Forum Class for January 2, 2004
Notes from Ray Stedman.
THE WISE AND THE FOOLISH: Matthew 25:1-13
The Second Parable: Weddings never go out of style. They are as old fashioned as the race and as modern as today's newspaper. There is something fresh and beautiful about each one for we never seem to get over the excitement of watching two lives become one. At most weddings a lot of fuss is made over the bride and groom, but no one pays much attention to the attendants. Not so with Jesus. He chooses to use a wedding scene as a parable, to illustrate further what he means by the command, "Watch!" He doesn't even mention the bride and only incidentally the bridegroom. His attention is focused on ten young ladies who were invited to the marriage.
Do not pay any attention to the chapter division which occurs at this point in the biblical text. It is the unexpectedness of his return for the church, and of the need to keep watching for it. This is made evident by his use of "Then" to introduce the parable of the ten maidens. "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens," etc. It is at the time of his coming as a thief in the night before the Great Tribulation, when he shall appear on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know. And when he finishes the story of the ten maidens the Lord adds again, "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Let us now join him as he relates this story to the disciples on the Mount of Olives.
"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps" (Matthew 25:1-7).
That is not the whole story but it is enough of it to serve as an introduction. The background is an eastern wedding in which the bridegroom, rather than the bride, is the center of attention. In Oriental weddings it is the bridegroom who bears all the expense of the wedding (which seems a bit fairer than our system where the poor father of the bride has to foot the bill for giving up his daughter to another man!) and thus has the prime spot. Weddings were always held at night and it was customary for the bridegroom to go to the house of the bride and take her to the wedding. As they walked through the streets they would be joined by guests at various places along the route. Our Lord's story of the ten maidens is the story of such a group, waiting for the bridegroom.
There are five movements in this story as the Lord tells it. Let us remember that it was intended for those who live in the intervening time between our Lord's first coming and his second. It will be of value to us only as we permit it to be autobiographical, if we recognize ourselves somewhere in the story. It is clearly intended to describe an element of watching that is vital and essential. If we miss the point of it we shall be unable to watch for his coming as he desires.
A Common Expectation: The first movement of the story is one of a common expectation. Here is a body of people who are waiting for someone. Life seems to be made up of a great deal of waiting. When we are little we wait to get out on our own. When we are in college we wait to get married. When we get married we wait for children, and so it goes. One of the characteristics of life which make it worth living is this note of waiting. There must be something beyond, something worth waiting for. Otherwise life can become terribly colorless and purposeless.
These maidens were waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. In terms of the Lord's ultimate message, they were waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ. These maidens represent, therefore, those who are convinced that the end of the age will come just as Jesus describes it. They are not deluded by highly colored dreams of an earthly utopia which will be brought about by man's wisdom and skill. They believe in a golden age, but they do not believe that age will ever come by the efforts of men. They are persuaded that only the return of Jesus Christ can accomplish that end, and they are hopeful that his coming will be very soon.
Surely at this point in our study of the Olivet Discourse, most of the readers of this book will represent such a group. We have been listening to the words of God's greatest Prophet. We have heard what he predicts and understood the pattern that he says will prevail as the age draws to a close. We are convinced that history will end at the feet of this One who will come flaming in glory from the heavens to astonish a deluded world. We are, therefore, sharers with these ten maidens in a common expectation of the coming of the Bridegroom.
Wise and Foolish: But the second movement of this parable is one of division, of a divided procedure:
"Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps."
Though this group is united in its expectation it is quite divided in the way it conducts its waiting. Five maidens have brought along extra oil, and five have not. This does not represent a division between good and bad, but, as Jesus says, between the wise and the foolish. Someone has said there are only two kinds of people in this world: the righteous and the unrighteous; but the classifying is always done by the righteous! That is all too humanly true. But here there is no moral division intended. In their expectation of the coming bridegroom they are all equally sincere and devoted. The only difference is, five of them felt it would be wise to provide some extra oil.
This proves ultimately to be the most significant part of this story. Yet, to the five foolish maidens, it represented only a trivial difference which was as nothing compared with the fact that they were united in waiting for the bridegroom's coming. They were all agreed on the importance of oil and were all using it for its proper purpose-the giving of light. The only slight difference was that some felt more was needed than others.
What the oil represents we shall see in a moment, but it is certainly evident that the wise and the foolish are still with us. Despite our agreement in desiring the bridegroom to come, and our conviction that history will end as Jesus describes it, nevertheless, there are doubtless some reading this who will prove in the end to be wise, and others will be revealed to be foolish, lacking the essential for waiting till the Lord returns. If this parable has any message at all for us, it is that we determine what that essential is.
Seemingly all would have gone well for the whole ten if the bridegroom had come when expected. But the third movement of the story introduces an element of delay:
"As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'"
No explanation is given for what delayed the bridegroom. This seems to be another hint from the Lord that his absence would be long extended, as has certainly proved to be the case. It was this protracted delay of the bridegroom which constituted an unexpected demand on the part of the ten maidens for more oil. At any rate, the story describes how all ten grew weary of waiting and fell fast asleep.
