Read the passage here.
Our passage today covers two parables which follow on the first part of the discourse from last week (as a side-note, I don’t think I mentioned that as of last week, we are in the discourse portion of the fifth major division (narrative-discourse) in the gospel of Matthew). I want to remind everyone that, in the prior narrative portion, we got a series of interactions between Jesus and the religious leaders highlighting the disparity in their positions of what the kingdom is supposed to look like – or perhaps more accurately, who has or is the authority on the Kingdom. Following those confrontations, we got last week’s passage predicting the destruction of the temple, which might be seen as a final(?) judgment on those religious leaders and religious system.
The parables that we’re looking at today continue Jesus’ line of thought that the disciples (the twelve, and by extension all other disciples) need to be ready for the vindication or confirmation of Jesus’ ministry (which the destruction of the temple seems to indicate) and the coming or inauguration of the kingdom (so to speak).
Remembering that last week’s passage seemed to be a response to the disciples’ question of “when will this happen?”, both of the parables that we’re looking at today continue the train of thought that the character of readiness matters more than the timing of readiness. That is, how they (and we) are to remain in readiness matters more than “ready for how long?”
So what we’ll do today is spend some time considering each of the parables, asking some questions that may arise. And then I want to think a little bit about what readiness means for us.
The first parable has to do with ten women who are waiting for the bridegroom. And the text tells us that there were five who were wise and five who were foolish. Now there are some cultural considerations here about weddings in general (I suppose) and why there are ten women, but we’re not going to get into that (that is, I think we can bypass that for the sake of the point of the parable).
What we want to think about is what made the five women foolish and the other five wise? And I think the point is obvious that the five women were foolish because they weren’t ready. The text tells us that all the women had to wait for a long time, though it doesn’t tell us whether they knew how long they were to wait or if they knew that the wait would be long.
What we do read, however, is that the five wise women brought oil for their lamps and that the five foolish women did not. Notice that it doesn’t tell us that they foolish women didn’t bring enough oil – it tells us that they didn’t bring any. So the important distinction seems to be not that they weren’t ready enough (is that even a thing?) or that they weren’t (perhaps) ready in time, but that they weren’t ready at all.
Now I might be over-reaching here, because we can’t really find this in the text, but I have to ask whether the foolish women were interested in being ready at all?
Now, having said that (none of which is new or surprising to anyone, I’m sure), I want to make a brief comment on the nature of the characterizations here. What I’m referring to is the characterization of the women as, respectively, foolish and wise.
And I should point out that at this point, I probably am reading too much into the text here. But I feel like it’s important to note that wisdom in scripture is not merely being clever or having a lot of knowledge. Rather, wisdom has to do with living well. Wisdom seems to have to do with navigating life well.
I point this out because in this day and age, wisdom (or something like wisdom) is often reduced to pithy sayings or attractive aphorisms. We’ll say things, or post on social media things that sound (and may actually be) profound. But true wisdom isn’t found in what we claim to believe (i.e. that the coming of the bridegroom is important), but in how we actually live.
And the other reason that I point this out is because I think this is what we’re seeing in the second parable.
The second parable is another one that many of us are probably familiar with. So in some respects, because we’re familiar with it, we can go over it quite quickly. However, I feel that it’s important to talk about the main metaphor in the parable.
In the translation that we read today (NIV), what we read is that a man entrusted his servants with “bags of gold.” In several other English translations (including earlier NIV translations), we read that the man entrusted his servants with a number of talents.
As we know, a “talent” is a denomination of money in Jesus’ time (hence the translation to “bags of gold” in the NIV translation). Unfortunately, because of the correlation to our word “talent” – by which we mean ability or gifting – I think we tend to limit our understanding of what’s actually being said.
In sermons that I’ve heard over the years, one’s talent (which means money in the text) is understood as talent (as in ability) in the contemporary context. Therefore, we read something along the lines of “each person must make the most of the abilities they have been given.”
Now, as I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with this interpretation per se (that is, of course we should use our abilities for God), except that it’s limiting. Frequently (again, in my experience), this or something like this, leads to a fixation on what exactly are my gifts, my abilities, my talents, that I can use for God. And conversely, it leads to a reluctance to do things for God that are “not my giftings.”
What helped me understand this passage better was a friend years ago. She pointed out this unfortunate muddle between the two unrelated senses of “talent,” and suggested that a better connotation (in the context of the parable) was “opportunity.” The different servants (by virtue of having whatever sums of money) are presented with opportunities. Most of them took advantage of their opportunities and contributed (so to speak) to their master’s kingdom. The unfaithful servant, however, was given an opportunity and did nothing with it because he was afraid and because he did not want to fail.
Similarly, each of us, regardless of what abilities or how many gifts we think we have or think we don’t, are given opportunities. Life is full of opportunities – indeed, each moment is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to live fully, live well, into the kingdom or not.
And this, I guess, is what I mean by wisdom. Wisdom has to do with living well, living rightly, and also living fully. Living fully into what the kingdom means, living fully into what life is meant to be.
Now I know that this passage, inasmuch as we think about it in terms of gaining more, is sometimes placed into the context of evangelism and witnessing. And again, I don’t think that’s wrong. We certainly are given opportunities to witness for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom. But I don’t that also can be limiting. At least it’s limiting inasmuch as we only think of being a witness as sharing the four spiritual laws, or whatever. At the very least, I think it might be helpful to think of our opportunities as more than that.
Now at this point, I want to reflect once again on the fact that this part of the discourse is set in the context of conflict with the religious leaders. Jesus accuses the religious leaders of being hypocrites because they claim to show people the way to God but are in fact leading people away from Him. In essence, through the last several passages, Jesus is saying, “there is no time to wait.” “Later is not the time to get this right, to understand.” And the thing to get right, I think, is what it means to be kingdom people. In other words, “understand what it means to be Kingdom people. Understand what it means to be Godly people; what it means to be righteous. And start living it out.” In the previous passage, we read:
24:45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.Matthew 24:45-51
We’ve talked a lot about being a people in the in-between time. And Jesus’ exhortation here isn’t subtle. In the in-between time, do what you’re supposed to be doing, which is to say, live as you’re supposed to be living. Don’t wait. Be ready. “It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so [being faithful and wise] when he returns.”
And this sounds like it’s a warning – which indeed it is. It’s hard to read, “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as anything but the sternest of warnings. But embedded in that is also encouragement and invitation.
Because if we’ve been following the gospel of Matthew, we understand that precisely what Jesus is inviting us to is life – real life. We’ve read, and talked about, how there are all kinds of voices in the world, including religious ones, that claim to tell us what life is and how we’re supposed to live it. In contrast to that, live the real life, live a true life. The “be ready” exhortation, then, takes on a particular note. It’s not so much “be ready for…”, but rather, “be ready in.” Not just “be ready for the end days, the second coming, the final realization by all of creation that Jesus is King.” But “be ready in every time and place. Be ready in whatever circumstance, be ready in every opportunity.”
In Philippians, Paul says it like this:
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:10-14
Because in every time and place, we have the opportunity to live out and live in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And in living faithfully, we can hear him say, “‘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!’”