‘Love in Action’:
A brief look at the Parables in Matthew 25
In Matthew Twenty Five, we have what is commonly referred to as the ‘Judgement Parables: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Verses 1-13); The Parable of the Talents (Verses 14-30) and The Final Judgement (Verses 31-46). These parables are more often than not interpreted as God’s judgement on the Church i.e. professing Christians who do not take, what is considered, ‘the mandate’ of ‘going into all the world and resolving the problems of poverty,’ i.e., poverty brought about by: ‘failed economies’ (including corrupt governments), unjust regimes or the result of warfare (of varying shades). The implications of this seem to be that works are the primary criteria for salvation—and that failure to bring about such a state of affairs shall result in judgement. An earthly utopia—‘one world’ is the agenda for many and, even for those professing to fully comprehend the Gospel: “That God so loved the world that he gave his son so that, whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (The fallen state of humanity and the need for faith in Christ).
These stories are, of course, ‘parables’ and not imperative narratives. However, we need to understand the implications for these stories—for ‘the professing followers of Christ’. For the answers I shall, partly, be looking at Martin Goldsmith’s 2001 commentary entitled ‘Matthew & Mission: The Gospel Through Jewish Eyes’—as well as my own reading of the meaning as related to the rest of Scripture—its logical development and purpose.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
25:1.‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.6 ‘At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”7 ‘Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”9 ‘“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”10 ‘But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.11 ‘Later, the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”12 ‘But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”13 ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Jesus is referring to a future scenario in which there are both wise and foolish virgins. The foolish ones are pictured as those who had no idea of the importance of commitment to the task. The term ‘bridegroom’ clearly refers to Christ (chapter 9:15)—to Jesus’ return. Moreover, the term ‘Lord’ (v11) clearly refers to the person of Christ. By the time the unprepared virgins got their act together, it was rather late—too late; they were not available to meet the Bridegroom on his return; they seem to have been otherwise occupied—with much more important things—things that were crucial to their lifestyle—perhaps.
Without doubt the first Christians (followers of The Way) were expecting Jesus to return within their lifetimes—but they would have, most likely, been wondering whether they had been told a lie—‘Where was he?’ Now, in 2020, there are some who wait patiently for Christ’s inevitable Parousia and some who, though ‘professing faith,’ i.e. ‘believing the gospel’, are not expectant of much. Oh, they have their ‘theology’—and if you pressed them, they would insist that they are true followers—but it makes little difference to their every-day lives. They, like the foolish virgins, are not at all prepared.
From time to time in Christian history theories of a second chance have crept into some Christian beliefs. Ideas like the harrowing of hell or purgatorial purging have no biblical validity. The finality of the fearful words ‘The door was shut’ and ‘I don’t know you leaves no room for uncertainty…The joy of the wedding banquet consists supremely of being in an intimate relationship ‘with him’. The Christian looks forward with assured hope to the banquet at the table of Abraham where union with Christ will be complete and perfect. Goldsmith, PP.173,174
The parable of the Talents
14 ‘Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.19 ‘After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”21 ‘His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”22 ‘The man with two bags of gold also came. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with two bags of gold: see, I have gained two more.”23 ‘His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”24 ‘Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”26 ‘His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 ‘“So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The first thing to notice about the talents in this parable is that they did not only represent ‘scales of difference’, i.e. differences in individual abilities, is that these talents represented considerable value, “A talent represented a vast sum of money well beyond what any sensible master could possibly entrust to mere slaves indeed the figures are so vast that Jesus’ disciples must have smiled at the story.”
This parable is not about feeding the world or even redressing the effects of climate change though it is about Christ’s followers and their use of their God-given talents to ‘go and make disciples’.
In traditional Jewish thought, the final age is represented as the harvest time—a time in which ‘the sower’—God himself reaps and gathers in the harvest at the end of the age. God is not asking the impossible of the professing followers of Christ; it isn’t a question of, as if by magic, one has to produce something out of nothing—but that the professors of the Christian faith use the talents they possess rather than the talents they do not possess. Moreover, it is not referring to some vast foodbank project but to the ‘going and making of disciples’. NB. In this parable, Jesus is underlying the principle that—for everyone who has will be given more (V.29)—and will have it in abundance. This is not to be confused with the prosperity gospel (which is no gospel at all) but with a commitment to the cause of Christ.
It is interesting to note that in this parable, the third slave’s [one] talent is given to the slave with ten talents. If this sounds an unfair or ‘an unjust consequence’ of failure to take the words of Christ seriously, one should consider that Scripture, in general, is replete with warnings of the ‘post-mortem’ state of affairs. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus come to mind:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God…That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the [S]pirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6).
Jesus’ words here are strongly negative i.e. that if one is not born again/regenerate (Titus 3:5). The apostle Paul refers to a ‘new righteousness’—“…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ—for all who believe. For there is no distinction (however we might feel about our own or another’s level of ‘righteousness’): “For all have sinned and [do] fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is [in] Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:22-25). There isn’t space here—save to say that the idea of some kind of ‘universal salvation for all’ is not to be found in Scripture.