There are many interpreters who view this as suggesting negligence on the part of the maidens. But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval suggested by the Lord for this sleeping. And the wise slept as well as the foolish! It was, therefore, a perfectly natural and right thing to do, under the circumstances. It was night and therefore it was impossible to do any work. It was also a festive occasion, and their only purpose for being there was to wait for the bridegroom. So when his coming was delayed they grew drowsy and it was only natural that they would drop off to sleep .
But this is highly suggestive, for it indicates the awareness of Jesus that watching does not mean unceasing, conscious anticipation of his return. We are not to be continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Nor are we to be forever meeting and singing, "Is It The Crowning Day?" or discussing the Lord's return. Such meetings are helpful and needed, because of the human tendency to forget, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, investments looked into, food must be cooked, babies washed, school lessons studied, weddings held and funerals attended-all the usual activities of life must go on.
While these wise and foolish maidens were sleeping, their thoughts were diverted, for the time being from the coming of the bridegroom. Thus, while we are engaged in the normal activities of life, there is no need to feel guilty because we have not been thinking of the Lord's return. There is nothing at all wrong about this, it is as it should be. We have not failed to watch because we have been busy doing natural and necessary things. These maidens were waiting for the bridegroom's coming, even while they slept. There was a sense of imminence when they went out, yet a perfectly proper activity took their attention for a time.
Here Comes the Bridegroom: But suddenly there is a cry of warning, "Behold! the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." It may well be that the ten had even posted a sentry to warn them when the bridegroom came, or it may be that the bridegroom was proceeded by someone sent for that purpose. At any rate the cry is sounded and all ten of the maidens are awakened. Again it is clearly evident that the problem which would soon confront them did not arise out of the fact that they had fallen asleep. They are awake in plenty of time to meet the bridegroom.
Many times we are, like these, called back to an awareness of the Lord's imminent return by events of the day, or some realization that time is short. We are often made aware that the grind and routine of life was never intended to go on that way forever. And certainly one day the awakening will come not through events but the actual cry, it may be, of the returning Lord himself. Paul tells us that when he comes for the church it will be with a shout, and that shout may be these electrifying words, "Behold, the Bridegroom!"
Inadequate Resources: The fourth movement of the story brings a crisis. In it is revealed the wisdom of the wise and the foolishness of the foolish:
"Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.'"
To the consternation of the foolish, they find their lamps are flickering, guttering, about to go out. The long delay has used up the oil and they have no more. They make their appeal to the wise: "Give us some of your oil." The reply of the wise indicates that oil is not something that can be borrowed or loaned. Whatever it may represent, it is an individual matter. We have all felt something of this in some crisis hour when we have found our resources unequal to the demand. We see someone else who is going through the same thing, and he appears unmoved and calm, well able to take the pressure. We may long to borrow some of his strength, but it is impossible. In such an hour each has what he has and nothing more.
So it is with these five foolish maidens. Their oil is gone and to their dismay they discover their need and there is a panicky rush to get more. But our Lord moves right on into the story, and the final movement is one of denial:
"And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
When the foolish finally arrived, the door was shut. Are we not surprised at that? Many will probably feel that these five were unjustly treated. Why should they not be allowed into the wedding, even if they were a few moments late? But there is no vindictiveness in this shut door. We must be careful that we do not impose our faulty judgments into this matter. What the Lord did was right, and we must be careful to look diligently for those clues that will help us learn why he takes such action as this. There is even a note of sorrow in these words, "I do not know you." Our Lord's words are a faithful, honest revelation of something that had been true all along. Weddings are no place for strangers. Only the friends of the family are permitted to come. So to these five foolish maidens the door is shut for the Lord says, "Truly, I say to you, I do not know you."
The Meaning of Oil: With these revealing words from the Lord we can now discover what the oil signifies. Obviously, it was the lack of an adequate supply of oil which caused these foolish maidens to be met with the words, "I do not know you." They did, of course, have some oil when they began but it was not enough. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecrated (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled) lives. Zechariah, the prophet, was shown a vision of a great golden lampstand with two olive trees standing beside it. The trees dripped oil into the bowls of the lampstand, and Zechariah was told: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). The oil symbolized the Spirit of God by which the light of testimony could be maintained in the hour of darkness.
Some ministry of the Spirit is then in view. The supreme ministry of the Spirit is to impart to men the knowledge of Jesus Christ. In John 16:13,14, Jesus said of him: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his authority, but...will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
The Spirit's task then is to take the Word of God, and through it reveal Jesus Christ. But there are levels of such revelation. There is even a Spirit-born ministry of the word to those who are not true Christians. Jesus revealed this too. "When he comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment" (John 16:8). Here is a ministry of the Holy Spirit available to anyone who will seek in the Scriptures to know the truth. But it is designed to take them deeper, into a fuller and permanent relationship that will involve the imparting of divine life.
Halfway is Not Enough: The great danger is that in exposure to the truth of Scripture, in the knowledge of its teaching, we should become satisfied with an intellectual portrait of Christ instead of a living Lord. It is possible to know much doctrine but never to know the Lord. This is the problem with the foolish maidens, who represent those who gladly take enough of the oil of the Spirit to give them immediate help in their problems, or some release from fear or guilt, but who never go on to a surrender of the will to the authority of Jesus Christ.
