Three Parables (Matthew 25:1-46; 26:1, 2)

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To illustrate what he looked for in those whom he would acknowledge as belonging to him when he returned, Jesus related three parables or likenesses. The first one dealt with ten virgins who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. In the second parable, Jesus referred to slaves whom their master had entrusted with talents prior to his undertaking a long trip. Then, in the third parable, Jesus represented himself as separating people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats.

Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)

Jesus likened a feature of the “kingdom of the heavens” to ten virgins who, with lamps in their hands, went to meet the bridegroom and also, according to a number of manuscripts, the bride. (Matthew 25:1) In the case of actual wedding festivities, this would have been in the evening, at the time the bridegroom would be conducting his bride from the home of her parents and taking her to his home or that of his father. Friends, musicians, and singers would accompany the bridegroom and the bride. Along the way, others would join the procession. The ten virgins of the parable are represented as intending to do this.

Five of the virgins were foolish or failed to use good judgment, and the other five were wise or sensible. Whereas all ten virgins took their lamps, the thoughtless ones did not prepare themselves with a supply of olive oil for their lamps in case they would need to wait a long time for the bridegroom to arrive. The sensible virgins, however, did take containers filled with oil. (Matthew 25:2-4)

After waiting for a long time alongside the road where the bridegroom would be passing with his entourage, the ten virgins fell asleep. Then, in the middle of the night, they were awakened by a joyous shout coming from a distance, “Look! The bridegroom. Go out to meet him.” The ten virgins then got up and “trimmed” their lamps, probably meaning that they adjusted the wicks. (Matthew 25:5-7)

Noticing that their lamps were about to go out from lack of oil, the senseless virgins asked the others to share their supply with them. This the sensible virgins refused to do, as it could have meant that the reduced amount of oil would have been insufficient to keep their own lamps lit. They advised them to leave and buy oil. (Matthew 25:8, 9)

While the foolish virgins were on the way to make their purchases, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who had properly prepared themselves joined the procession and entered the house with him to share in the wedding banquet. After all those who had joined the procession were inside, the door was shut, preventing anyone else from joining the festivities. (Matthew 25:10)

When the other five virgins arrived, they stood before the closed door, calling out, “Lord, lord, open to us!” He turned them away, saying that he did not know them. They had not been a part of the joyous procession, using their lamps to shed light along the way. So he accorded them no recognition as welcome guests. (Matthew 25:11, 12)

Applying the point of the parable, Jesus concluded, “Stay awake, therefore, for you do not know the day or the hour [in which the Son of Man is coming, according to numerous later manuscripts].” (Matthew 25:13) The parable illustrates that there would be those who appeared to be part of the realm where God is Sovereign and reigns by means of his Son, the king whom he has appointed. Yet, when the Son of God would arrive in glory, they would be found in an unprepared state.

Being ready at that time would not mean remaining in what might be regarded as a state of eschatological frenzy or of the heightened alertness and intensified activity associated with extreme emergencies. In the parable, all the virgins are portrayed as falling asleep, suggesting that the normal routine of life is maintained.

On another occasion, Jesus stressed the need for his disciples to let their light shine, which would be by making expressions about their faith in him, maintaining exemplary conduct, and responding compassionately to the needs of others (Matthew 5:14-16) For a time, the senseless virgins of the parable did have lit lamps. When, however, the bridegroom arrived, their lamps were about to go out. Accordingly, upon his return in glory, Jesus will find professing believers whose love for him and his Father has been extinguished and whose disposition, words, and actions have ceased to be praiseworthy. In their case, it will be too late for rekindling that love and letting their light shine brightly in word and deed, and a participatory sharing with those whose light is brilliant will then not be possible.

