At Work & Theology 101

What the Parable of the Talents Says About Harsh Bosses

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One of our readers recently posed a question about our blog entitled 5 Lessons For Our Lives from the Parable of the Talents. The reader writes:

I clearly see the lessons stated in his article as written in the scripture. The only thing I don’t understand is, shouldn’t there be some significance placed on the fact [that] the servant given only one talent stated that the master was a “harsh man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and harvesting crops he did not cultivate?” Are we expected to exert the same amount of loyalty if serving or working for an entity who we know, or feel, is dishonest in their business practices?

This question speaks to a critical point that is often overlooked when people teach on this parable. In this well-known teaching “story” (Matt. 25:14–30), two servants are rewarded for their obedience, while one, who does nothing, is harshly reprimanded.

A “Hard” Master?

The disobedient servant calls the master “hard” (or “harsh”), but does he really know the master? Most Bible scholars agree that this man pretends he knows the master and even calls him Lord. However, if the master really was his Lord, the servant would have had faith in him and been obedient by working hard to invest the money the master had given him.

This servant does not trust the master and instead reads his own lousy character into his view of the master. The servant, still playing the victim, tries to further implicate the master: “…harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” This describes the unfaithful servant, not the master. No wonder the master is upset.

The master’s response then calls out the servant according to his own distorted definition of the master: “…you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” (Matt 25:26) If the servant were a true servant, he would have been faithful to the master’s expectations and tried to get a return on the investment. The master did no better through this servant than if he had held on to the money himself.

The point of this parable is to show us that God is indeed the master and it is his nature to gift us with raw material, spiritual gifts, relationships, and opportunities that we are to cultivate and grow in value.

As we have previously discussed, we want to work like the first two servants, not the servant who received one talent. We want to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) what we’ve been given. To not do so is to distrust, ignore, and not appreciate the Giver of those gifts.

But to the reader’s question, how does this help us understand how to work for a bad human boss?

Earthly Masters and Our Heavenly Master

First, we must remember whom we ultimately work for. The Apostle Paul writes the following to the Ephesians:

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free (Eph. 6:7–8).

Not only does God care about our work but, in light of the parable of the talents, he also wants us to be productive. Ultimately, we are first and foremost responsible to him. We must be careful not to use excuses, even a difficult boss, to justify not being obedient to what God has called us to do.

Regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we should ask for God’s help as we strive to do exceptional work that glorifies him and serves the common good.

Second, we must be careful not to put ourselves in a position to dishonor ourselves and God. It is one thing to work for a disagreeable or incompetent boss but quite another to work for one who is dishonest and could potentially put you in a compromising position.

For Christians, the ends never justify the means. We can never compromise our work through illegal or dishonest means, no matter how important the ends.

In today’s workplace, refusing to compromise may put us at odds with a boss or supervisor. While scripture tells us to respect our leaders, it also demands that we refrain from evil. If your boss puts you in a position where there is a possibility of abuse or he is forcing you to do something illegal, you should prayerfully consider your options.

In such a situation, you should understand that it rarely gets better on its own. One option is to confront your boss and/or report him or her to superiors. Understand that this may not end well for you and is a path fraught with difficulties.

The other option is to quit and look for another job. This can also be a very difficult decision with its own set of challenges.

Serving Faithfully and Not Compromising God’s Commands

I will leave you with a story from scripture of three young men who found themselves in a similar situation with a horrible boss. He asks them to do something that they cannot, and they are forced to suffer the consequences. Their response to their boss holds wisdom for us:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan. 3:16-18).

Editor’s note: Read more about the biblical purpose for work in How Then Should We Work?

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