The parable of the virgins
The parable of the talents
The parable of the sheep and goats
Matthew continues in his record of the words of Jesus in answer to the disciples’ questions with a set of three parables which appear to have to do only with the ‘coming of the Son of man’ (Mtw 24:3) but which may also be an application of what should be expected to occur at the ‘close of the age’ (Mtw 24:3). Certainly, there appears to be no indication in these parables that the destruction of the Temple is in mind even though this was the main thrust of the disciples’ questions (Mtw 24:1-3).
Neither are there any indications from anywhere else that this should be the way we interpret them - mainly because there aren’t any parallel passages and all these three parables are unique to Matthew’s Gospel. The one possible exception is found in Luke 19:12-28 where Jesus, approaching Jerusalem and knowing that many who were with Him expected the Kingdom of God to be established in the city immediately, told a parable which has striking similarities.
While it’s quite possible that either of the two writers may have placed the parable in their own considered context (and it would be more likely to be expected that Matthew would have done this), there seems to be no reason to expect that such a parable couldn’t have been delivered twice - once on the road to Jerusalem to warn all the people following not to expect a fulfilment of what they were looking for and, again, to the disciples (Mtw 24:3), to warn them that His return would be after a significant length of time had elapsed - I noted on the previous page, though, that His ‘going away’ wouldn’t have been understood as being through the ascension but as a more natural withdrawal from the region and perhaps even in an outreach towards the Jews of the Diaspora.
Besides, there are enough dissimilarities in the two passages to warrant the belief that they’re two separate parables - notice, for instance, that the man who goes away in Luke is a nobleman about to receive a kingdom (Luke 19:12), he specifically charges his servants to trade with what he gives them (Luke 19:13), the amount of money given to the servants is only about three months’ wages for a labourer (Luke 19:13 - it’s approximately fifteen years’ worth in Mtw 25:15) and the citizens who were under him send an envoy after Him saying that they don’t want the nobleman to reign over them (Luke 19:14).
Indeed, Luke’s parable seems to be concerned not just with the idea of a delay in the establishing of the Kingdom but in the rejection of the nobleman who goes away from His people, where Matthew ignores such a possibility if it was even present in the original proclamation. So it seems best to treat the two parables as separate and distinct.
As I stated on the previous web page, I shall be using the last two passages in Matthew chapter 24 as explanatory passages for the first of the two parables which are recorded here. Therefore, I’ve harmonised Mtw 24:36-44 and Mtw 25:1-13 as one teaching along with Mtw 24:45-51 and 25:14-30. It seems best to keep these passages together even though they serve well as concluding statements to the answer given to the disciples in Matthew chapter 24.
The plain teaching which preceded them seems to point towards the explanation that the first two parables served as illustrations rather than stories which concealed truth as well as revealed it as we saw in Matthew chapter 13 but it may be going too far to expect them to be allegories where each and every item (or, at the very least, the major themes) can be positively identified to yield teaching - I’ll demonstrate the problems with such an interpretation when we begin to look at the parables.
We saw with the parables that were delivered to the religious leaders in the Temple that such a system of interpretation presented some real problems to the commentator for it was all too easy to make the verses say something which was contrary to what they were originally spoken for.
This will become all the more important a principle when we approach the last of the three parables which seems to cry out for a simplistic interpretation where, perhaps, only one point is meant to be taught - for it’s quite easy to believe from this passage that the judgment following the return of Jesus will be one directed upon nations and not individuals, individuals being condemned and sentenced to the final punishment of hell because of the way they responded to His followers. Moreover, salvation for the disciple of Christ - even if taken as being individual rather than corporate - would be, therefore, solely on the basis of a response to fellow believers and would negate the work of the cross, resurrection and ascension.
This surely can’t be what’s meant when we compare the overall thrust of the NT Scriptures, but treating the passage as an allegory does provide the possibility for it to be taken this way. Caution will be seen to be the order of the day when we approach this text.
As I begin this study, I can’t help but think that this will probably be the least amount of text that I’ve ever written on any one specific chapter to date in the Gospel of Matthew (and even the short Matthew chapter 28 will probably have more writing associated with it if my previous notes are anything to go by) but this seems to be the nature of parables and illustrations. If the reader has ever read any of my parabolic hamster stories they’ll be aware that even fairly lengthy stories can have just the one point to make which could be summarised in just a few short sentences.
But this method of teaching is one that reaches some who would otherwise not understand and also allows the spiritually alive to hear God speak when all round them would say words to the effect
‘Ah! What cute little stories about hamsters!’