The foolish, then, are those who reckon no deeper than a superficial knowledge of scriptural truth. They look for moral enlightenment or for comfort in some hour of uncertainty and doubt. They read to gain reassurance when life seems to be a senseless tangle of threads without apparent purpose. They believe in the Bible but not in the Lord of the Bible. But faith must go deeper than doctrine. Orthodox knowledge is worthless unless it leads to the surrender of self. God freely lights a lamp of knowledge for all who want to know the truth of revelation, but what Jesus indicates here is that there is a deeper level of commitment to the Spirit which is essential to meet the unexpected demands life will thrust at us.
The wise have found that deeper level. They have an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, undergirding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life. They have found a friend who sticks closer than a brother. They have a hidden supply of the mystic oil that lights the flame of life despite the circumstances, and the greater the pressure the brighter the light shines.
Perhaps a personal experience will illustrate this. I called on man in the hospital once, a Christian of many years' standing. I found him unable to talk, sitting up in bed, his body wasted away to a skeleton. He was unable to move a muscle, even to lift his arms or turn his head. The best he could do in the way of talking was to utter a few guttural sounds. I asked him if he would like me to read the Scripture to him and he nodded his head. As I read, I watched his eyes. As the marvelous words from passages in Isaiah began to sink into his ears, there came a flame into his eyes, a light such as never shone on land or sea. Before we finished, I could see in that emaciated body the glory of a flame burning, unquenchable, inexhaustible, fed by the oil of the Spirit, a flame that could never be put out.
Renounce or Risk! Perhaps you are saying, "I'll get along as long as I have my friends and my church." But what if they are taken away? What if you are shipped out to some remote post somewhere, surrounded by 20th century pagans who have committed themselves to seek nothing but the satisfaction of their immediate lusts? What will happen to you then? What if you are transferred to another city and you cannot find a church that ministers to your needs? What if you are confined to bed with a long-term illness, and you must lie there day after unyielding day with little opportunity to speak with others about the things of faith? Or, what is even more likely, what if imperceptibly, despite the eagerness you show now and the earnestness with which you read Scripture or go to church, you begin to drift and gradually are drawn back into the great cold indifference of the deluded masses?
If something like that happens it will do no good to say to another, "Give me of your oil." That cannot be done. Every impartation of the Spirit's power to an individual is marked "Nontransferable." He cannot share it with anyone else. It has been said that there are only two ways to take a thing seriously: either to renounce it or to risk everything upon it. Is this not what Jesus meant when he said, "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25)?
There are some who want a third choice, who are continually seeking to make a partial commitment, who try to find a compromise arrangement with God in which they may subscribe to the truth of Scripture but refuse to let it change their activities or their attitudes. That third alternative simply does not exist. That is what Jesus is saying here. That is why he says plainly to the foolish maidens, "Truly, I say to you, I do not know you." The end shows them for what they are. The door is shut, both to the unbeliever who never tried to get in and to the foolish person who never took God seriously.
LIVING DANGEROUSLY: Matthew 25:14-30
Parables can be as exciting and challenging as detective stories. Even more so, for in the end they turn out to be dealing with real life, while detective stories can be pretty far-fetched. But parables, like detective stories, are filled with half-hidden truths and secret meanings and yet with clues to these secrets scattered liberally throughout. Parables are God's exciting way of challenging us to a mystery hunt, and the treasure we are after is a new insight into the nature of life which will enrich us in a thousand ways if we act upon it once it is discovered.
The Third Parable: The parable of the talents is the last in a series of three which Jesus gave his disciples to illustrate what he meant by the command, "Watch!" Its opening words link it to the same time period as the first two, and it reflects the same basic pattern of a master who goes away and leaves a certain company to fulfill a task till he returns. Here is the introduction to it from Matthew 25:14-18:
"For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money."
Interpreting the Parable: In many ways this is a deeply puzzling parable. The central question of course, is: What do the talents represent? There is a common, but quite shallow, understanding of this parable that it teaches the need for us to put our natural gifts to work for God. Someone says, "I play the piano and I would like to devote my talent to the Lord." Another says, "I think I have a gift for speaking (or teaching, or making money, etc.,) and I would like to develop that talent and devote it to Christ."
But when we think of the parable in this way we are being misled by the modern meaning of talent. To us the word means ability-a natural gift which we possess. But it definitely did not mean that in biblical times. The disciples thought of this word as a definite amount of money. The talent was a specific weight of silver, worth about a thousand dollars. Though it was a definite amount of money in the story the Lord told, yet it represents something other than money in our lives. We shall see in a moment why it cannot represent the natural gifts we possess. But the major question before us is: What has the Lord given to us to invest, which corresponds with the talents given to the servants in the parable?
Another easy pitfall we must avoid is to interpret this parable as though it dealt only with the matter of ultimate rewards for service. This concept often accompanies the idea that the talents represent natural gifts. We must use our natural gifts to the full for Christ, we are told, lest in the end we lose our reward, though of course, we will not lose our salvation. But salvation is the very thing that is at stake in this parable. It is the ultimate destiny of a professed servant of Christ which is the issue. The last line of the story makes that crystal clear. Of the man with one talent, the returned master says, "Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." The final scene therefore reveals that the worthless servant was not really a Christian at all. So it is apparent that the talents are not distributed only to true believers but are given to false and true alike, that is, any who in any sense recognize the authority of the Lord and who claim to be his servants. But what is done with the talents distributed is an exceedingly vital issue. The destiny of the individual hangs on the matter. It is a question of life or death.
