Serving the in between: responsibility

Holy-Face-of-Jesus-23Failing in faithfulness.  45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful.

Jesus rounds off this section with a warning of the certainty of punishment for those who fail to do their duty (v.47). Verse 45 turns to consider the punishment to come for those who are not “faithful and prudent” while the master is away. If the master’s absence tempts the servant to say in his heart, “My master is delayed in coming,” he will be punished severely. But we should recall that Luke has established repeatedly that Jesus knows what is in a person’s heart—2:35; 5:22; 7:39ff.; 9:47; 24:38; Acts 1:24).

As Culpepper [264] notes: “When the master comes, the faithless servant who doubted in his heart will be punished severely. The first punishment is graphic in its violence: He will be cut in two. Fitzmyer comments: ‘One should not fail to notice, however, how the punishment of the manager, if he abuses his authority, corresponds to the double life that he would be leading.’ The second punishment again employs theological language and speaks of God’s judgment on the faithless; he will be ‘put with the unfaithful’ (cf. ‘have no part [μέρος meros]’ in 11:36; John 13:8; 2 Cor 6:15).

Responsibility and Culpability. 47 That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; 48 and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.

I would suggest that these two verses should be read as a response to Peter’s question in v.41. Responsibility rests on those who have received much (cf. Amos 3:2). Notice that people are punished not simply for doing wrong, but for failing to do right (cf. Jas 4:17).

Culpepper [264-65] notes: “Following on the description of the severe punishment of the faithless servant in v. 46, v. 47 declares that the slave who knew what his master required and yet did not do it will receive a severe beating, while the slave who did not know but acted culpably will receive a light beating. The distinction can be found in the OT references to sins committed ‘with a high hand’ and sins of ignorance (Num 15:30; cf. Jam 4:17; 2 Pet 2:21). The two sayings in vv. 47–48 differ in that v.47 concerns refusal to do what is required, while v.48 describes doing what is forbidden—but without the knowledge of what is allowed and what is forbidden…Both servants are punished because no violation of the law can be overlooked, but the severity of the punishment will vary.”

It is important that Jesus’ servants be active in doing his will. We are apt to be disturbed by the thought that one who sins in ignorance will be punished (v. 48). But we must bear in mind that there is no such thing as absolute moral ignorance (Rom. 1:20, 2:14, 15) and that our very ignorance is part of our sin. The emphasis is on the fact that the beating is light, but we should not minimize the importance of doing God’s will. God’s servant must make every effort to discern the will of God and do it. All are accountable.


Luke 12:45 My master is delayed in coming: this statement likely indicates that early Christian expectations for the imminent return of Jesus had undergone some modification. Luke cautions his readers against counting on such a delay and acting irresponsibly. The reference to the delay of the return of the master possibly echoes Habakkuk 2:3 which raises the delay of eschatological salvation as a possibility: “For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” The interpretation in Targum of the Prophets on Hab. 2:3 is clearly eschatological: “For the prophecy is ready for a time and the end is fixed, nor will it fail; if there is delay in the matter wait for it, for it will come in its time and will not be deferred.”

Luke 12:47-48 The servant who knew…the servant who was ignorant: The parable-like saying contrasts a disobedient servant who knows his master’s wishes and one who is ignorant and does something that deserves punishment. This contrast is based on the OT distinction between deliberate sins—sins committed with a “high hand”—and sins done in ignorance, as is described in Num. 15:27–30 (cf. Wis. 6:6–8).


  • Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995)
  • Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997)
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©

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