The parable of the virgins
Mtw 24:36-44, Mtw 25:1-13
Just as in the twinned passages of Mtw 24:45-51 and Mtw 25:14-30 which I’ve joined together in the next section, there’s no thought of doing what the master wants in the work that the people have been called to do in either of the present two passages associated together. Instead, there’s simply a statement about being ready for when the Son of man returns (Mtw 24:44, 25:13) which is phrased in such a way that the listener - and reader - should realise that the day and hour of that return is unknown (Mtw 24:36,44 25:13).
The first word of the passage (‘then’ - Strongs Greek number 5119) is the word used to denote ‘at that time’ which we encountered on the previous web page and it links the parable into the previous verses which have been speaking about the return of the master to the household (Mtw 24:48-51) and, even further back, to the coming of the Son of man (Mtw 24:44).
Many evangelistic messages have relied upon an appeal to their hearers about being ready immediately should Jesus return that very same evening and, although the Holy Spirit has used such messages to convict men and women of the need for urgency in committing themselves to Jesus, the first two parables take an alternate view and we witness Jesus’ warning that the believers must be ready for a delay in His reappearance.
As I noted on the previous web page, this initially only makes sense when paralleled with Jesus’ other statement that all the events declared to them would take place within the expected lifetime of those present - a period of some forty years (Mtw 24:34) - so that they should be looking to being constantly ready and to go the full distance until the day dawns - rather than to rely upon a once-for-all-time decision that they would have made and then to fall back into laxity and uncommitment to the demands of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Therefore, the message of this parable is not whether the believer is ready tonight for Jesus’ return but whether they’re ready every night from the present moment onwards - the five foolish virgins (I’ve retained the AV’s rendering of the Greek word even though some modern translations feel it best not to identify their sexual status - my reason is partly because our more modern ‘bridesmaid’ gives a wholly inappropriate inference as to their function and is used by the majority of commentators) were only prepared for the coming of the bridegroom during daylight hours but the wise took with them oil for their lamps in case his return would be in darkness and they needed to light the path in their journey with him (the RSV’s ‘midnight’ means not 12am but ‘the middle of the night’ which is a phrase which should be taken to emphasise the darkness of the hour and the impossibility that natural light would suddenly appear to give the foolish virgins what they needed to be able to join with the bridegroom to the marriage feast).
I believe there’s a very real danger in overinterpreting this parable as many have done. It would be very easy to interpret the oil as being a symbol of the Holy Spirit and then go on to the extreme interpretation that, if the foolish virgins didn’t have any oil at all (Mtw 25:3 - verse 8 would indicate that what’s being meant is that they didn’t have sufficient resources rather than they had no oil at all) then they quite obviously couldn’t have been followers of Jesus in the first place. Or the darkness in which the bridegroom comes (Mtw 25:6) could be interpreted as indicating that the time of his reappearance would be in an age when there was spiritual darkness over the earth - the problem here being that the wise virgins aren’t shining their lights for the Gospel of the Kingdom until the bridegroom returns. What sort of Church would that be indicative of? Certainly not one which was actively getting on with the work which it’s been called to do (as in the case in the second of the three parables - Mtw 25:14-30).
And what would we make of the request of the foolish girls who asked for oil to be given them (Mtw 25:8)? How could it be possible that the symbol of their readiness be shared with those who had insufficient resources? If the oil is taken to be the Holy Spirit, the interpretation becomes even more problematical. And will there really be an opportunity for those who weren’t ready upon the bridegroom’s approach to ask for entrance into the Kingdom (Mtw 25:11) when they’d prepared themselves after the event (Mtw 25:10)? This interpretation especially seems to make it out that one can be ‘unsaved’ when the Son of man returns, become ‘saved’ and then be rejected for being ‘saved’ - it makes very little sense.
And surely the story should rather present the bride as the one who the bridegroom was coming for rather than these ten maidens (II Cor 11:2, Rev 19:7, 21:9)? It may be worth noting here that the RSV has a marginal comment that some manuscripts add the words for ‘and the bride’ after ‘the bridegroom’ of Mtw 25:1. Although this is normally considered to be an addition by a copyist at a later date, it would represent the probable event based on Jewish custom (see below).