Once again, we must treat this parable autobiographically. We must see that it is intended for us. In Mark's account of this same parable (Mark 13:32-37), the Lord says, "What I say to you [disciples] I say to all: Watch." The parable is addressed to any who have any interest or conviction that what Jesus describes as the outcome of history will actually take place. To each one the Lord has distributed one or more talents. We are either trading with it or burying it in the ground. As we read the parable we must face, in terrible loneliness, that central issue.
Now, having gotten our perspective straight, we turn to the inevitable question, "What are the talents, in our experience?" There are several clues given to us in the account which will guide us in this search. We shall discover and assess them one by one.
The first clue is found in the opening verse,"For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property." The last two words are the key: "his property." That is another term for the talents which are distributed. They are the Lord's property, God's property. They are then, not something which man can give, but something which God alone controls. The talents are not distributed, like natural gifts, to all men freely, but are given only to those who in some fashion have the relationship of a servant to the Lord. To them he is willing to distribute his property.
The second clue is found in the next verse,"to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability." Again, the last phrase is extremely helpful. Here we learn that the talents are clearly not natural abilities but are actually distributed on the basis of natural ability. To one man the Lord gave five talents because he was a man of great natural ability, he had many gifts. To another he gave two talents because he was not as gifted as the first, and to the third man he only gave one talent because he had few natural abilities. Whatever the talents may be, one thing is certainly clear: they are not natural abilities. Rather, the number of talents given is determined by the number of natural gifts possessed.
The third clue is not stated in the text but is clearly implied. It is the unspoken implication the the Lord expected these servants to invest the talents he distributed in such a way as to produce gain. The talent, then, is something that can be invested, be risked, with the possibility of producing gain or loss. The decision to risk is wholly the servant's. He can choose to take this risk, as the first two servants did, or he can utterly refuse to do so, as the third one did.
The fourth clue is likewise implied. It is that the investment must be made wholly for the benefit of the absent Lord. The talent is not given to the servant for his own use. It remains the property of his absent Lord and if it is risked it must be on the Lord's behalf. There is no promise made to the servants that they will share in any way in whatever profits may be made. They have no right to deduct a broker's percentage. As far as the servant could see, all the loss would be his, all the profit would be the Lord's. The Lord alone would benefit by this transaction, if any would.
The Riddle Solved: Let us now sum up these four clues and ask ourselves a question. What do we professed Christians have which is God's peculiar property, which comes to us on the basis of natural ability, which requires a risk on our part, and that risk appears to benefit only the Lord and not ourselves? Can you answer that?
Well, look at it this way. Having certain natural abilities, what do you then look for? Recognizing that you have a particular gift, what do you then seek? Is it not an opportunity to use that gift? Do we not all look for such opportunities, young and old alike? As we grow up and feel our powers developing, do we not then look for some opportunities to use them? And the more talents we feel we have the more we look for occasions for expression.
So the talents of the parables are to us golden moments of opportunity. Now let us test that to see if it fulfills the qualifications we have discovered and agrees with all the clues.
Is it not apparent at once that opportunities for the exercise of natural gifts are God's peculiar privilege to bestow or withhold? Who of us, remembering the struggle to express ourselves along some line of natural ability, has not realized that it was beyond our final control whether the opportunity came or not? Who is not aware of what we call the "lucky breaks" that life occasionally brings us? Or who has not been defeated and discouraged by what we call "bad breaks" when suddenly those opportunities we sought were removed from us? Who governs all this, ultimately? Can we not agree that they are something which God alone gives? They are his property. It is equally obvious that such opportunities come on the basis of how many natural gifts we possess. Every day we see examples of many-gifted people who seem to abound in opportunities to demonstrate what they can do. For those somewhat less gifted the opportunities seem to come less often. And we're all familiar with the Cinderella-type who may have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step into the limelight and display the hidden talent he or she may have. Thus we can see that the opportunities are given on the basis of natural gifts. So strongly do we sense this that we sometimes say it is the gift which creates the opportunity. But experience does not support that.
Making Investments: But it is the third and fourth qualifications which mark an opportunity as equivalent to the biblical talent. Opportunities to display gifts come to all kinds of people, Christian or not; but those opportunities which involve the possibility of gain to Christ come only to professed Christians. Such opportunities are moments of decision when we must choose to play it safe and get what we can for ourselves, or risk our reputation or even our life in order that God may have what he wants. They are hours of fateful decision when we cast the die of our lives for ultimate good or evil, though at the moment the only questions we may face is, "Will this give me what I want, or will it only make possible for Jesus Christ to do what he wants to do through me?"
These moments can occur when we are confronted with moral choices. "Should I yield to my passions to do this thing I know is wrong, and thus satisfy myself and my urging friends; or should I refuse it, be true to what God wants of me, and perhaps lose my friends and certainly the immediate satisfaction of my lusts?" "Should I accept this new promotion, involving as it does certain questionable business ethics; or should I pass up, for my conscience' sake, the possibility of some new furniture and a better car which the increase in salary would buy?"
Or perhaps there is no moral issue involved, but only the question of where our gifts are to be exercised. "Should I respond to this inner urge to invest my life as a social worker in a slum area for Christ's sake; or should I play it safe and continue my present plans to be a rich lawyer?" "Should I take the time to teach this home Bible class with its life-changing possibilities; or should I go on reserving each Tuesday night for bowling with my friends?" "Should I get involved with my neighbor's seemingly endless problems and try to help her find the strength from God that she needs; or should I forget it and use the time to read, and study, and pray?"
The God-given opportunities which the talents represent are clearly part of each professed Christian's life. They are distributed to each, according to his ability. But inevitably there will be an accounting. Jesus describes it for us in verses 19-21:
"Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.' His master said to him, '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.'"
This first man has gained a one hundred percent return. In terms of the application of this parable to our lives it means that he made full use of his opportunities, not for his own advancement but for his Lord's. He put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. He made each crucial decision about the investment of his natural ability, not ultimately to profit himself but that the work of Christ might be advanced. He risked the possibility of loss to himself. He took the chance that he might never have the place of prominence, influence or power which he had wanted, but deliberately invested his opportunity along a line that would give God what he wanted: to bind up the brokenhearted, comfort the fatherless, set at liberty the captives, and proclaim the gospel to the poor.
Christ's "Well Done!" To this man, whose God-given powers were all at Christ's disposal, not in an empty commitment of word only but in actual deed, Jesus says, "Well done, good and faithful servant." Obviously Jesus Christ would never say "well done" unless it had indeed been well done. This is not empty praise, made meaningless by being spoken to everyone alike, regardless of how well or poorly he has done. Then the Lord sets him over much, which in the estimation of Christ must be a great deal indeed, and adds, "Enter into the joy of your master."
What is that joy? In the book of Hebrews it is said of Jesus, "who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). It is the joy of accomplishment the joy of achieving the results for which blood, sweat, and tears have been shed; the shouting joy of having satisfied the heart of God. It is an eternal joy, not passing in a moment as do our times of exultation, but remaining fresh and glorious forever. Jesus continues the story of the final accounting:
"And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.' His master said to him, '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.'"
The man with two talents had gained two talents more. Is that fifty percent? No, that is one hundred percent, too. That means that to the limits of his ability he, too, had chosen to put Christ's cause first. He was not naturally as able as the other man but he was equally committed. He had risked loss to himself that his Lord's work might prosper. To him, therefore, the Lord 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." There is not one syllable of difference between what the Lord says to the man with two talents and what he said to the man with five!
Perhaps before we go on to view the accounting of the third man, it would be well to pause to answer a question that may be haunting many. What are the additional talents gained by the two men when they invested the talents they were given on behalf of their master? These first two men each had double the talents they were given. What do the additional talents represent? Certainly if the talents given represented opportunities then would not the talents gained represent the same? But in the second case, opportunities on a different level, in a higher realm. If the talents given represent opportunities to invest natural gifts, then very likely the talents gained represent opportunities to invest spiritual gifts, those gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 which are given to every true Christian without exception.
If this is so, they would be opportunities earned, the right gained to exercise spiritual impact, spiritual power. How many Christians have discovered they have a spiritual gift only when they have seized an occasion to be of use to Christ? They have to decide to risk, to venture, for his name's sake. Feeling ill-equipped and clumsy at first, nevertheless, they went on doing what needed to be done and before long it was evident to all, and even to them, that they had a gift for the work, one of the gifts of the Spirit. Having found the spiritual gift they soon found great opportunity to employ it.
No Risk, No Gain---Only Loss: Inevitably, Jesus moves to the climax of his story. One man yet remains to give his accounting:
"He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master answered him, 'You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'"
At first we may be a bit bewildered by what seems an unduly harsh treatment of the man with one talent, who at least had a sense of responsibility to see that his master got back the money that he gave him without any loss. But the matter is put in proper perspective when we hear Jesus' words: "For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." The basic purpose of life is growth, increase, return. To fail in this purpose is to be fundamentally unprofitable. All life grows, and if it does not, it has already ceased to live and is no longer worth keeping. That is what Jesus means.
One Big Risk: This servant had gained nothing because he had risked nothing. There was no increase because there was no investment. He had one great (and long-continued) opportunity to risk himself on behalf of his master but he deliberately ignored it. The outcome of the story tells us the nature of that opportunity. It was the opportunity to give himself to God; the opportunity to be redeemed. That one supreme venture was a present possibility all through the time of his master's absence. But he had deliberately put it from himself, and rather early in the game. He had gone and hid it in the ground! When it was safely buried he could forget about it and go on about his own affairs. It was not there to make him uncomfortable by constantly reminding him of his master's expectations. But since he took no risk for Christ's sake he had also no spiritual influence, no impact for eternal good. His life counted for nothing; there was no spiritual power. It had all been lived for himself.
When the master returns, the man has a little speech carefully prepared to justify it all. Evidently he had rehearsed it many times. "You are," he says, "a basically unreasonable man. You expect other people to do the dirty work while you get all the benefits, and if they should fail to satisfy your expectations you are quite ready to accuse them as thieves. So I was afraid to risk what you gave me, lest I should lose it and would have to face your wrath when you returned. But I have outwitted you. I have kept your talent safe for your return. Here is exactly what you gave me. You and I are even."
The master does not attempt to debate his character with the man. He takes him at his own appraisal of his master. "You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gathered where I have not winnowed?" The editors of the text have done right in ending this statement with a question mark. The master is not agreeing with what the servant says, he is saying, in effect, "So that is your understanding of my character, is it? All right, then, out of your own mouth will I judge you. If that's what you thought of me, then you ought to have known that you couldn't possibly please me by failing to get some kind of gain. In that case, you could at least have put the money in the bank and I would have had some interest on it when I returned."
The Phony Revealed: Of course, the real problem is that the man had no intention of really being the servant he was pretending to be. The master's argument is: No matter what his opinion of his master was, whether true or distorted, as a true servant he should have acted in accord with what he knew his master would expect. But this the man refused to do. He had his own life to live and it was really nothing to him that a servant's fundamental task is to serve, not himself, but his lord. He was therefore a phony, a hypocrite, pretending to be what he was not.
In his selfish blindness what he did not realize was that his one chance to become genuine was to risk himself, by venturing with his master's talent. Had he done so, like the other two men, he would have gained. He would himself have been changed, for to venture is to be changed. To risk for Christ's sake is to find oneself altered, redeemed, reborn. That one talent is given to all who are drawn to follow Christ. They have the opportunity to risk themselves upon his word, to trust his redeeming grace, to rest their hope for eternity upon his work for them upon the cross. Other opportunities for risk will follow that, but without that one investment there is no true value to life.
As C.S. Lewis vividly puts it: "It may be a hard thing for an egg to become a bird; it is a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while it is still an egg. We are like eggs, today, and we either must be hatched, or go bad!"
What is the final message of Jesus in telling this story? It is: Step out! Risk! Live dangerously! Take constant chances with your life and goods for his name's sake. Don't try to bottle up your life so as to hang on to it at all costs. If you do that you will surely lose it. But surrender yourself to his cause, again and again. That is the way to find life. That is the way to watch for his coming. Having risked yourself to become a Christian, now risk yourself again and again as opportunities arise. Live dangerously! Or that also could be written, love dangerously! To live for Christ is to love men with his love. And that is always a risk. It has been well written:
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safe in the casket or the coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell."
THE UNCONSCIOUS TEST Matthew 25:31-46
This is the last chapter. If you've sneaked ahead to read it out of order because you can't wait to find out how it all ends, go ahead, read it! But come back to it again when you've finished the rest of the book. It will make much better sense to you then. But if you've stayed with us all the way you'll be anxious to know how Jesus ends this tremendous talk with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. He suddenly drops the use of parables and returns to a simple narrative. Unlike the household, the ten maidens, and the talents, the judgment of the sheep and goats with which he ends is not parable but fact. He introduces it with these words in verses 31-33:
"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left."
It is hard for us to remember that these words were uttered by a Man standing in the gathering dusk on the Mount of Olives, in the midst of a tiny band of forsaken men, and looking out over a city where even at that moment his enemies were completing the plans for his arrest and execution. When Jesus uttered these words, by every human appearance he was defeated. The powers of darkness were triumphant, the shadow of the cross was falling across his path way, the crowds that once had followed him had long since gone, his friends were fearful and powerless, and one of them was even then set to betray him. Yet as he surveyed the centuries he saw the light that was yet to come, and without uncertainty in his words, in that hour of triumphant evil and seeming human defeat, he declared, "When the Son of man comes in his glory...he will sit on his glorious throne. [And] before him will be gathered the nations."
A Time for Judgment: The mention of nations has proved confusing to some. They have thought of this as a judging of individuals on the basis of their national affiliation; i.e., each will be held accountable for the way his government behaved as a nation. But such is not the case. Those who appear before this judgment seat do not come as Englishmen or Americans or Chinese or Afghans. The Greek word translated "nations" is literally the word "Gentiles." This is, then, the judgment of the Gentiles, the non-Jewish peoples of earth. They are persons living on earth at the time of Christ's manifestation of his presence in power and great glory.
The purpose of the judgment is obviously to determine who shall enter the kingdom of God which the Son has come to establish. Through all the great discourses of Jesus in the gospels the evident passion of his heart is to see the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. He will manifest himself in power for the very purpose of fulfilling those ancient dreams of the prophets-an earth that will be filled with the righteousness of God as the waters cover the sea. But only the righteous will be allowed to enter.
It is important to note, too, that it is a judgment of sheep and goats, not one of sheep and wolves! Jesus is not choosing between the obviously bad and the obviously good. There is no division here between the opponents of the gospel and the believers in it. That separation is to be made in the very hour of the appearing of Jesus in power and glory. As Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 1:9:"When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." But in the judgment of the sheep and the goats Jesus is distinguishing sharply among persons all of whom profess to be Christians and claim to belong to him as members of the family of God. It is the separation of the hypocrites from the real; of the false from the true.
Some commentators have felt there are three groups in this judgment scene: the sheep, the goats, and another group whom Jesus terms "my brethren" who are the point of testing at the judgment. These "brethren" would likely be the 144,000 Jewish believers who are closely identified with the Lord during the whole period of his presence behind the scenes. The Lord Jesus says to both the sheep and the goats, "'...as you did it [or did it not] to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it [or did it not] to me.'" It seems highly likely that there is this third group involved. Certainly, during the Tribulation each of these 144,000 will be, as Jesus himself was in the days of his flesh, "despised and rejected of men." It will be a severe test of true love to show kindness toward them for they will be an object of furious hatred by the Lawless One and the authorities of earth in that day.