For God so loved the world that, that he gave his only [S]on, that, whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his [S]on into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jesus Christ). Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he/she has not believed in the name of the Son of God. And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness rather than the light. (John 3:16-19)
I recall being in a church when the passage from which the preacher based his sermon was Matthew 25: 14-30. What is etched in my mind is the preacher’s distinction between ‘believing faith’ and ‘achieving faith’. Faith in Christ is an essential factor of Christian profession— it is, indeed ‘the gift of God’, but Christian ‘profession’ isn’t a question of carrying on as if nothing has happened—as if there should be no changes to our lifestyle of indeed our priorities—as if it, ‘being saved’, were some kind of insurance policy for a ‘safe’ eternity. And then there is the question of ‘achieving faith’. This is achieving faith is not to be confused with ‘targets’ or ‘objectives’ but with responding to the grace given to us as ‘undeserving sinners’. This parable is, indeed, about responding to God’s calling. We cannot remain silent.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ’How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ (Romans 10:12-15)
The sheep and the goats
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”41 ‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.”44 ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?”45 ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”46 ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’
Martin Goldsmith opines that, what has previously been implied (The Parable of the Ten Virgins & the Parable of the Talents) is, in this parable, explicit i.e. ‘A Strikingly Clear Message’.
As the Son of Man Jesus is clearly seen to be the King (verses 34,40) on his throne—The Lord (verses 37,44) and the one who holds the final judgement in his hands. His intimate relationship and union with God the Father is evident In his use of the very personal expression of ‘my Father’; and his pre-eminence and supremacy (Colossians 1:18-20) are evident in the frequently repeated emphasis in the verses on ‘I’ and ‘Me’ (verses 35,36,45). In this parable Jesus shows the radical distinction between the righteous (verse 37) and the cursed (Verse 41 cf. Deuteronomy 30:19).Goldsmith
It is the case that, in the final analysis, all human beings are either in a relationship with God through Christ i.e. as ‘followers of Christ’, or are separate from God, i.e. ‘unsaved’. There are ‘many’ who, in spite of having knowledge of the Gospel, wallow in lethargy, aka ‘unbelief’; many alleged followers of Christ actually ‘sit’ in judgement on God over the perceived injustices throughout the world. And there is a growing number of ‘professing Christians’ who cannot perceive of the idea of a God who cannot but forgive unconditionally (universally)—whether or not there is knowledge of Christ— ‘new birth’. Somehow, it seems, God’s judgement cannot infringe upon the idea that everyone who has ever lived (apart from the really evil people: Stalin,Hitler,Pol Pot, the Moors Murderers and a few others, have the ‘human right’ of a place in Heaven. In other words, God has no option but to deny justice in the light of ‘human rights’ even to those who live as if there were no God—at least not the God of the Bible. Ergo, there must be other priorities for the church—rather than taking the Gospel to every tribe and tongue. Do people really believe that GOD will not bring about a state of affairs in which justice prevails—that there shall be no ‘Day of judgement’?
In spite of the obvious interpretation of this final parable, there are many that teach that God’s judgement (on all people including professing followers of Christ) is based on human deeds of charity—towards the increasing number of ‘the poor’ in a world of opulence and greed.Whilst it is evident that ‘Christians’ are to love ‘neighbours’ as they would themselves—reaching out in ‘any which way’—the parable, I suggest, refers to ‘the little ones’ who follow Christ—and are in union with him. N.T.Wright offers the following:
Instead of the nations being judged on how they had treated Israel, as some Jewish writings envisage, Jesus, consistently with his whole redefinition of God’s people around himself, declares that he will himself judge the world on how it has treated his renewed Israel. Judging the nations is, of course, regularly thought of as part of the Messiah’s task (e.g. Psalm 2:8-12); and the king or Messiah is often pictured as a shepherd (e.g. Ezekiel 34:23-24). That, perhaps, is why the image of sheep and goats is inserted into this scene of judgment.
The implications of the ‘renewed people of God’ being the ‘little ones’ mentioned in the parable is, for some, a view (displacement theology) that suggests God’s abandonment of Israel. That is not my view. However this isn’t the place in which to give it further consideration—save to say that for God to renege on his promises would be to deny himself. It may well be the case that the warnings that Matthew’s gospel mentions regarding these ‘little ones’ are warning against future judgements for all offenses against God’s people—throughout the ages—until the day of judgement. Meanwhile it should be the case that the world may observe the witness of the church, i.e. the way it treats its ‘members’, so that like Tertullian (155-220 AD), our world may say, “See how these Christians love one another.”
- It may seem prudent to please myself or to please another;
- It may seem right to askew the sight of a broken word needing fixing;
- It may seem ‘good’ to mask the truth in the guise of helping;
- It cannot be right to keep out the light in a world that’s bleeding.
Derek J. White 2020
 Of course, there is the ‘Suffering Church’—that is, increasingly, in need of help as persecution increases; this, I believe, is another matter—but isn’t the subject of this paper.