THE FATE OF THE UNPREPARED (Matthew 25:1-13)
25:1-13 "What will happen in the Kingdom of Heaven is like the situation which arose when ten virgins took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish took their lamps, but did not take oil with them; but the wise took oil in their vessels together with their lamps. When the bridegroom was long in coming, all of them settled down to rest and slept. In the middle of the night the cry went up, 'Look you, the bridegroom! Go out to meet him!' Then all these virgins awoke, and they prepared their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise ones. 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps have gone out.' But the wise answered, 'No; we cannot do that in case there is not enough for us and for you. Go rather to those who sell oil, and buy it for yourselves.' While they went away to buy oil, the bridegroom came; and those who were ready entered with him into the marriage celebrations, and the door was shut. Later the rest of the virgins came too. 'Sir, sir,' they said, 'open the door to us.' But he answered, 'This is the truth I tell you--I do not know you.' Be on the watch then, for you do not know the day and the hour."
If we look at this parable with western eyes, it may seem an unnatural and a "made-up" story. But, in point of fact, it tells a story which could have happened at any time in a Palestinian village and which could still happen today.
A wedding was a great occasion. The whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home, and they went by the longest possible road, in order that they might receive the glad good wishes of as many as possible. "Everyone," runs the Jewish saying, "from six to sixty will follow the marriage drum." The Rabbis agreed that a man might even abandon the study of the law to share in the joy of a wedding feast.
The point of this story lies in a Jewish custom which is very different from anything we know. When a couple married, they did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home; for a week they kept open house; they were treated, and even addressed, as prince and princess; it was the gladdest week in all their lives. To the festivities of that week their chosen friends were admitted; and it was not only the marriage ceremony, it was also that joyous week that the foolish virgins missed, because they were unprepared.
The story of how they missed it all is perfectly true to life. Dr. J. Alexander Findlay tells of what he himself saw in Palestine. "When we were approaching the gates of a Galilaean town," he writes, "I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the dragoman told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect: 'It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in a fortnight's time; nobody ever knows for certain.' Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle-class wedding in Palestine was to catch the bridal party napping. So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night; it is true that he is required by public opinion to send a man along the street to shout: 'Behold! the bridegroom is coming!' but that may happen at any time; so the bridal party have to be ready to go out into the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come. ... Other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted." There the whole drama of Jesus' parable is re-enacted in the twentieth century. Here is no synthetic story but a slice of life from a village in Palestine.
Like so many of Jesus' parables, this one has an immediate and local meaning, and also a wider and universal meaning.
In its immediate significance it was directed against the Jews. they were the chosen people; their whole history should have been a preparation for the coming of the Son of God; they ought to have been prepared for him when he came. Instead they were quite unprepared and therefore were shut out. Here in dramatic form is the tragedy of the unpreparedness of the Jews.
But the parable has at least two universal warnings.
(i) It warns us that there are certain things which cannot be obtained at the last minute. It is far too late for a student to be preparing when the day of the examination has come. It is too late for a man to acquire a skill, or a character, if he does not already possess it, when some task offers itself to him. Similarly, it is easy to leave things so late that we can no longer prepare ourselves to meet with God. When Mary of Orange was dying, her chaplain sought to tell her of the way of salvation. Her answer was: "I have not left this matter to this hour." To be too late is always tragedy.
(ii) It warns us that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed. The foolish virgins found it impossible to borrow oil, when they discovered they needed it. A man cannot borrow a relationship with God; he must possess it for himself. A man cannot borrow a character; he must be clothed with it. We cannot always be living on the spiritual capital which others have amassed. There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others.
Tennyson took this parable and turned it into verse in the song the little novice sang to Guinevere the queen, when Guinevere had too late discovered the cost of sin:
"Late, late so late! and dark the night and chill!
Late, late so late! but we can enter still.
Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light had we; for that we do repent;
And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light: so late! and dark and chill the night!
O let us in, that we may find the light!
Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, tho' late, to kiss his feet!
No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now."
There is no knell so laden with regret as the sound of the words too late.
THE CONDEMNATION OF THE BURIED TALENT (Matthew 25:14-30)
25:14-30 Even so, a man who was going abroad called his servants, and handed over his belongings to them. To one he gave a thousand pounds; to another five hundred pounds; to another two hundred and fifty pounds; to each according to his individual ability. So he went away. Straightway the man who had received the thousand pounds went and worked with them, and made another thousand pounds. In the same way the man who had received the five hundred pounds made another five hundred pounds of profit. But the man who had received the two hundred and fifty pounds went away and dug up the earth, and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those servants came, and struck a reckoning with them. The one who had received the thousand pounds came and brought another thousand pounds. 'Sir,' he said, 'you gave me a thousand pounds. Look! I have made a profit of another thousand pounds.' His master said to him, 'Well done! good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge over many things; enter into the joy of your master.' The one who had received the five hundred pounds came and said, 'Sir, you handed over to me five hundred pounds. Look! I have made a profit of another five hundred pounds.' His master said to him, 'Well done! good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge over many things.' The one who had received the two hundred and fifty pounds came also. 'Sir,' he said, 'I knew that you are a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you do not winnow. So I was afraid, and I went away and hid your two hundred and fifty pounds in the earth. Look! you have what is yours.' The master answered him, 'Evil and timid servant! You were well aware that I reap where I have not sowed, and that I gather where I have not winnowed. You ought to have put my money out to the bankers, and when I came I would have received back what is my own with interest. Take, then, the two hundred and fifty pounds from him, and give it to him who has the two thousand pounds. For to everyone who has, it will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away from him. And cast the useless servant into the outer darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth there.'"