Therefore, we should interpret the story as being truly parabolic and not consider it allegorical, it being told primarily to demonstrate to the disciples the need for constant readiness. But it does appear to be a truth from the parable that not all who are expecting Him to return will be ready - and, even though none of the ten virgins seem to have anticipated the bridegroom being so long, five were ready no matter what hour of the day he came. Matfran, then, summarises the parable as one which teaches
and this is about the sum total of what we can say. The parallel in Matthew chapter 24 is of the householder who would have stayed awake throughout the night had he known that the thief was about to come at a certain time so that he’d be ready and prepared for him (Mtw 24:43) - with a baseball bat, no doubt.
The point isn’t that the thief needs repelling, though, it’s that the householder is certain to be ready for the approach. The contrast, however, is striking for, although the householder would have been prepared had he known the time, Jesus states that constant readiness is necessary for His followers because they don’t know the time (Mtw 24:44).
Paul, writing to the Thessalonians pointed out that, although constant readiness was necessary, they wouldn’t be caught unprepared (I Thess 5:1-5). This readiness is paralleled here by being ‘in the light’ (I Thess 1:4-5) and Paul urges his readers to make sure that they don’t fall asleep but remain vigilant in their walk with Jesus (I Thess 5:6-10).
Readiness, therefore, is best defined as being a state of living before God that’s pleasing to Him. Mtw 24:45-51 will go on to consider the viewpoint of a servant who begins to misuse and abuse his authority over his fellow servants because he perceives that his master is delayed - even though we’ll note that, when paralleled with the second of the three parables (Mtw 25:14-30), it would cause us to think more about continued service, the natural state of the servant is a lifestyle which is opposed to the will of the absent master.
To be in that state when the Son of man returns, then, is to be without hope - but the Thessalonians aren’t in that state and so the return of Jesus won’t catch them by surprise and find them wanting. Even though the world will be continuing living from day to day as it always has done (Mtw 24:37-39), it will be shown to be unprepared for the return of the Son of man and, no matter where the believer is, they’ll be taken (Mtw 24:40-41) - it isn’t geographical location that determines the upward call of the Son of man but the spiritual nearness to the will of the Father.
A positive identification with the marriage ceremonies of the Jews is by no means easy to be certain about, even though it’s expected that some such custom must have lain behind it. Mattask describes marriage in three stages and his simple explanation should be sufficient for us to grasp the importance of the parable.
The engagement (as he calls it) would normally first take place between the respective heads of the two families which were getting married - whether the prospective husband and wife would have both ‘fallen in love’ and the man would then have sought to take the woman as his wife is more likely to have been a rare occurrence in first century Israel, but the story of such a happening in the Book of Ruth is testimony to such a possibility. The man may have seen a woman which he desired and put in his request to his parents but, even so, it would appear that the mother and father weren’t obliged to blindly follow their son’s guidance (Judges 14:2-3).
Then came the betrothal (which I’ve dealt with in the case of Joseph and Mary here). It would have been as legally binding as our present day marriage - or perhaps we should say that it was more binding seeing as the legalities of divorce have been made much easier in today’s society so that what was once for life is now normally only expected to be for a time despite what the vows might confess.
Although no sexual intercourse was to take place during the time of the betrothal (a time period put at a year by Mattask), there was an obligation by both sides that the final act of marriage would take place at a future date. Therefore, when Mary was found to be pregnant (Mtw 1:18), a divorce was necessary rather than a simple annulment of the engagement.
Finally, the marriage took place. Mattask describes it as the time
‘...when the bridegroom accompanied by his friends went to fetch the bride from her father’s house and brought her back in procession to his own home where the marriage feast was held. It is most probable that it is this procession that the ten girls in the story are pictured as going to meet, though whether as official bridesmaids, servants of the bridegroom or children of friends and neighbours, we have no means of knowing’
The finality of the door being closed (Mtw 25:10) and the statement of the bridegroom that he didn’t know the five returning virgins (Mtw 25:11-12) seems implausible in the light of this being a picture of village and rural life, but the point isn’t whether it ties in perfectly with what the disciples would have known to have happened but that it illustrated a point which they must be careful to pick up on - namely, that they were to pay attention and to stay vigilant because they didn’t know either the exact day or hour at which He would return (Mtw 25:13).
Again, to conclude, let me just repeat that such a warning makes very little sense to His original hearers unless the return was anticipated -as Jesus said - within the lifetime of those present (Mtw 24:34). If it had been certain that Jesus would not be coming to set up a visible Kingdom over the nations of the earth, the disciples would have heard the admonition that they had to be faithful to the end of their lives rather than until the return.
