Monday, October 24, 2011

Matthew 25

Matthew 25 (ESV): Further discussion of the end

Synopsis

I’m continuing my recent trend of doing an entire chapter, encompassing more than one ESV heading. (At this rate I’ll be through Matthew in no time…) In this passage Jesus continues to talk about the end; specifically, he’s continuing the theme that ended the last passage: we don’t know when the end will come, so we should be ready at any moment.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins (verses 1–13 (ESV))
Jesus begins with a parable of ten virgins who are waiting for the arrival of their bridegroom, five of whom are wise and five of whom are foolish. Why? Because the five wise virgins brought extra oil for their lamps, just in case, while the five foolish virgins did not; when the bridegroom ended up being delayed, the foolish virgins ran out of oil, and the wise virgins didn’t. The foolish virgins tried to get some oil from the wise virgins, but the wise virgins couldn’t/wouldn’t give them any, for fear of running out themselves. So the foolish virgins rushed out to buy some more oil, but while they were gone the bridegroom arrived and everyone went inside and shut the door. The five foolish virgins finally came back and knocked on the door, asking to be let in, but the bridegroom told them that he didn’t know them. “Watch therefore,” Jesus says in verse 13 (ESV), “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And why will we not know the day or the hour?

The Parable of the Talents (verses 14–30 (ESV))
… because it will be like the next parable Jesus tells, of a man going on a journey. He calls his three servants over before he leaves, and gives each one some talents. (Remember, a “talent” is a unit of money, worth about twenty years’ labour for the average Israelite.) He distributes the talents between the three servants according to their ability; one gets five, one gets two, and the last gets one. The man then leaves for his journey. Once he’s gone the first two servants immediately start putting the money to work, so that the one with five talents earns five more and the one with two talents earns two more. The last servant, however, who’d only received one talent, goes and buries his money in the ground.

After a long time the man comes back from his journey, and settles his accounts with the servants. For each of the first two servants, when he sees that they have doubled his money, he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (verses 21 (ESV) and 23 (ESV)) But when he gets to the third servant, he is told that the servant hasn’t done anything with the money because he was afraid of his master. So he simply gives the master back what was his. But the master gets angry at this, calling the servant “wicked” and “slothful,” and saying that at the very least the servant should have invested the money with bankers, so that it could have earned some interest. He then commands that the third servant’s talent be given to the servant with ten talents:

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (verse 29 (ESV))
And finally, he commands that the third servant be cast into “the outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 30 (ESV)).

The Final Judgement (verses 31–46 (ESV))
Jesus now leaves parables aside, and tells his listeners that when he comes in glory all of the nations will come before Him, and he’ll separate them, placing the “sheep” on his right and the “goats” on his left.

He will then speak to the sheep on his right, and invite them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them “from the foundation of the world” (verse 34 (ESV)). And the reason they will join him is that they gave Him food when He was hungry, and drink when He was thirsty, and welcomed Him when He was a stranger, and clothed Him, and visited Him when He was sick and when He was in prison. The sheep, however, are somewhat baffled by this, since they don’t remember ever doing such things for Jesus, but Jesus explains to them that any time they did these things for “the least” of His brothers (verse 40 (ESV)), they were doing it for Him.

He will then talk to the “goats,” calling them cursed, and telling them to depart from Him into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41 (ESV)). And why? For the opposite reasons that he gave to the “sheep”: because the “goats” didn’t give Him food when He was hungry, or drink when He was thirsty, or welcom Him when He was a stranger, or clothe Him, or visit Him when He was sick and when He was in prison. The “goats” are just as baffled as the “sheep” were by this, because they don’t remember neglecting Jesus in this way, but they get the same answer: any time they didn’t do these things for the “least” of His brothers, they did not do it for Him.

He sums up by saying:

“And these [the “goats”] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (verse 46 (ESV))

Thoughts

You can see a progression in the three sections in this chapter:
  1. The parable about the ten virgins continues on from where the last passage left off: you don’t know when Jesus is going to come back, so be prepared for it
  2. While you’re waiting, you should use the gifts He has given you—your “talents” (I once read a Bible commentary saying that this is exactly where our current word “talent” comes from)—and do good works in whatever time we have.
  3. Then, when He comes, those who have done good works will be rewarded with an eternal reward, and those who refused will be punished with an eternal punishment.
I don’t know if this needs to be said, it probably doesn’t, but I’ll say it anyway: When Jesus gives a parable about ten virgins awaiting a single bridegroom, his point is not to somehow advocate having multiple wives. This isn’t a pro-polygamy passage.

