spoken of, the difference between being the slave or being one of the domestics must hinge on the element of feeding or being fed.
Before we go further in developing that thought, we need to clear away some intellectual debris. Are we getting hung up on the phrase “over his domestics”? As humans we tend to view most relationships in terms of some command hierarchy: “Is the head of the house in? Who’s in charge here? Where is your boss? Take me to your leader.” So let us ask ourselves, was Jesus using this parable to demonstrate that he would be appointing someone to lead his flock in his absence? Is this a parable illustrating the appointment of leaders over the Christian congregation? If so, why frame it as a question? And why add the qualifier “really”? To say “Who really is the faithful and discreet slave?” indicates that some uncertainty would exist as to its identity.
Let’s look at this from another angle. Who is the head of the congregation? No doubt there. Jesus is well established as our leader in many places in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. We would not ask, “Who really is the head of the congregation?” That would be a silly way to frame the question, implying that there might be some uncertainty; that a challenge could be mounted against the one who is our head. Jesus’ headship is well established in Scripture, so there simply is no question about it. (1 Cor. 11:3; Mt. 28:18)
If follows therefore that if Jesus were going to appoint an authority in his absence as a governing entity and a sole channel of communication, he would do so in the same way his authority was established. There would simply be no question about it. Would this not be the loving thing to do? So why is such an appointment not readily evident in Scripture? The only thing used to justify the teaching of such an appointment in any religion in Christendom is the parable of the faithful and discreet slave. A single parable framed as a question for which no answer is found in scripture—for which we must wait until the Lord’s return to have answered—cannot serve as grounds for such an exalted position of oversight.
It seems therefore that to use the FADS parable as a means to establish a scriptural basis for some ruling class within the Christian congregation is to misuse it. Besides, the faithful and discreet slave is not shown to be either faithful nor discreet when he receives the appointment. Like the slaves assigned to work with the master’s talents, or like the slaves given the master’s Minas, the slave in this parable is given his feeding assignment in the hope that he will turn out to be faithful and discreet when all is said and done—something only determined on Judgment Day.
So returning to our final conclusion, how can the faithful slave be one and the same with the domestics?
To answer that, let’s look at the work he is assigned to do. He is not appointed to rule. He is not appointed to interpret the master’s instructions. He is not appointed to prophecy nor to reveal hidden truths. He is appointed to feed.
This is an important assignment. Food sustains life. We must eat to live. We must eat regularly and constantly, or we get ill. There is a proper time to eat. Also, there is a time for certain types of food and a time for others. When we are sick, we do not eat what we eat when we are well, for instance. And who feeds us? Perhaps you grew up in a household, as I did, where the mother does most of the cooking? However, my father also prepared food and we delighted in the variety that provided us. They taught me to cook and I took great pleasure in preparing meals for them. In short, we each had occasion to feed the others.
Now hold that thought while we take a look at judgment. Each of the three related slave parables contains the common element of judgment; sudden judgment actually because the slaves do not know when the master is to return. Now he does not judge the slaves collectively. They are judged individually. (See Romans 14:10) Christ does not judge his domestics—all his slaves—collectively. He judges them individually for how they provided for the whole.
How have you provided for the whole?
When we are speaking of a spiritual feeding, we start with the food itself. This is God’s word. It was so in the day of Moses and it continues down to our day and always. (Deut. 8:3; Mt. 4:4) So ask yourself, “Who was it that first fed me the truth from God’s word?” Was it an anonymous group of men, or someone close to you? If you’ve ever been down and depressed, who fed you God’s nourishing words of encouragement? Was it a family member, a friend, or perhaps something you read in a letter, a poem, or one of the publications? If you have ever found yourself deviating from the true course, who came to the rescue with food at the proper time?
Now turn the tables. Have you also engaged in feeding others from God’s word at the proper time? Or have you held back from doing so? When Jesus said we are to “make disciples…teaching them”, he was speaking of adding to the ranks of his domestics. This command was not given to an elite group, but to all Christians and our individual compliance to this command (and others) serves as the basis for our judgment by him upon his return.
It would be dishonest to give all credit for this feeding program to any small group of individuals since the nourishment each of us has received over our lifetime comes from more sources than we can count. Our feeding of each other can save lives, including our own.
(James 5:19, 20) . . . My brothers, if anyone among YOU is misled from the truth and another turns him back, 20 know that he who turns a sinner back from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
If we all feed each other, then we fill the role of both the domestics (receiving the food) and the slave appointed to do the feeding. We all have that appointment and we are all responsible for feeding. The command to make disciples and teach them was not given to a small subgroup, but to all Christians, male and female.
In the parables of the talents and the Minas, Jesus highlights that the abilities and productivity of each slave varies from the next, yet he values whatever each one can do. He makes his point by focusing on quantity; the amount produced. However, quantity—the amount of food dispensed—is not a factor in the FADS parable. Rather, Christ focuses on the characteristics of the slave himself. Luke gives us the most detail in this regard.
Note: The slaves are not rewarded for simply feeding the domestics, nor are they punished for failing to do so. Instead, what qualities they display in performing the task are the basis for determining the judgment rendered to each one.
On his return, Jesus finds one slave who has dispensed the spiritual nutrition of God’s word in a manner that is faithful to the master. Teaching falsehoods, acting in a self-aggrandizing manner, and requiring others to put faith not only in the master but in oneself, would not be acting in a faithful way. This slave is also discreet, acting wisely at the appropriate time. It is never wise to engender false hope. Acting in a way that might bring reproach on the master and his message can hardly be termed discreet.