Above all, constant preparation or readiness is what’s being enjoined upon the disciples and, not even for a moment, must they live with their own affairs uppermost in their minds. Rather, they’re to await eagerly the coming of the Son of man and be ready for that one unique moment when the call comes that He’s approaching.
The parable of the talents
Mtw 24:45-51, Mtw 25:14-30
This parable can be very easily shrouded in a fair degree of misunderstanding because the word ‘talent’ (Strongs Greek number 5007) means a natural or God-given ability in present day language but this meaning seems to be solely a result of this passage of Scripture, it’s literal translation being ‘something that’s weighed’.
Zondervan notes that the Babylonian talent weighed approximately 30kg (approximately 66lb) and was used occasionally in the OT (for instance, Ex 25:39) and that the Jewish records seem to indicate that there were 3,000 shekels to the weight. A talent weight discovered at Lagash weighed in at 133.5 pounds and confirmed that the talent must have been fairly well fixed as a large weight in ancient times.
Vines, however, notes that
‘In NT times, the talent was not a weight of silver but the Roman-Attic talent comprising 6,000 denarii or drachmas’
a statement which appears to be the same as the equation above regarding its weight in talents if converted to a monetary value. Although not easy to find amongst commentators, it appears that two (silver) shekels were equivalent one denarius so that both 3,000 shekels and 6,000 denarii should be considered to be the same. Although Vines’ statement appears at first glance to be saying something different as to its weight in NT times under the Romans, it actually confirms the OT standard.
It’s actually impossible to determine that monetary value of the talent in this story simply because it represents a weight and, as we don’t know what substance the weight was made from (though the talent appears to have been used commonly for metals), even a approximate assessment is impossible - Matcar speaks of the talent as only being made up of either gold, silver or copper but, as the talent was specifically a weight, it may have been employed to measure other dense substances for which there is now no written evidence.
The likelihood, though, would be that silver is meant simply because this appears to be the more usual metal used for coinage such as the shekel. But, in Mtw 24:18, where the RSV has rendered ‘one talent’ a different Greek word is used (Strongs Greek number 694) which can denote either general money or the more specific ‘silver’ and this would cause us to infer that the latter was the metal which was meant.
If this is the case (and the point is by no means conclusive), the talent in this parable represented a sum of about 15 years wages for a labourer - a vast sum made larger by the figures of ‘five’ and ‘two’ which are given to the first servants in the parable. Whatever the precise figures, it’s best to simply note that the sums being dealt with here are huge.
Therefore, the ‘talent’ has to be interpreted, firstly, as a weight and, secondly, as an amount of money based upon that weight. If the word ‘talent’ is allowed to be interpreted as meaning an ‘ability’ or ‘gift’, it makes nonsense of Mtw 25:15 where, by a substitution of the word ‘talent’ for ‘ability’, we’d get the statement that the master gave one servant (my italics)
‘...five abilities [RSV ‘talents’], to another two [abilities], to another one [ability], to each according to his ability’
It would make the verse say that each one received abilities because of his ability. Even if the word ‘talent’ is replaced by the phrase ‘spiritual gift’, it seems strange that the word ability is employed for, with spiritual gifts, the ability is given by God Himself rather than lying in the natural capacity of the individual to whom the gift comes (I Cor 4:7). I may be a little unkind in my literal interpretation of this verse simply because it’s unlikely that the story is supposed to be treated as allegorical throughout, but it certainly would appear that commentators have followed such an interpretation more because the modern meaning of the translated word infers ‘ability’ rather than that the passage demands such a comment.
We must, therefore, take the word to mean simply a weight of whatever substance is relevant to the parable (a substance which is probably silver) and then, by conversion, a monetary value - rather than to see in its use the meaning of ‘gift’ or ‘ability’.
The danger of taking the ‘talent’ to be representative of a God-given or natural ability is not immediately apparent and there are many who would see a common sense approach by Mattask (and by many others) when he writes that
‘...the disciples must make continuous, practical use by the effort of their wills of those gifts of the Spirit with which they are endowed, whether they be the more conspicuous gifts which vary with different individuals or the gifts [sic] of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness and faith called by Paul “the fruit of the Spirit” and granted in some degree to every christian’
Mattask is here allegorising the talent and applying it to many other NT passages where believers are urged to use the gifts with which they’ve been entrusted. It’s therefore seen not to be against other Scripture, but the main problem with such an interpretation is what it prompts the reader to ultimately interpret Jesus to be saying as He concludes the story.