On the other hand, others feel that by "my brethren" the Lord is simply indicating any individual among the sheep or goats who is in need in the last days and to whom loving help is either extended or withheld. Whichever view is held, it is evident that the principles of our Lord's judgment then are not different from the principles by which he judges men throughout the centuries. God acts, "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen." He will distinguish the hypocrites from among us today exactly on the same basis as he distinguished them then.
Let us now return to the scene our Lord describes, when he will do what no other figure in human history is capable of: dissolve all national distinctions, unite all the nations as one, and sit as the unchallenged Judge over all men:
"Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'"
The Real Test: The arresting thing about this is that Jesus is clearly saying that the ultimate mark of an authentic Christian is not his creed, or his faith, or his Bible knowledge, but the concern which he shows to those who are in need. The practical demonstration of love is the final proof. And note also that Jesus does not ask anyone to present his case or argue his cause. He asks no questions nor requests any evidence. He simply extends to this one group the invitation, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom." Then he explains the basis of his choice. He has simply noted that when they had opportunity to help someone in need, they did it. Nothing more is required. It is sobering to realize that Jesus identifies himself with those in need. If you help them, he says, you are really helping me; and if you ignore them you are ignoring me. He flings the cloak of relationship around them and calls them "my brethren." Speaking of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Dr. Helmut Thielicke says:
"How easily we let a sentence like 'God is a God of love' pass over our lips. It even sounds a bit trite. But just let Jesus stand in front of us and look at us when we say the words and at once this pious little saying becomes an accusation. Then all of a sudden we hear it spoken by the beggar we shooed from our door yesterday, the servant-girl we dismissed, perhaps because she was going to have a baby, the neighbor whose name has recently been dragged through the newspapers because of some disgraceful affair, whom we let know that we always walk the straight and narrow path. Suddenly we hear them all speaking it, because this saying has something to do with all of them, not only with the God who dwells above the clouds, for in them the eyes of the Lord himself are gazing at us."
The sheep who inherit the kingdom are those who have responded to these needs in love, concern, and ministry. They have probably done so at considerable cost or risk to themselves. But no matter, they did what they could. With the goats it is the opposite story:
"Then he will say to those at this left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'"
The seriousness of this matter of helping the needy is seen in the severity of the Lord's words here. "Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." And let us remember that these are people who honestly think they are sheep! They can point with pride to a moment when they made a profession of belief, they are, perhaps, dogmatic about a creed and are church members in good standing, but by their lack of response to the pleas for help that come to them from every side they stand revealed as goats--false sheep--who never were sheep at all.
What a Surprise! The reaction of both the sheep and the goats to the Lord's words is one of stunned surprise. They are completely taken aback by what he says. It is clearly evident that both groups expected a different basis of judgment. As they were being divided into one group or another they doubtless felt they knew the reason for the choice. Surely the sheep would feel that the basis was that of faith. There would be ringing in their ears all the great and marvelous words of Scripture declaring that justification before God is by faith alone. Can't you see them waiting to come before the King, each one nervously reviewing his testimony, trying to recall the exact wording of the great promises on which he would rest all his hopes for this moment?
But the strange thing is, not one is ever given the chance to say a word. The issue is already settled. Each person is simply told to which group he belongs.
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'"
But of course the issue really is one of faith. The sheep are asked to take their place on the right hand of the throne because all through their lives their genuine faith has been producing its inevitable fruit of good works. Unthinkingly, unconsciously, born of love for Jesus Christ, they have been responding to the pleas and the needs of those about them. They kept no records, they expected no praise. For them it has been a glad privilege. They were unaware they were doing anything unusual, but found a real delight in meeting the needs of others. There was no hardship involved. They felt it was a continuing joy to be permitted to minister in Christ's name. But not one deed performed in that way has ever escaped the eye of their watching Lord. There is no need for him to examine them. They had laid up abundant treasure in heaven.
But the goats are equally surprised. They, too, are caught off guard by this basis of judgment:
"Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?"
Yet they may have guessed even more closely than the sheep the true basis for judgment. Very likely they are sure that it is good works. They know that God is interested in the poor, the down-trodden, the oppressed, and they are all ready for him. Already they have been making long mental lists of the many times they have ministered to those in need about them. They can recall detailed descriptions of what they did. They can total up large sums of money given, complete with income tax receipts. No doubt the amount of money so expended is terribly impressive, for as someone has remarked, it takes a great deal of philanthropy to deodorize a fortune! They have even put in long hours working for charity, fighting for racial equality, or protesting sub-standard housing. To these self-justifying persons the King replies: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."
Good Works That Aren't Good: They are even more surprised than the sheep at the Lord's words. It was good deeds of the very type he describes that they were depending upon for acceptance in this hour. They are at a total loss to understand his rejection. But they have forgotten what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. There he is careful to tell us that deeds done "to be seen by men" already have their reward. Even if the deeds are not publicly known, if they are done for private satisfaction they are in the same category. "Let not your left hand know what your right hand does," he says. That is, do not even take note of what you do yourself; do not even privately pat yourself on the back.