The excellent qualities displayed by the first slave are missing from the next one. This slave is judged as evil. He has used his position to take advantage of others. He feeds them, yes, but in a way so as to exploit them. He is abusive and mistreats his fellow slaves. He uses his ill-gotten gains to live the “high life”, engaging in sin.
The third slave is also adversely judged, because his manner of feeding is neither faithful nor discreet. He is not spoken of as abusing the domestics. His error seems to be one of omission. He knew what was expected of him, but failed to do it. Yet, he is not thrown out with the evil slave, but apparently remains in the master’s household, but is severely beaten, and does not get the reward of the first slave.
The fourth and final judgment category is similar to the third in that it is a sin of omission, but softened by the fact that this slave’s failure to act is due to ignorance of the master’s will. He too is punished, but less severely. However, he loses out on the reward granted to the faithful and discreet slave.
It would seem that in the master’s household—the Christian congregation—all four types of slaves are even now developing. One third of the world claims to follow Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses make up part of that group, though we like to think of ourselves as in a completely separate category. This parable applies to each of us individually, and any interpretation that focuses our attention away from ourselves and on to another group is a disservice to us, as this parable is intended as a warning to all—that we should follow a life course that will result in our attaining to the reward promised to those acting faithfully and discreetly in feeding all who are the Lord’s domestics, our fellow slaves.
A Word About Our Official Teaching
It is interesting that until this year, our official teaching coincided to some extent with the foregoing understanding. The faithful and discreet slave was determined to be the class of anointed Christians, acting individually for the good of the whole, the domestics, who were also anointed Christians. The other sheep were merely the belongings. Of course, that understanding restricted the anointed Christians to a tiny minority of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have now come to see that all Christians who have the spirit are anointed by it. It is noteworthy that even with this old understanding, there was always the ubiquitous codicil that this faithful and discreet slave was represented by its Governing Body.
As of last year, we have changed that understanding and teach that the Governing Body is the faithful and discreet slave. If you were to do a search in the Watchtower Library program on Matthew 24:45, you would find 1107 hits in The Watchtower alone. However, if you did another search on Luke 12:42, the counterpart to Matthew’s account, you’d find only 95 hits. Why this 11-fold difference when Luke’s account is the more complete one? Additionally, if you were to do yet another search on Luke 12:47 (the first of the two slaves not mentioned by Matthew) you’d get only 22 hits, none of which explains who this slave is. Why this odd discrepancy in full and complete coverage of this important parable?
Jesus’ parables are not meant to be understood in a piecemeal manner. We have no right to cherry-pick one aspect of a parable because it seems to fit our pet premise, while ignoring the rest because to interpret those parts might undermine our argument. Certainly if the slave is now reduced to a committee of eight, there is no place for the three other slaves to show up; yet they must show up when Jesus returns, because he has prophesied that they will be there to be judged.
We do ourselves and those who would listen to us a great disservice by treating Jesus’ parables as complex and cryptic metaphors that can only be decoded by some studious elite toiling by candlelight. His parables are to be understood by the people, his disciples, “the foolish things of the world”. (1 Cor. 1:27) He uses them to make a simple, but important point. He uses them to hide truth from haughty hearts, but reveal it to childlike individuals whose humility allows them to grasp truth.
An Unexpected Benefit
In this forum, we have come to analyse Jesus’ command to partake of the emblems when commemorating his death and we have come to see that this command applies to all Christians, not some tiny elect. However, for many of us this realization has resulted not in joyous expectation at the glorious prospect now open to us, but in consternation and discomfort. We were ready to live on earth. We drew comfort from the thought that we didn’t have to try as hard as the anointed. After all, they have to be good enough to be granted immortality upon death while the rest of us only have to be good enough to make it through Armageddon, after which we would have a thousand years to “work toward perfection”; a thousand years to get it right. Cognisant of our own failings, we have trouble imagining we would ever by “good enough” to go to heaven.
Of course, this is human reasoning and has no basis in Scripture, but it is part of the collective consciousness of Jehovah’s Witnesses; a shared belief that is based on what we wrongly see as common sense. We miss the point that “with God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:26)
Then there are the other questions of a logistical nature which cloud our judgment. For instance, what happens if a faithful anointed one has small children at the time Armageddon starts?
The fact is that for four thousand years of human history, no one even knew how Jehovah would make the salvation of our species possible. Then the Christ was revealed. Subsequently, he revealed the creation of a group who would accompany him in the work of restoring all things. Let us not think that for the past two thousand years we now have all the answers. The metal mirror is still in place. (1 Cor. 13:12) How Jehovah will work things out, we can only imagine—actually, we do well not to try.
However, the fact that there are slaves of Jesus in the FADS parable who are not cast out, but only beaten opens up possibilities. Jehovah and Jesus decide who to take to heaven and who to leave on earth, who will die and who will survive, who to resurrect and who to leave in the ground. Taking the emblems doesn’t guarantee us a place in heaven. However, it is a commandment of our Lord and must be obeyed. End of story.
If we can take anything from the parable of the faithful and discreet slave, we can take this: Our salvation and the reward we are granted is very much up to us. So let each one of us labor to feed our fellow slaves at the proper time, being faithful to the message of truth and discreet in our manner of delivering it to others. We must remember that there is another common element in both Matthew’s and Luke’s account. In each, the master returns unexpectedly and then there is no time for the slaves to change their course of life. So let us use the time remaining to us to be both faithful and discreet.