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The parable of the ten virgins
Matthew chapter 25, verses 1-13
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say, “He will come again to judge. . . .” There are two distinct events in that phrase: he will come and he will judge. One way to look at the relationship between chapter 24 and chapter 25 is to see his coming in chapter 24 and the final judgment in chapter 25. First Jesus gives us the signs to look for, so we can be ready for his return. Then he separates the wise virgins from the foolish virgins, the faithful servants from the unfaithful servants, the sheep from the goats.
John the Baptist had previously called Jesus the bridegroom and referred to himself as the best man (see John chapter 3, verses 27-30). This image was built upon the language of the Old Testament prophets (see Isaiah chapter 54, verse 5; chapter 62, verses 1-5; Jeremiah chapter 3, verses 14 and 20; chapter 31, verse 32; Ezekiel chapter 16, verse 32; Hosea chapter 1, verses 2 and 3; chapter 2, verses 2, 7, and 16; and Song of Songs). Jesus also used this picture in Matthew chapter 9, verse 15 and chapter 22, verses 1-14. Nor should we overlook the fact that Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding of Cana (John chapter 2, verses 1-11). All of which enriches our reading of Ephesians chapter 5, verses 21-33.
The contrast between the foolish and the wise reminds us of the reference to the wise and foolish builders at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew chapter 7, verses 24-27). In both places, if we take the wise to be believers and the foolish to be unbelievers, we miss the point. Jesus is preaching to his church. He is warning the foolish to “wise up.” It is a variation on the parable of the sower, in which Jesus warns us about the dangers of the devil (chapter 13, verse 19), persecution (chapter 13, verse 21), and covetousness (chapter 13, verse 22).
The picture that comes to mind when we hear that they took their lamps with them is probably not quite accurate. Small clay lamps were generally better suited for use indoors. In an outdoor procession, the “lamps” would have been more like torches. A long pole with oil-drenched rags at the top would cast a lot of light, but the oil had to be replenished about every 15 minutes. When the wise virgins trimmed their lamps, they cut off the charred ends of the burning rags.
The failure of the foolish virgins to bring an extra supply of oil implies that they did not expect to have to wait so long for the bridegroom to appear. Without taking anything away from his earlier emphasis on the urgency of being ready for the Last Day, Jesus now shows us the other side of the coin. Conversion must be coupled with faithful perseverance. Coming to faith will do you no good if you do not stand firm to the end (chapter 24, verse 13). Or in the imagery of an earlier parable: it is not good enough to accept the invitation to the wedding feast; you must also wear wedding clothes (chapter 22, verses 11-14).
What is the oil? Is it the Holy Spirit? Is it faith? Is it a life of good works? Various commentators have defended each possibility. On the one hand, it is problematic to say that faith or the Holy Spirit can be bought and sold. But on the other hand, Jesus uses similar imagery in the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price (chapter 13, verses 44-46). If the oil is a life of good works, there is a connection with the judgment pronounced at the end of this chapter (chapter 25, verses 40 and 45). Maybe our mistake is to assume that we must settle on one understanding to the exclusion of all other possibilities.
The Old Testament practice of anointing kings, priests, and prophets with olive oil certainly suggests a connection between oil and the Holy Spirit. And the work of the Holy Spirit is masterfully summarized by Martin Luther in his explanation of the Third Article: he calls us to faith by the gospel, gathers us into his holy church, enlightens us with his spiritual gifts, sanctifies us for a life of good works, and keeps us in the true faith until our end. Do not all of these things together make us “wise” as opposed to “foolish”?
Some of the details of this parable are not true to life. First, there is no mention of the bride, and the Jewish custom was for the bridesmaids to attend the bride rather than the groom. Also, tardiness was unusual on such occasions. Nor was it a common thing to refuse to admit latecomers to the wedding feast. But we have observed before how Jesus uses unreal elements in his parables to arrest attention and to drive home his point. (See the parable of the workers in the vineyard, chapter 20, verses 1-16; and the parable of the tenants, chapter 21, verses 33-41.)
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” This was the inspiration for Philipp Nicolai’s magnificent hymn:
“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
The watchmen on the heights are crying,
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Oh, where are all you virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes—awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care
To meet the Bridegroom who is near.”
(Christian Worship, Hymn 206, stanza 1)
The foolish virgins return too late. Their double “Sir! Sir!” is laden with much the same emotion we noted in Jesus’ lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . .” (chapter 23, verse 37). They illustrate Jesus’ warning at the close of his Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (chapter 7, verses 21-23).
The parable of the talents
Matthew chapter 25, verses 14-30
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
It is not difficult to see that Jesus is telling his disciples that before long he will be leaving them. He will suffer and die and rise again and ascend into heaven. But that will not mean the work of his kingdom will stop in this world. No, he will rather provide his disciples with everything they need in order to continue that work.