The Talents (Matthew 25:14-31)

With apparent reference to another feature associated with the kingdom of the heavens, Jesus likened it to a man who, when about to travel out of the country, called his slaves and entrusted them with his belongings. Based on his evaluation of their individual ability, the master gave five talents to one slave, two to another, and one to a third slave, and then left on his journey. (Matthew 25:14, 15) A talent was the largest monetary unit in the first century CE and equaled 6,000 drachmas or a sum a common laborer would earn in approximately 15 years. So even the slave entrusted with one talent would have been responsible for a large amount of money, reflecting his master’s confidence in his ability and trustworthiness.

The slave with five talents immediately went to work to increase his master’s assets and eventually doubled the amount. With his two talents, the other slave likewise engaged in business activities and, in time, acquired two additional talents. The slave to whom one talent had been given did nothing to increase the asset. He merely dug a hole in the ground and then hid the money. (Matthew 25:16-18)

After a long time had passed, the master returned and had his slaves render an account respecting the talents entrusted to them. The one to whom the five talents had been committed told him that he had gained an additional five talents. “Excellent, good and trustworthy slave,” said the master. “You were trustworthy over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” His trustworthiness brought pleasure to his master, and he would be sharing in his master’s joy upon being highly honored with a position of even greater trust and responsibility. (Matthew 25:19, 20)

When the slave with the two talents reported that he had gained two more, his master commended him with the identical words. “Excellent, good and trustworthy slave. You were trustworthy over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:22, 23) The master is thus represented as highly valuing trustworthiness in keeping with individual ability and as having the same appreciation for both slaves.

With a demeaning view of his master, the slave with the one talent said, “I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not disperse. And being fearful, I went and hid your talent in the ground. Look! [Here] you have yours.” (Matthew 25:24, 25) This response represents the slave as implying that he had fulfilled his duty, keeping the talent safe for his master, and so had no additional responsibility upon returning it.

After condemning him as evil and lazy, the master continued, “You knew, [did you], that I reaped where I did not sow and gathered where I did not disperse? So, then, you should have given my money [literally silver] to the bankers, and, upon my return, I would have received my [money] with interest.” (Matthew 25:26, 27)

The master then commanded that the talent be taken away from the useless slave and given to the one who had ten talents. This action was in harmony with the principle that more would be given to the one who has, and he would come to have an abundance; but the one who does not have much because of his untrustworthiness and sluggishness would have the little he does have taken away from him. (Matthew 25:28, 29) In having been represented as one who proved himself trustworthy with what had been entrusted to him and commendably capable of greatly increasing his master’s assets, the slave with the ten talents is the one who received the additional talent.

The master ordered the useless slave to be thrown out of the estate. Without a place in a lighted residence, the slave would then find himself in the darkness outside. There, in expression of his loss, grief, and possibly also anger, he would weep bitterly and gnash his teeth. (Matthew 25:30)

Jesus’ parable suggested that a long time would pass before he would return in glory and that among those professing to be in the realm where he reigns by his Father’s appointment would be individuals who would fail to advance his interests. In expressing his judgment, Jesus would take into consideration individual circumstances and abilities. He would richly reward all who have proved themselves to be faithful or trustworthy in using what has been given them to advance his cause.

Inaction, on the other hand, constitutes working against Jesus and would lead to serious loss. In the parable, the useless slave is represented as having a wrong view of his master and working against his master’s interests by not even letting others help him to increase the asset committed to him. This suggests that a failure to appreciate the Son of God for who he is and what he has done contributes to serious neglect and eventual loss of everything.

Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46; 26:1, 2)

Upon his arrival in glory, the Son of Man, accompanied by angels, would seat himself on his glorious or splendid throne as king. In this portrayal, Jesus revealed that he would come as one vested with royal authority, which included his role as judge. In this capacity, he would separate people (all the nations assembled before him) in the manner that a shepherd separates sheep from goats, placing the one group on his right and the other one on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33) The right side would denote approval and a favorable judgment, whereas the left side would signify disapproval and condemnation.

As animals, goats are hardier than sheep, less dependent on the care of a herder, and can be destructive to the environment on account of their feeding habits. The negative light in which persons placed on the left are represented, however, does not reflect on the value of goats as domestic animals. In the parable, the use of sheep and goats serves primarily to illustrate the separation of a collective whole into two distinct groups. The differences in sheep and goats are not the focus of the parable, for both animals are incapable of the kind of human actions that provide the basis for judgment.