He is, though, making a point which is related to a point he made in the last passage, in that the “foolish” virgins were only caught out because the bridegroom had taken longer to get there than they’d anticipated. If he hadn’t been running late, they would have been fine. Jesus could come back at any time, and we need to be ready for that to happen—but He also may delay for a long time, so we should also be prepared to do our good works over a long period of time. We should be ready for Him to return at any time, but that doesn’t mean quitting our jobs and going to sit on a mountain top to wait for Him; we should be doing all the good we can until He returns. That means being prepared for Him to return at any moment while at the same time making preparations for our work here on earth as if He will be delayed. We may, for example, set up programs to help the poor and needy, ensuring that they have adequate funds and resources to last for years and years, because if He doesn’t come, those programs will continue to be needed. (If He does come—if we spent all of that time and energy setting something up and then had Him show up before the program saw the fruit of the labour—nobody will consider it to have been wasted effort.)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is what the parable about the talents is about: God has given us certain abilities or gifts or resources, and we are now entrusted to use those abilities/gifts/resources for His sake. He hasn’t gifted everyone equally—some have more gifts and some have less; some have more resources and some have less—but we are expected to use as much as He has given us. And let’s be clear: the servant who grew his five talents into ten talents was not praised for accumulating so many talents; notice that he wasn’t given any more praise than the servant who grew his two talents into four. Both of those servants were praised for the same thing: they used what the master had given them, and didn’t squander it. The fact that the first servant was able to gain five talents and the second servant was only able to gain two talents is simply due to how much they started out with—which means, in the end, it was the master who decided which of the two men would end up earning the most. It is the same with us. Some of us have great gifts, and will do amazing things for God, and some of us have small gifts, or have gifts in lesser quantities, and the things we accomplish for God will never make the news or be noticed, even in our local church. But God is not going to reward the people who did great things more than He will reward the people who did small things; it was His decision to give some great gifts and some small gifts. He will not reward people based on how much they have done, He will reward people according to what they did with what He gave them.

I think Jesus gave this parable in terms of money because it’s so much easier to quantify things that way. To give a non-quantifiable example, suppose God gives a man a great ability to preach and evangelize, and another woman in the same church is very timid, and not good at talking to people. Because the man has such great gifts, he works half-heartedly at it, and still dozens and dozens of people come to the Lord because of his words. The woman, on the other hand, has to struggle to give the Gospel, but she does so when the opportunities arise, and only two people are ever saved through her actions. According to this parable, she would be rewarded more than the man; more people were saved through his actions, but because he did it half-heartedly—because his great gifts allowed him to “phone it in”—and because she had to struggle to use the little amount of ability that God gave her, she actually did more with less, and the man squandered some of the ability that he could have used.

Really, even if nobody came to the Lord due to the woman’s evangelizing, she would still be rewarded more than the man in my example. Because again, it’s not about how much we accomplish—and we can’t make people come to the Lord anyway, that is His responsibility and His alone—it’s about using what He has given us to the best of our abilities, and letting Him take care of the outcome.

I used the example of evangelism just now, but earlier I used an example of setting up programs to help the poor and needy. I chose the earlier example based on the good works that Jesus himself says people will be judged on:
  • Feeding and giving drink to the hungry
  • Welcoming strangers
  • Clothing those who need clothing
  • Visiting the sick
  • Visiting those who are in prison
To borrow a phrase that I keep seeing in Timothy Keller’s books, these are “social justice” ministries. Jesus separates who is going to the kingdom of heaven from those who are going to Hell based on who cared for the needy and who didn’t. This does not mean that we earn our way into heaven by doing social justice; if the New Testament is clear about anything, it’s clear about the fact that we cannot earn our way into God’s book of life by doing things on our own—we need Jesus’ sacrifice for that. That’s the whole reason He came to this planet in the first place: to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own. So what this does mean is that those who have been saved, those who are truly His children, will, as an essential part of their newly cleaned soul, care about these social justice issues. That caring about the poor and the needy is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. As mentioned earlier, some will have great gifts in this area and some won’t, some will do amazing things and start shelters and take people into their homes etc. etc. and some won’t, but everyone, every Christian, will care about the poor and needy. If you refuse to feed or give drink to those who need it, if you refuse to welcome strangers, if you refuse to give clothing to those who need it, or visit the sick, or visit those who are in prison, if you won’t allow yourself to do such things, then why would you expect to be with the “sheep”? Not having a heart for the poor and needy would be a reason to question whether your faith in God is real—and, if not, to do something about it. (And if it is, ask for His help where you need it.)

Maybe you’ll never have an opportunity to do some of these things. Perhaps you don’t know anyone who’s ever gone to prison, for example, and don’t have a reason or an opportunity to go and visit anyone there. (In fact, in 21st Century North America, the idea of visiting those who are in prison can be particularly guilt-inducing: we tend to demonize those who have committed crimes. We want to lock them up like animals and forget about them—and, if possible, never let them out. Treating them like humans, and visiting them, and taking care of any needs we can take care of, is not something we’re prone to do. And yet, we have immense incarceration rates in North America—at least, we do in America; Canada is better—which means that, if anything, we should be seeing this immense population of people as being a very large group who have needs that should be taken care of.) But it would be very unlikely that you wouldn’t have a chance to do anything on the list above, and, really, it’s not about what you do, so much as it’s about your attitude toward doing it and your willingness to use what God has given you for the benefit of others.

I hesitated to mention attitude in the last paragraph because that can be dangerous. James teaches us that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26 (ESV)). Anyone who “wishes the poor well” but doesn’t want to do anything about it is probably not wishing them well at all. For example, as James says:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15–17 (ESV))
So when I say that it’s a matter of “attitude” I don’t mean in the way that James is referring to—a “faith” without works! What I mean is simply that when the opportunity arises we are willing to do something, and that if we’re not doing something it’s because of a lack of opportunity, and not because of a lack of desire.
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