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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

the Unprofitable Servant

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ACCORDING to some ancient authorities Bartholomew was a nobleman of Galilee before he was a disciple of Christ. Not many mighty, not many noble, were called; but Bartholomew was called as if to show that no class of men is shut out from the discipleship and the apostleship of Christ and His church. Bartholomew was a sort of gentleman-farmer, and, like Matthew the publican, he made a supper to his neighbours before he finally parted with his patrimonial estate. And it was while they were all sitting at supper that this incident, so it is supposed, took place, and this conversation that completed the incident. One of Bartholomew's men-servants came in from the field, put off his everyday clothes, girded himself with a waiting garment, and then served the table till his master and all his master's guests had risen from their supper. Are you not much too tired? said Peter sympathetically to the servant. Are you not doing two men's work? And besides, you must be faint by this time with hunger. O no! said Bartholomew's serving-man smiling, I am only doing my bounden and delightful duty in waiting on my good master, and on his honoured guests. And then I will sit down to my own excellent supper immediately. "Hear ye what this so exemplary servant saith," said their Master to the twelve, "Verily, I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this man has said and done, be told for a memorial of him."

Our Lord applied that incident in its first intention to the twelve. Their Master was teaching and training the twelve by everything that happened every day to Him and to them. In order to teach and to train the twelve for their fast-coming work, their Master found tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and this great lesson in Bartholomew's ploughman-waiter. The twelve had this lesson taught them first, and, after them, all their successors are taught the same lesson, down to this day. That willing-minded, many-handed, ploughing-man is a pattern to all preachers and pastors to the end of time. For he worked for Bartholomew in season, out of season. He made more work for himself when all his proper work was done. One day, so Hermas tells us in his ancient history, when this servant was commanded by his master to run a paling round a vineyard, he not only ran the paling round the vineyard, but he dug a ditch also round the same vineyard, and then he gathered the stones and the thorns out of it; and such things he did always, till, when Bartholomew became a disciple, he left one whole farm, with its full plenishing on it, as a bequest to this ploughman as if he had been his own son and his true heir. He is a fine pattern for all ploughmen and for all feeders of their masters' cattle; but he is a perfect prototype to all preachers and pastors especially. Every single syllable of this scripture is a study for us who are ministers. Whatever other men may make or may not make of this fine scripture, no minister can possibly miss or mistake its meaning for him, or get away from Christ's all-seeing eye as he reads it. Christ sets every minister before this ministerial looking-glass, in order that in it he may see what manner of minister he now is, and may forecast what his place is likely to be when his Master sets His supper, and Himself serves it, for all His ploughmen and for all His vine-dressers. Only, far better have ten ploughmen's work to do than one minister's work. A ploughman may finish his tale of furrows, and may then give his fellow-servant a hand in feeding his master's cattle, and may then take another and a willing hand in the work of the house, after which he will sit down to his supper with a sense of satisfaction over his hard day's work. But I defy any apostle of Jesus Christ ever to have that ploughman's good conscience. And much less any successor of an apostle. If you have been bold enough to be numbered among the true successors of the apostles you have taken up a task that makes self-satisfaction for ever impossible to you. You may write your sermon over and over again as often as Dr. Newman wrote his masterpieces; but as long as you have not torn it up "fiercely," and written it yet again, you will preach it on Sabbath with such jolts and jars in it as will make you blush and stagger before your people. And you may visit your dying parishioners every afternoon, and your sick, and aged, and infirm, every ten days, but you will never be able to say this ploughman's grace over your supper all the days and nights of your pulpit and pastoral life. For, "the wider the diameter of light," as Dr. Chalmers demonstrated to Dr. Hanna's parishioners on a blackboard at Skirling,-"the larger the circumference of darkness."

Our Lord tells all His true ministers to say every night that they are unprofitable servants, and they all say it. But at the same time He solemnly warns all His so-called ministers that He will irrevocably pronounce this very sentence at the last day against some of them. "Cast ye that slothful and unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." I was told about such a threatened minister of Christ and of His Church in Scotland only last night. He got a good congregation committed to his charge when he was ordained. But at the present moment he has neither Sabbath School, nor Prayer Meeting, nor Bible Class, nor Endeavour Society, nor Band of Hope, and as for his pastoral work, an old man died the other day, not many stonecasts from the manse, who had not seen his minister for two years. Would any institution set up among men but the Church of Christ endure a scandal like that? Would the army endure it? Or a bank? Or a railway? But let us not despair of any man. Even John Mark once ran away from his work. And yet, long after Paul had denounced and deposed him, we have the Apostle actually saying, Take Mark and bring him with thee, for he is profitable to me for the ministry. John Mark's whole story is told first in the Acts, and then in the Epistles, just to guide and encourage the Church in all her dealings with all such unprofitable ministers as Mark once was. And by far the best way of dealing with all our unprofitable ministers would be to induce and enable them to visit Bridge-of-Allan, or Dunblane, or Perth, or Keswick, or Mildmay. "We've gotten a minister noo!" said an old elder to me after his hitherto unprofitable minister had been induced and enabled to make such a visit. Or send him a Life of Wesley, or of Whitefield, or of Boston, or of Chalmers, or of Spurgeon. Or perhaps better than all that, get an evangelist on fire to spend a week with him in his parish. "Demas apostatises," says Bengel, "but Mark recovers himself." If you have the means and the opportunity, help your Mark in these ways to recover himself, and he may live to write a gospel for you before all is done.