Jesus speaks of himself as king and identifies those on his right as blessed by his Father, inviting them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the world’s foundation. (Matthew 25:34) This reveals that from the very beginning, his Father’s purpose was for humans to be in his realm and to conduct themselves as his loyal subjects. The invitation to those who are judged as approved is for them to share in all the benefits and blessings associated with the realm where Jesus rules by his Father’s appointment and where his Father is recognized as Sovereign.

Jesus represented himself as explaining the reason for the favorable judgment. Those on his right had given him food when he was hungry, supplied him with drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he lacked needed apparel, cared for him in times of sickness, and came to him in prison, the implication being for the purpose of providing aid and comfort.

The upright, compassionate individuals would be surprised by his words. They would wonder when they had seen him in the state he had described and cared for his needs. The answer would be, “Amen [Truly], I say to you, Insofar as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

The least, most insignificant, or lowly ones are commonly persons who are overlooked in their time of desperate need. In the parable, those who responded compassionately did so when they became aware of the plight of the lowly ones.

The parable of the merciful Samaritan reveals that any human in dire straits is rightly the object of a compassionate aid. As Jesus did not restrict the meaning of “neighbor,” there is no reason to conclude that this parable is to be construed to mean that the least of Christ’s brothers refers to a very limited number of people who adhere to a certain set of beliefs and practices. Jesus himself surrendered his life for all. Therefore, when regarded in the widest sense, he is a brother to the whole human family and looks favorably upon those who reveal themselves to be caring persons. The Roman centurion Cornelius proved to be such a compassionate man. Both his prayers and the kindly aid he had rendered to others ascended as a “memorial before God.” (Acts 10:4)

While loyal disciples of God’s Son recognize the prior claim of family members and those related to them in the faith as taking precedence, they help needy fellow humans whenever they are in position to do so. They recognize their obligation to do good to all. (Galatians 6:10)

Turning to those on his left, Jesus represented himself as saying, “Go away from me, cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) This dreadful judgment of loss would not be temporary but permanent and irreversible. The “fire” would be like the “eternal fire” that reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to perpetual ruin. (Jude 7) The judgment is the same as that reserved for the devil and his minions.

The reason for the dreadful judgment is that the disapproved ones had proved to be without compassion. In the person of needy ones, they had seen Jesus hungry and thirsty, as a lone stranger, naked, sick, and in prison, but they did nothing. These disapproved ones, like the approved ones, are quoted as addressing Jesus as Lord and asking when they saw him “hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not attend to [him].” The answer is that they failed to care for the least of Christ’s brothers in their time of need. Therefore, they would experience an eternal punishment, losing the opportunity for the enjoyment of the real life that is distinguished by an enduring relationship with the Son of God and his Father. This is the life, the eternal life, to be enjoyed in the sinless state, which those whom Jesus approves will receive as their inheritance. (Matthew 25:42-46)

When individuals can render aid to those in dire need but refuse to do so, they reveal themselves to be callous, seriously lacking in love and compassion. Without essential food, drink, clothing and shelter, humans cannot survive. Those who are seriously ill need care; otherwise they will die. In the first century CE, many people were unjustly imprisoned and their circumstances were so deplorable that their survival depended on the provisions visitors would bring to them. These loving and caring visitors proved to be courageous persons who were not ashamed to identify themselves as friends of those who were imprisoned. (Compare 2 Timothy 1:16, 17; Hebrews 10:34.)

Accordingly, persons who refuse to render aid when they could have done so make themselves guilty of a neglect tantamount to murder. As hateful murderers like the devil, they would deserve the same punishment in store for him and his angels. (Compare John 8:44; James 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:15-17.)

After relating the parables, Jesus told his disciples that he would be crucified. It was then just two days before the Passover. (Matthew 26:1, 2)