For, when the master returns - which is surely to be taken as indicative of the return of the Son of man as both the first and third parables are concerned with - the spiritual gift is actually taken from the one who’s done nothing with it and given to another. But what use are spiritual gifts at that point in time when the Son of man returns to set up the visible Kingdom?
Whether it be a gift of the Spirit such as prophecy or a part of the fruit of the Spirit such as love, it causes the meaning to become absurd, for the gifting - in this interpretation - is given to another who would probably find no use for it in the come Kingdom of Heaven.
And, additionally, how is it possible that a believer might double His gifting by His use, only to hand them back over to Jesus upon His return? What sort of gifting, therefore, would this interpretation of the ‘talent’ actually mean? And, earlier in the parable, we read of the servant with one talent who (Mtw 25:18)
‘...went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money’
a strange state of affairs if we’re looking at ‘gifting’ for the allegorical method would yield the meaning that a person with a gift from God or a natural ability is fearful that, by using it, he’d lose it. A wholly unacceptable interpretation, I believe.
Matmor, however, is more vague in His interpretation when he writes that
‘Anyone who has a talent (using the word in the modern sense) of any kind and fails to use it, by that very fact forfeits it. By contrast, anyone who has a talent and uses it to the full finds that that talent develops and grows’
so that the ‘gift’ remains undefined and applicable to just about anything one would like it to refer to. This is, perhaps, a preferable interpretation because of its vagueness (so long as it isn’t being applied to earthly loss but that which occurs upon the Son of man’s return) but it fails to answer the problem why the talent should be allegorised in the first part of the story but ignored in its application in the latter when it yields an unusual meaning.
In my opinion, the mention of the ‘talent’ is not correctly identified with our present day meaning of the word as ‘gift’ or ‘ability’ and it’s better understood as being explained by the previous illustration Jesus has just given in Mtw 24:45-51. The harmony of these two passages isn’t immediately apparent and it can’t be presumed solely on the basis of the last verse of both passages which are almost identical (Mtw 24:51, 25:30) but more on the impossibility of obtaining a fully complete interpretation by the allegorisation of the talent.
Therefore, I would suggest that the meaning of the parable of the talents is almost identical in meaning to the story of the wicked servant.
Namely, that the work or responsibility which has been entrusted to the servants in both cases must be continued until the Son of man returns to take back under His control what was entrusted to them - stewardship in the work given to do is what’s primarily in mind rather than the correct use of spiritual gifts (though this may, of course, be included in the meaning).
In this manner, what’s handed over to another is responsibility or work and neither a spiritual nor a natural gifting. Matfran sees the talent as being indicative of
‘...the specific privileges and opportunities of the Kingdom of Heaven...It is the master who allocates the scale of responsibility; the slave’s duty is merely to carry out faithfully the role entrusted to him’
But accepting that the talent means nothing like our modern day meaning of the word, it leads us on to see that neither the increase of the talent nor the talent itself is probably meant to be allegorised but is only an item within the parable which is there as an incidental to the main meaning. Neither need the handing back of the weight of money have to be understood as symbolising anything with which the story is concluded - or even the statement recorded by Jesus that the servant with the one talent could at least have entrusted the talent to the bankers who would have given him interest on the money (something which is very difficult to interpret n the context of the parable’s traditional interpretation of meaning a gifting - what are the bankers then meant to represent? The allegorising of the parable should therefore plainly be seen to be incorrect and a more whole interpretation which brings out only one or two different teachings).
Rather, the parable’s only primary meaning is to convey the importance of continuing on in the responsibility and work that’s been committed into the servants’ hands (paralleled by the disciples who were listening to Jesus teach them) when He departs for a while before His return to set up the Kingdom on earth. Matfran sees the parable as answering the question as to what ‘readiness’ is and which was left unanswered in the previous parable of the virgins. He notes that
‘It is not passively waiting but of responsible activity, producing results which the coming master can see and approve’
and, if we look earlier in the parable, we read there that the two servants prospered in what had been entrusted to them and were given jurisdiction over more than they had originally been given (Mtw 25:21,23). This is a better general interpretation of the entire scene which appears to be what Jesus is intending to convey rather than to narrow the main thrust of His intention to a more modern interpretation of the ‘talent’.
Again, as in the parable of the virgins, the parable only makes initial sense if the disciples were expecting the return of Jesus in their own lifetime and the parable was to serve them as a warning to continue to be faithful even through a long delay (Mtw 25:19). In this case, they were being urged to be faithful to the work to which Jesus had already called them (Mtw 10:1ff) and to which He was about to call them (Mtw 28:18-20), a ministry which was simply an extension and expansion upon the earlier one.