But all the time, though this character-sketch is intended by our Lord for us ministers in the first place, it is not intended for us only. Our Lord's true people are all ministers in their own measure, as Moses prayed they might all be. You are all true and direct successors of the disciples and the apostles. And, minister or people, a ploughman or a feeder of cattle, putting up pailings, digging ditches, gathering out stones, or hewing up thorns, when you have done all, end all, as Bartholomew's ploughman ended his long and arduous day's work. End it all with his proverb in your mouth, and in your heart. For be sure of this, that he of God's servants who thinks that he has fully finished and done what he was commanded to do, that man neither knows his Master, nor his Master's commands, nor does he know the a, b, c, of true knowledge about himself. Well may Paul ask, Where is boasting then? And well may he answer himself, It is excluded. And there can be no better mark of the mind and heart of a true and an accepted servant of God than just that he says in his mind and in his heart, after every new and better service of his, that he is the most unprofitable of all God's servants. "The more," says Newman in one of his thrice-written sermons, "any man succeeds in regulating his own heart, the more he will discern its original bitterness and guilt." And all who are engaged in regulating their own heart-which is our Master's whole commandment-will subscribe to what the great preacher says about that. We are fresh in the classes from Chalmers, and Spurgeon, and Foster, and the Wesleys, and Whitefield, and we found them all subscribing to Newman and to Bartholomew's ploughman. But not one of them all is so much to my own remorseful taste in this matter, as is Thomas Shepard, the Pilgrim Father. Not one of them-passionate as some of them are-is passionate enough for me, till I come to the author of The Ten Virgins. Shepard is the most heart-broken, and the most heart-searching, and the most pungently profitable, of all God's heart-ploughing servants to me.

At the same time, while all that is true, and not even Shepard has told the half of the truth, there is another side to all that. And I have never seen that other side so well put as in Marcus Dods of Belford's Incarnation of the Eternal Word. "A Book," says the noble-minded and generous-hearted Chalmers, "of great mental wealth and great mental vigour, rich in scholarship, and of a massive and an original power." John Foster demands more case-preaching in our evangelical pulpits, and Marcus Dods's case-page is exactly what Foster wants. And I refer to that page because it so restores the true balance of evangelical and experimental truth in this matter now in hand. It sometimes happens, says Dods, that the true Christian is so far from boasting of himself that he goes much too far in the opposite direction. He dwells far too much upon the defects of his services, or upon some impropriety of motive that had mingled with them. He feels the very acutest anguish over his best and his holiest performances. But there is often a certain taint of self-righteousness in all that. For such a sufferer not seldom forgets to give the atonement, and the intercession of his great High Priest for him, their true and their full place. He will not take rest nor peace of mind short of the most absolute perfection in his services, leaving no room for the rest and the peace that Christ offers, and Himself is, to all His true-hearted servants. You admit and believe that your services are accepted of God in and through the merit of Christ alone. And yet you are inconsolably distressed because you still detect imperfections in them, and you fear that both you and your services will be for ever cast out of God's presence. Now what is that but making Christ of none effect as your High Priest? What is that but making Him die, and rise again, and intercede for you, in vain? "I have found," says this eminent theologian and evangelical preacher, "this mode of reasoning successful in enabling the mourner to detect the source of his causeless sorrows, and to recover that peace of mind which results from a simple and unhesitating reliance upon our great High Priest, for the pardon of all our sins, and for the acceptance of all our services."

Now, it is all this that explains Paul, and justifies Paul, and makes Paul our greatest evangelical example, where he says with such assurance of heart,-"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." The best fight Paul ever fought was not with wild beasts at Ephesus, but it was with his own self-righteous heart. It was fought that he might be found in Christ, with all his ever-increasing self-discovery and self-condemnation. And it is his profound grasp of the evangelical faith, that enables Paul so to assure us also that if we only look to Christ alone as our righteousness, and "love His appearing," we shall have our crown of righteousness given to us also at that great day. To be the most unprofitable of servants in our own eyes; to sink into the dust every night speechless with shame and pain over another all but lost day; and at the same time to lie down to sleep accepted in the Beloved,-that is truly to fight the good fight of faith, and to fight it with the whole armour of God: that is really and truly to keep the faith of the gospel till we shall hear our Master's voice saying over us also,-Well done, thou good and faithful servant! Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.


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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'the Unprofitable Servant'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/t/the-unprofitable-servant.html. 1901.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, August 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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