The outstanding fulfillment of that promise came on the day of Pentecost, when the ascended Lord sent the Holy Spirit upon his disciples at Jerusalem. He thereby supplied them with the necessary understanding of the Word of God and God’s whole plan of salvation—as well as the courage to proclaim that message unto the ends of the earth. But that was only the beginning. Jesus continues, and will continue until the end of time, to provide all believers with everything they need in order to carry on the work he wants them to do in his kingdom.
The talents that our ascended Lord distributes to all believers are never exactly the same for any two individuals (see 1st Corinthians chapter 12, verses 4-11). But one gift is basic, and that is faith. Each of us must confess with Martin Luther, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” The apostle Paul insists that faith is not something we earn; it is the gift of God (Ephesians chapter 2, verses 8 and 9). And it is not a gift we can get along without, for “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews chapter 11, verse 6). But the gifts or talents that are added to faith are infinite in number and in variety.
“Talent” was first used for a unit of weight (about 75 pounds) and then for a coin, which is how Jesus uses it in this parable. When we use the term for an ability or a skill, that is a meaning which is derived from this parable. The talents that Jesus gives us include all the intellectual and physical abilities we are born with and those we develop as we mature. Our talents include all the material possessions that rightfully come into our hands. And they include the many opportunities God provides us for using our talents to serve him and our neighbor.
Considering the fact that the talent, as Jesus uses the term, is money, it is surprising how seldom this parable is applied to our stewardship of money. We are quick to apply it to our skills and abilities, and even to our time, but surely Jesus also has something to say here about how we spend our money. It is not only the envelope we put into the offering on Sunday that concerns Jesus; the money we spend on groceries and recreation is also part of Christian stewardship. Whether you have been given five talents or two or one, God is looking for faithfulness.
The Lord distributes these talents to “each according to his ability.” He gives to each of us the gifts that are exactly right. In every case he provides the correct combination of abilities, talents, responsibilities, and opportunities, so that all of us can be of real service to him in his kingdom.
Sometimes we imagine that it is sincere modesty and humility that cause us to refuse to be of any special service to God and his kingdom. We say, “I’m not qualified. I’m not well enough acquainted with the Scriptures. So let someone else serve on the church council. Let someone else teach Sunday school.” It is one thing to be humble and modest, but it is another thing to use false modesty as a cloak for laziness, selfishness, or indifference. We can count on God to give us the necessary wisdom and courage, so we can go ahead with confidence and do the work he has given us to do.
Notice that the master pronounces the same verdict upon both of the servants who doubled the talents entrusted to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” They had been faithful with their respective talents, and that was all their master asked of them. It is for their faithfulness that they are commended rather than for their accomplishments.
Jesus had a reason for making the servant with only one talent the unfaithful one. If it had been one of the servants with more talents, we would be too inclined to say, “What a shame! What a terrible thing that a person so richly blessed should be so ungrateful to God! But, of course, my gifts are not very numerous or great, so the Lord surely cannot expect much from me.”
Most of us would place ourselves into the category of the servant who received only one talent. That may be where most of us belong. But that surely is no excuse for being unfaithful with the talent God has given us. It will not do at all for any of us to say, “I can’t do much; so it is all right if I don’t do anything. It won’t really make any difference.”
It may be true that the work of God’s kingdom will get done without the support of those who have very limited means and talents. But we need to realize that God calls upon us to serve him with our individual talents, not because he cannot get along without our help, but rather because faithful service to him is of great value to those who do the serving. As Jesus said on another occasion, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts chapter 20, verse 35).
An unused talent cannot be kept for long. Like an unused muscle, it gradually wastes away. In the kingdom of God, an unused talent is confiscated and given to someone else. God will see to it that his work will be done and that his kingdom will come. If we are negligent or indifferent toward the opportunities that God gives us to serve him in his kingdom, he will surely give those opportunities to someone else.
Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism says it very well: “God’s kingdom certainly comes by itself even without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.” And: “God’s good and gracious will certainly is done without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.” We cannot stop God. We cannot prevent him from doing his gracious work in our world. But we can deprive ourselves of the blessed opportunity to share in that work. “From this preserve us, heavenly Father!”
Jesus describes “the sheep and the goats” of judgment day
Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “Then the King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
With this magnificent picture of the final judgment, Jesus’ teaching ministry comes to an end. The first verse of the next chapter is the fifth of the five points at which Matthew says, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things . . .” (Matthew chapter 7, verse 28; chapter 11, verse 1; chapter 13, verse 53; and chapter 19, verse 1 are the other four.) This is the glorious climax of our Savior’s preaching, and Matthew is the only one to record it for us.
This judgment scene takes us back to Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, seated on his glorious throne. “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel chapter 7, verses 13 and 14).