The statement of Mtw 25:29 is repeated from its first occurrence in Mtw 13:12 but it’s used here in a wholly different manner. In the first occurrence, Jesus used it to teach the disciples that knowledge of the spiritual matters of the Kingdom of Heaven gave an increase to the possessor so that they were able to understand still more - that is, the parables which to some were mere stories that withheld truth became, to them, stories which revealed it.
In this way, truth led to truth and understanding to understanding, and a disciple’s life was seen to be a progressive move from one degree of perception to another. Mattask believes that the recurrence of the phrase is an addition to the original ending of the parable and that it’s been inserted between the surrounding two verses, but there appears to be no manuscript evidence for this and one would have to assume in his scenario that the parable was expanded as it was related within the first century Church before it was finally committed to writing.
But the phrase is on the lips of the master who’s just returned and would parallel what must necessarily have taken place at the conclusion of the earlier illustration (Mtw 24:45-51) where the authority and responsibility that the wicked servant had would have been necessarily given over to another who would be expected to exercise it properly while the transgressor was treated as his deeds required - and this at the return of the master, the coming of the Son of man, and not in the present here and now.
Ultimate retribution, therefore, is seen to be reserved for the final day rather than as a necessary and inevitable outworking on earth before death. Wrongs won’t necessarily be righted in our own lifetimes but, eventually, justice will be seen to be achieved.
Faithfulness while the master is delayed, then, translates into increased responsibility when the master returns (Mtw 25:21), but a lack of commitment to perform what the master requires ends, ultimately, in the loss of whatever was initially given freely (Mtw 25:29).
The entire parable only has application to the coming Kingdom upon Jesus’ return and an application to the here and now where repayment is made before the Kingdom is visibly established is doubtful. While this may take place, repayment doesn’t necessarily happen in the present and it’s certainly not being taught in the parable.
In the above notes - as well as on the previous web page - I’ve used Mtw 24:36-51 in the places where it’s supported and illuminated the subjects I’ve been dealing with without giving it a specific place of its own where one might go to for an interpretation. This has been deliberate because, as I said at the very outset, the passage has suffered from individual interpretations of sections rather than for the entire body of text to be interpreted as a whole and be allowed to state what it has to say to us as one complete and indivisible unit.
There are a couple of verses, however, which have largely gone uncommented on and, though there’s not too much that can be said about them, they still need to be understood correctly.
We begin with Mtw 24:37-39 which reads
‘As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man’
In my first years as a christian, I remember hearing of some believer out in the US (where else?) who’d taken the first verse of the three as a prophetic word for him and who was, even then, beginning to build a lifesize Noah’s ark out where he lived as a witness to the people who passed by. Whether he actually had a word from God to do such a thing or not is not important to these notes but we should realise that the verse is explained by the following couple of sentences which note that the similarity will be that the world will be simply going about its business before the end, totally oblivious to the sudden return of Jesus to earth.
It would be easy to read too much into this but there seems to be an inference that the Gospel of the Kingdom - although being actively proclaimed throughout the world (Mtw 24:14) - has not had an affect of fixing in people’s minds the imminency of Jesus’ return, for there’s no apparent thought that what would condemn their own lives could or would occur in their own lifetime.
Rather, they go about their daily lives just as they’ve always done. Even though we talk about the ‘Great Tribulation’ and of trials coming upon the earth shortly before the end of the age, we should also note that, to a very large extent, human life will go on as normal until the time when the Son of man returns. There will, then, be only two types of people - those who are prepared for the return and those who aren’t.
The story about the householder who would have waited for the thief had he known when he was breaking into his house (Mtw 24:43-44) and of the unrighteous servant (Mtw 24:45-51) are both illustrations of this point - that most of the world will be living from day to day and will be unprepared for the return of Jesus to the earth. As the parable of the virgins will go on to point out, however, the disciples of Christ are to live both in a state of constant readiness but also with the attitude that the return might be delayed (Mtw 25:1-13) and it may be significant that both sets of virgins fall asleep and are only aware of the bridegroom’s arrival as it takes place. This would be an indication not that they were both spiritually asleep but they were both not expecting the return at the time it occurred.