It is the times which they have forgotten that he uses for judgment, and not the times they remember. It is the times they looked the other way when some begging hand reached out. The times they were busy with other demands when word came of the sick and the dying. The times when they refused, through shame or pride, to visit some poor wretch in prison lest they be associated with him. Their eyes were averted as they walked around the stricken man lying by the wayside. They turned deaf ears to pleas when they could have helped. But these incidents have long been forgotten. They are quite honest when they say in astonishment, "Lord, when?"
But this is false Christianity, no matter how much it may be dressed in evangelical clothes. Perhaps nothing can describe it better than this prayer, written by Richard Woike. He calls it "A Prayer to Avoid" but we might well term it, "The Prayer of a Goat."
"O thou pleasant, comfortable, kindly, good-natured God: How glad I am that I can look forward, with a reasonable degree of certainty, to another ordinary day. Keep me today from anything that taxes my faith from discomfort, from unnecessary strain, from unusual problems, especially those involving sickness or death, or the necessity of extending financial aid to relatives and friends.
Dear Lord, grant that nothing may occur which will disturb my satisfaction with the way I am, and the things I say, and the thoughts I think, the acts I do, or the many deeds I leave undone. Give me this day, in addition to my daily bread, the butter, meats, and sweetmeats that are my necessary diet, and let me not be troubled by qualms of conscience concerning the amount of time and money I spend on food and clothing, pastimes, good and bad, and those pursuits which, while not of spiritual value, are the accepted hall-mark of the normal citizen of this enlightened community in this enlightened age.
About the future and the darkening trend of things, keep me from thoughtfulness. Events rush on, the world travails. Can screaming headlines prove thy hand's at work this very moment, bringing near that fateful cry, 'Behold! He comes!'? O, Lord, such disconcerting thoughts! Keep me from worrying about such things, and guide me safely to and from my office, and my home. Amen."
How Man Judges; How God Judges: Nothing reveals more sharply the radical difference between God's judging and man's than this story of the sheep and the goats. Even our treasured "good deeds" are shown up for what they are in the searching light from this throne of glory. Good deeds that are not the unconscious, automatic response of a heart indwelt by Jesus Christ are not truly "good" deeds. They are planned deeds, contrived, carefully performed for the public eye, or if in private, done in the hope that they will purchase some merit or favor before God.
But God's judgments take note only of the unconscious moments of our lives, the times when we are off guard, when we are unaware. It is then that we truly reveal ourselves. The test comes, not in our remembered actions, but in our unconscious reactions, our instinctive, unplanned responses.
This was borne sharply to my mind some time ago when, in the company of a number of friends, I attended a public concert in a large city. The officials of both the city and state were in attendance and a great crowd of people had jammed into a small open air square. The officials were seated in front row chairs on a small platform. Among the various performers that night was a young starlet from Hollywood. She was dressed in a gownless evening strap and in this revealing attire came to the microphone to sing. She did several swinging numbers, swaying with her hips and snapping her fingers. As she sang I happened to turn to note the reaction of the mayor of the city, seated on the front row.
Evidently he had lost himself in the performance, for his guard was down. His eyes were agleam with lechery, his mouth had dropped partly open, and he was fairly drooling. I saw also the governor of the state, seated a few chairs away, who was eying the mayor with a stern look of disapproval. While I watched, the governor caught the mayor's eye. Immediately he reddened, shifted uneasily in his chair, closed his mouth, sat straight up and looked out over the audience. The governor's glance had said to him, in the most eloquent silence I have ever heard, "Shape up, man, you're in public!" Though the mayor was the soul of propriety the rest of the evening, in one unconscious moment reality had shown through.
The Life That Wins: If we are not going to be tested by the times when we are alert and on guard, but God is "unfair" enough to catch us when we are simply responding to what we are, then what we are must be what he demands. There is only one life that is sufficient for that kind of demand. Only one life is capable of responding instantaneously with unselfish love to the needs of others. That is the life of Jesus Christ. If we have not received him into our hearts we do not have that life. If we have received him, we need to make ourselves available to him. We should be willing, moment by moment, to reach out to others in the strength and love which he will impart to us, as soon as we begin to obey. This alone is the life that can meet the test.
The One Great Word---Watch! Now the discourse is ended. We have heard the greatest prophet who ever lived outline for us the history of the future. It has been a fascinating experience, containing many surprising and unexpected revelations. If we had never read this discourse before we could not possibly have guessed what the outcome of history will be. But now that we know, what shall we do about it?
There can be only one answer to that. We must do what our Lord says. We must obey the command he repeats again and again. Watch! Keep alert! Watch! We have learned now what that means. It means three specific and definite things:
1. It means we are to help one another feed upon the living Lord Jesus, as revealed in the written Word of God. We must study the Book.
2. It means we must walk in the Spirit, depending not upon our human resources and weapons, but upon the power of an indwelling Spirit who is God himself, at work in us.
3. It means we must live dangerously, venturing ourselves for Christ's sake. We must keep thrusting out in his name, buying up every opportunity to meet those around us at the point of their need. This, and this alone, is watching. Nothing can take its place. Therefore,
"Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36).
From http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/olivet/. The PBC bookstore carries this series in book form as "What on Earth is Happening."
Class notes and audio files are here: http://ldolphin.org/cleanpages/