The glory of the Son of Man is mentioned twice in verse 31. This anticipates Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John chapter 17, verse 24). The glory of the Son of Man is augmented by the appearance of “all the angels with him.” How many angels do you suppose there are? A couple days later in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew chapter 26, verse 53). A Roman legion was supposed to be made up of six thousand soldiers.
However large the number of angels, they may be outnumbered by the human beings when “all the nations will be gathered before him.” Every single human being who ever lived or ever will live is going to be present. No excuses. No exceptions. It staggers the imagination. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake” (Daniel chapter 12, verse 2). Just think what it would be like to be in Arlington National Cemetery when Jesus comes back!
The separation of the wise virgins from the foolish virgins and the faithful servants from the unfaithful servant is now compared to the way a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. A shepherd can easily tell the difference between a sheep and a goat. So, on the Last Day, it will be a simple matter for Jesus to do the task that he declined to let his disciples do earlier in chapter 13, verses 28-30. After verse 33, the imagery of the sheep and the goats disappears.
For the church, this is the day of the wedding. Our heavenly bridegroom has prepared a place in his Father’s house. Now he is coming back to claim his bride. The joyous celebration will include a banquet where we will recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (chapter 8, verse 11). This is the wedding supper of the Lamb (see Revelation chapter 19, verse 9). This is the meal of which the Lord’s Supper has been a foretaste (see Matthew chapter 26, verse 29). But for the foolish virgins and the unfaithful servant, this is the day of the great divorce.
The whole point of the judgment is that some are saved and others are not. This theme has been consistently presented throughout Jesus’ teaching ministry. Although we live in an age that prizes diversity and tolerance, the sad truth is that not all people will be saved. Some people will go to hell. God “wants all men to be saved” (1st Timothy chapter 2, verse 4), but the teaching of Jesus makes it clear that God will not get all that he wants. God’s original purpose in creating hell was not to prepare a place for sinful people. No, hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew chapter 25, verse 41). Nevertheless, the goats who are on the King’s left will join the devil and his angels in eternal flames. (Perhaps this explains why the goat’s head has become a satanic symbol.)
Jesus has been speaking in picture language up to this point. Bringing oil to keep our lamps burning and making faithful use of the talents entrusted to us are pictures that are capable of divergent interpretations. But now Jesus talks about feeding the hungry and showing hospitality to strangers and clothing the naked and visiting the sick and the incarcerated. This sermon is very specific and concrete and unambiguous. Jesus tells us what to do, and he tells us how important it is to do it.
There is nothing sensational or spectacular about the activity the King commends. Saint John Chrysostom noticed that the Judge does not say, “I was sick and you healed me,” or “I was in prison and you set me free.” These are not big miracles but little acts of mercy and kindness. Virtually every Christian is capable of these.
There is nothing sensational or spectacular about the inactivity the King condemns. There is no mention of murder, rape, or blasphemy. It is the simple, ordinary things they neglected to do that damn them. Because “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
It would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that we are saved by virtue of our good works. Numerous Bible passages make it clear that we are saved only by the grace of God, only through faith in Christ. But those who have received the grace of God become gracious people. Those who have been given the gift of faith become faithful people. Or as Jesus put it in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (chapter 5, verse 7).
Our consciences bear witness that the King’s verdict is merciful. He covers all our sins of omission with merciful silence. We have not fed every hungry beggar we ever met. We have not always been the generous and hospitable and sensitive humanitarians he gives us credit for being. He remembers only the few, scattered deeds of mercy that we have done. In fact, he remembers things we have forgotten, “When did we see you . . . ?”
Christ remembers every act of kindness because he identifies himself so closely with the poor and needy. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Wondrous honor you have given
To our humblest charity
In your own mysterious sentence,
“You have done it unto me.”
Can it be, O gracious Master,
That you need what we can do,
Saying by your poor and needy,
“Give as I have giv’n to you”?
(Christian Worship, Hymn 486, stanza 3)
The unborn must surely be numbered among “the least of these brothers of mine.” And when Christ says, “Give as I have given to you,” one of his basic gifts to us is certainly life itself. To those on his right, the King says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, for I was a fetus and you carried me to term.” The question Jesus asks of those who demand the “right” to abort is the same one he asked Saul of Tarsus, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts chapter 9, verse 4).
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father,” Jesus says. The Creator first put his blessing upon Adam and Eve (Genesis chapter 1, verse 28). After the flood, God blessed Noah and his sons (Genesis chapter 9, verse 1). Then God promised to bless Abram and, through his Seed, all the nations of the earth (Genesis chapter 12, verses 2 and 3 and chapter 22, verses 17 and 18). The Lord instructed Aaron to bless the children of Israel when they were gathered for worship (Numbers chapter 6, verses 22-27). The pregnant Elizabeth greeted the pregnant virgin Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” (Luke chapter 1, verse 42). And the Palm Sunday crowd sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew chapter 21, verse 9). All of which comes to its celestial climax here: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”