Secondly, Mtw 24:40-41 informs the reader immediately after the previous text that
‘Then [at that time] two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left’
This ‘taking’ appears to be what’s envisaged by the statement in Mtw 24:31 that, upon Jesus’ return, the angels will be sent out to gather His own people from out of the earth and also echoed in previous parables in Mtw 13:41,49. In this case, then, even believers are continuing in their normal everyday lives at the time when Jesus will reappear to visibly establish the Kingdom and such passages have led many to suppose that there must be a ‘two-part’ second coming when Jesus returns for His own (a secretive appearance at which time he isn’t actually seen - commonly referred to as ‘the rapture’), after which the events of the tribulation take place before a final return when the age is brought to a close.
Although this is clearly denied by other, more obvious, Scriptures in the NT (it would take a very long article to deal adequately with this subject which I don’t intend adding here - besides, we weren’t told to argue about Jesus’ reappearing but to simply be prepared for it constantly!), it’s certainly not impossible that, even though ‘trouble’ falls upon the earth, men and women still need to go about their daily business to make ends meet. In this case, our own perception of the final ‘trouble’ is overemphasised at the expense of the belief in some sort of normal life being able to be carried on.
All that Jesus appears to be implying from His statement here is that life will continue on as normal and that selection won’t be on the basis of geographical location but upon the state of readiness of each individual as further expanded upon in the subsequent illustrations and parables.
Readiness is not sitting constantly in prayer with one’s eyes heavenward waiting for the reappearing but, rather, going about one’s business and at the same time being prepared for His return. Although, if persecution is to be the universal lot of the believer at the end (Mtw 24:9-14), there will also certainly be a more central desire in the hearts of the Church for that return.
Even though the signs will be seen and His return anticipated as being imminent, the suddenness and unpredictability of His return is still taught alongside.
Finally, Mtw 24:51 (paralleled in Mtw 25:30) speaks of the wicked servant’s ultimate destination as being a place where
‘...men will weep and gnash their teeth’
I’ve dealt with this phrase in two separate parts in my notes on ‘Eternal Habitations’ where, although the first phrase can be rightly taken to denote sorrow, I noted that the latter phrase has been usually misunderstood by believers as indicating a reaction to the pain of punishment even though the OT is universal in its usage of the term as meaning ‘a demonstration of anger’.
This has ramifications for an interpretation of whether the final punishment is purely momentary or everlasting and I’ve dealt with this on the previously cited web page. All that we need to note here is that the wicked servant’s reaction to the master’s return isn’t
‘Alright, guv, I’ll come clean’
but more in keeping with
‘How dare the master do such a thing!’
and demonstrates the heart of the servant towards the master even before he returns. It isn’t just that the servant has made some mistake in his decisions on behalf of the absentee master but that his life is already set against doing his will that condemnation is reaped when he returns. This would also seem to be necessarily attributable to the servant who hid the talent he was given in the ground.
The parable of the sheep and goats
This parable catapults the listener (and, therefore, the reader) to a time when the Son of man has already returned and so is beyond the scope of the original questions which were posed by the disciples (Mtw 24:3). Jesus states plainly at the outset of this parable (Mtw 25:31) that
‘When the Son of man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne’
and the implication is that what is being envisaged here is something which will take place immediately upon His return.
Although we may spin out the statement to project it a great deal passed the return date, the words don’t seem to be able to be taken this way, what follows appearing to be paralleled in the OT by Joel 3:11-12 where the prophet recorded YHWH’s words as
‘Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O Lord. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat [the reader should note that the modern day title of the valley of Kidron as being the valley of Jehoshaphat is not necessarily what it was called when the original prophecy was given even though it would appear to be the same general area]; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about’
for Jesus goes on to comment (Mtw 25:32) that
‘Before [the Son of man] will be gathered all the nations...’
Unfortunately, we may be reading too much into the OT parallel but the indication would be that such a judgment of the nations is to occur at the end of the age when Jesus is to return and that, presumably, as in the prophecy of Joel, such a judgment will occur at the time when Jerusalem is laid waste (Joel 3:9-21, Mtw 24:15-31) or, at the very least, severely oppressed. The prophet Zechariah also spoke of a similar event in Zech 14:1-9 and, although I’m repeating myself, the indication appears to be that these are but different views of one and the same event, Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives being the pivotal focus of where Jesus will return (Acts 1:6-12).
Even by this shortest of considerations, it seems fair to group these passages together and see them as being fulfilled in one and the same event. Even though the Church was to be successfully declaring the Gospel to the nations (Mtw 24:14) and this sign would be an indication that the end could come, the actual return of the Son of man wouldn’t be to some ecclesiastical head of the earthly Church but as Sovereign come as warrior to fight against those armies which had overcome or who were oppressing the city of Jerusalem.