Like the preceding one this parable had an immediate lesson for those who heard it for the first time, and a whole series of permanent lessons for us today. It is always known as the Parable of the Talents; in our translation we have changed the talents into modern currency. The talent was not a coin, it was a weight; and therefore its value obviously depended on whether the coinage involved was copper, gold or sliver. The commonest metal involved was silver; and the value of a talent of silver was about 240 British pounds. It is on that basis that we have made the translations of the various sums.
There can be no doubt that originally in this parable the whole attention is riveted on the useless servant. There can be little doubt that he stands for the Scribes and the Pharisees, and for their attitude to the Law and the truth of God. The useless servant buried his talent in the ground, in order that he might hand it back to his master exactly as it was. The 'Whole aim of the Scribes and Pharisees was to keep the Law exactly as it was. In their own phrase, they sought "to build a fence around the Law." Any change, any development, any alteration, anything new was to them anathema. Their method involved the paralysis of religious truth.
Like the man with the talent, they desired to keep things exactly as they were--and it is for that that they are condemned. In this parable Jesus tells us that there can be no religion without adventure, and that God can find no use for the shut mind. But there is much more in this parable than that.
(i) It tells us that God gives men differing gifts. One man received five talents, another two, and another one. It is not a man's talent, which matters; what matters is how he uses it. God never demands from a man abilities which he has not got; but he does demand that a man should use to the full the abilities which he does possess. Men are not equal in talent; but men can be equal in effort. The parable tells us that whatever talent we have, little or great, we must lay it at the service of God.
(ii) It tells us that the reward of work well done is still more work to do. The two servants who had done well are not told to lean back and rest on their oars because they have done well. They are given greater tasks and greater responsibilities in the work of the master.
(iii) It tells us that the man who is punished is the man who will not try. The man with the one talent did not lose his talent; he simply did nothing with it. Even if he had adventured with it and lost it, it would have been better than to do nothing at all. It is always a temptation for the one talent man to say, "I have so small a talent and I can do so little with it. It is not worth while to try, for all the contribution I can make." The condemnation is for the man who, having even one talent, will not try to use it, and will not risk it for the common good.
(iv) It lays down a rule of life which is universally true. It tells us that to him who has more will be given, and he who has not will lose even what he has. The meaning is this. If a man has a talent and exercises it, he is progressively able to do more with it. But, if he has a talent and fails to exercise it, he will inevitably lose it. If we have some proficiency at a game or an art, if we have some gift for doing something, the more we exercise that proficiency and that gift, the harder the work and the bigger the task we will be able to tackle. Whereas, if we fail to use it, we lose it. That is equally true of playing golf or playing the piano, or singing songs or writing sermons, of carving wood or thinking out ideas. It is the lesson of life that the only way to keep a gift is to use it in the service of God and in the service of our fellow-men.
GOD'S STANDARD OF JUDGMENT (Matthew 25:31-46)
25:31-46 "When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and an the angels with him, then he will take his seat upon the throne of his glory, and all nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate them from each other, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, enter into possession of the Kingdom which has been prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you gathered me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you came to visit me; in prison, and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we gee you hungry, and nourish you? Or thirsty, and gave you to drink? When did we see you a stranger, and gather you to us? Or naked, and clothed you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?' And the King will answer them, 'This is the truth I tell you--insomuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' then he will say to those on the left, 'Go from me, you cursed ones, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and you did not give me to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not gather me to you; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not come to visit me.' Then these too will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not render service to you?' Then he will answer them, 'This is the truth I tell you--in so far as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go away to eternal life."
This is one of the most vivid parables Jesus ever spoke, and the lesson is crystal clear--that God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. His judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help that we have given. And there are certain things which this parable teaches us about the help which we must give.
(i) It must be help in simple things. The things which Jesus picks out--giving a hungry man a meal, or a thirsty man a drink, welcoming a stranger, cheering the sick, visiting the prisoner--are things which anyone can do. It is not a question of giving away thousands of pounds, or of writing our names in the annals of history; it is a case of giving simple help to the people we meet every day. There never was a parable which so opened the way to glory to the simplest people.
(ii) It must be help which is uncalculating. Those who helped did not think that they were helping Christ and thus piling up eternal merit; they helped because they could not stop themselves. It was the natural, instinctive, quite uncalculating reaction of the loving heart. Whereas, on the other hand, the attitude of those who failed to help was; "If we had known it was you we would gladly have helped; but we thought it was only some common man who was not worth helping." It is still true that there are those who will help if they are given praise and thanks and publicity; but to help like that is not to help, it is to pander to self-esteem. Such help is not generosity; it is disguised selfishness. The help which wins the approval of God is that which is given for nothing but the sake of helping.
(iii) Jesus confronts us with the wonderful truth that all such help given is given to himself, and all such help withheld is withheld from himself. How can that be? If we really wish to delight a parent's heart, if we really wish to move him to gratitude the best way to do it is to help his child. God is the great Father; and the way to delight the heart of God is to help his children, our fellow-men.
There were two men who found this parable blessedly true. The one was Francis of Asissi; he was wealthy and high-born and high-spirited. But he was not happy. He felt that life was incomplete. Then one day he was out riding and met a leper, loathsome and repulsive in the ugliness of his disease. Something moved Francis to dismount and fling his arms around this wretched sufferer; and in his arms the face of the leper changed to the face of Christ.
The other was Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One cold winter day, as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. Martin had no money; but the beggar was blue and shivering with cold, and Martin gave what he had. He took off his soldier's coat, worn and frayed as it was; he cut it in two and gave half of it to the beggar man. That night he had a dream. In it he saw the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus in the midst of them; and Jesus was wearing half of a Roman soldier's cloak. One of the angels said to him, "Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?" And Jesus answered softly, "My servant Martin gave it to me."
When we learn the generosity which without calculation helps men in the simplest things, we too will know the joy of helping Jesus Christ himself.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 25". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany