In the Gospel of Luke we find Jesus introducing an intriguing teaching on the consequences of an individual attempting to fall under the authority of two masters. The parable that is commonly known as the Parable of the Shrewd Manager finds Jesus declaring, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Luke 16:13 NIV) While the mention of the word master may elicit a variety of emotional or culturally inspired reactions, especially here in America, it is important to fight against interpretive presuppositions that each of us bring to the Biblical text and desire to understand what Christ was considering from the proper context.
But let’s back up for a moment
When we approach much of the New Testament teaching we find very often that the New Testament teacher is addressing contemporary or even historical areas of disagreement amongst the population he or she is addressing. And in the case of the issue of “Two Masters,” we can find numerous instances in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), where God’s servants are confronting Israel with the exact same issue. In 1 Kings 18:16-21 we find Elijah calling Ahab (Israel’s fallen king) and all of Israel to Mount Carmel to address this very issue. After confronting Ahab, Elijah turns his attention to the representatives of Israel and proclaims, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God follow him.” (1Kings 18:21 NIV) And when we look at the text in Hebrew word for word, we actually find Elijah asking, “When will you stop skipping on (or between) two of the dilemmas?” This is where context becomes extremely important. Where we may automatically look to assign contemporary cultural values to the words “opinions”, “masters” and what it means to “follow him”, there are some interesting distinctions between the contemporary Western notion and what Elijah’s audience would have understood him to be saying.
The First Break Down
What were the two dilemmas?
While this question could easily justify an additional teaching, for the purposes of the current conversation I will simply provide that the “Dilemma” was a question of allegiance. Elijah was simply asking the people of Israel, “Which master will you choose to follow”, and “How long until you decide to follow that master once and for all?” (My paraphrase) While the American reader may instantly produce a “Master” “Slave/Servant” image within an American slavery paradigm, to the Jewish man such a relationship would be completely foreign.
It is important to reveal a couple important facts about Jewish custom and culture and what it meant to be a slave/servant within 1st and 2nd Jewish temple context. Unlike the surrounding pagan cultures, Israel did not support a developed understanding of lifelong slavery. While there were types of slavery existent in 1st and 2nd Temple Israel, the “slave” was not enslaved for life, and in fact still retained areas of freedom within his experience. Furthermore under the Law of Moses, the maximum amount of time that someone could exist as a “slave”, was 7 years. After the 7th year he or she was freed. This distinction can be found in the language of Hebrew itself. Unlike its Greek counterpart, the Hebrew language only has one word to represent “Slave/Servant.” Where the Greek has 4-7 synonyms; Hebrew has only the word “eved.” When we look at the word “eved” we find an understanding of a Jewish servant who consciously chooses to align him or herself under the authority of a master. The word does not denote the notion of oppression that the Western mind may associate with the term. When we look at Christ’s proclamation in Luke then, we can begin to see that there are deeper implications behind the Lord’s Words.
Next time we will take a moment to continue looking at the biblical notion of “Two Masters” by looking at Christ’s invitation to yoke to Him and become His servant (Matthew 11:28-30), and what the implications of yoking to Christ truly are.