That appears to me (and perhaps only me?) to be the setting for this parable. But, even though we might be content with this backdrop, it doesn’t help us in our interpretation. Indeed, more than any of the other two parables here recorded in Matthew chapter 25, this appears to cry out for a purely parabolic and not allegoric interpretation for, if we did the latter, there would be questions which would force us, I believe, to contradict passages elsewhere.
For instance, what is the commentator supposed to take as ‘the nations’? Is the phrase meant to be taken as individual people (‘nations’ being synonymous in meaning to the entire world or everybody left on planet earth), groups of people formed together in specific areas (for instance, the English as one such group or the English-born) or even all of mankind who have existed throughout world history (presuming that the resurrection of the dead is to take place immediately upon Jesus’ return - Mtw 24:31)? And are these to be judged as individuals or as groups and nations?
Again, who are meant by the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’ (a description drawn directly from agricultural life where it was necessary to make a distinction for one needed more warmth than the other)? Is it the ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ respectively, or merely people who have looked after Christ’s followers and those who have not? This is an extremely important point if we insist on an allegorical method of interpretation because Jesus’ summary (Mtw 25:41,46) refers to what seems to be only able to be taken as a description of both Heaven (eternal life) and Hell (eternal punishment).
And, if they are the ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’, why are the ‘saved’ surprised to be saved (Mtw 25:37-39) and who can possibly be meant by Jesus’ brothers if not the brothers of the ‘saved’ sheep (Mtw 25:40)? Even if that last point can be resolved, it would still cause the commentator to have to see salvation being dependent upon a correct response to a person who believes in Jesus rather than as a result of a correct freewill response to the person and work of Jesus Christ - an incredibly hard doctrine to accept when compared alongside the plain statements of the NT elsewhere, for example, in the letters of Paul.
And what judgment is this? Is this different from the ‘judgment of believers’ (that is, I Cor 3:10-15) and the ‘judgment of unbelievers’ (Rev 20:11-15) which are portrayed in the NT as occurring at separate times - or have both been run together as a parable, the contents of which are used to teach a principle and are not to be taken literally?
Therefore, we shouldn’t take the interpretation of this parable as obviously allegorical and rush into it by symbolising just about every major character and piece of information in it because it will cause the reader to yield some very strange teaching which clearly cuts across other places in Scripture where the end judgment is spoken about in clearer (if that’s possible) language. Mattask comments at the outset that
‘...this is not a parable in the conventional sense’
but it clearly is. Matcar also states that it’s no parable only to go on to prove his point by saying that only four specific characters or events are identifiable - this, however, would mean that it shouldn’t be taken as an allegory not that it isn’t parabolic.
The problem is that we often take parables to convey more meaning than they were originally intended to mean and, therefore, stand the risk of overinterpretation and, even worse, misinterpretation. This is a parable in the normal sense of the word, then, and we should allow ourselves to be restricted in our interpretation of it.
The best way to interpret the passage, then, is parabolically and not to insist on too much meaning having to be gleaned from it. It seems fair to take the passage as a word from Jesus in emphasising the certainty of eternal life or punishment and that it was never His intention that it be taken literally.
The ‘nations’, then, should be taken as all those who have lived throughout history even though they are to be judged individually as other passages make plain; the ‘sheep’ refer to the ‘saved’ and the ‘goats’ to the ‘unsaved’ and the reaction to ‘the least of these My brethren’ is to be taken to be an individual’s response to Christ in whatever form He comes to them whether that be as an appeal of God through the message of the Gospel or as, literally, a needy believer who’s rejected on the basis of being just that (Mattask sees it as service to their fellow man but he appears to have widened its application to include social work as well as work directed towards Jesus’ disciples. Matmor, on the other hand, talks about service which springs from ‘salvation by faith’ and so sees the action of the sheep and goats only as secondary to a relationship with God through Jesus and says that ‘The works we do are the evidence either of the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace’); the judgment of believers and unbelievers is fused together in parabolic form and is not to be taken to infer that a literal scene as described here will take place when the Son of man returns.
Beyond these brief observations, I don’t want to go. I think it best we under-interpret this parable rather than to beat it about with our own interpretative structures so as to yield widely conflicting doctrines. Perhaps Mattask’s comment that the passage is a
is the best for there are many details which we would best let lie for the one overwhelming truth of the passage - namely that judgment will fall upon the world when Jesus, the Son of man, returns.
GO TO MATTHEW PAGE