We Who Should Know Better

The lectionary, last week and this week, gives us a couple of interesting but difficult parables. You can read the parables here, Matthew 25:1-13 and here, Matthew 25:14-30. Die klugen und die törichten Jungfrauen

What’s going on here?

It is always helpful when reading a passage a scripture to recognize where the passage occurs in the larger text. Where are we in the story? What has happened just before and what happens just after the part we are reading?

The Gospel According to Matthew has 28 chapters, so we are near the end of the book. In fact the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, begins in chapter 26.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem and the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus has been growing (chapters 21-23). Now in chapters 24 and 25 we have Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples. Notice that Jesus is not speaking to the religious and political elite. He is not speaking to the crowds. These are parables for Jesus’ followers.

Parable of the talentsThese two parables are about what is required of the faithful. When Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about what happens when one dies. Jesus is talking about the coming reign of God. These parables are instructions for how followers of Jesus are to live until the time God’s empire is fully present. Disciples, followers of Jesus are to ready, and actively about the business of the kingdom of God. Passive waiting won’t do.  It’s not enough to be a follower in word only.

It’s interesting that Jesus saves his harshest words for the ones who ought to know better. It’s the spiritual elite, the religious insiders he is hardest on. In the previous chapters of Matthew, Jesus takes the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests to task for not being faithful to God’s purposes. Jesus warns his followers not to make the same mistake. The tenants, those already invited to the party, the bridesmaids, the slaves, the ones who know what they ought to be doing, and who don’t do it- they are the ones who lose, who miss the party, the ones cast out. 

In other parables, the lost sheep, the missing coin, the wayward son- these are the ones heaven rejoices over. Jesus welcomes the outsiders. No words of condemnation, no warnings for these. Those outside of the reign of God are welcomed with celebration and joy.

This week’s gospel contains uncomfortable parables for those of us who say we are followers of Jesus.  Our first impulse is to look for some meaning other than the obvious one. But with these parables, there’s no tricks, no theological loop de loops. They’re simple stories, with a hard point. Discipleship is more that just believing. Our belief must be evident in our actions.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

3 thoughts on “We Who Should Know Better

  1. Thank you for allowing me to comment.

    In the first parable we are told that some had oil for their lamps and others did not. In the Bible oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. This is not speaking of the amount of good works that some of the virgins had done as opposed to only a few works that others had done. Salvation is not by our works but it is by the grace of God that we have been saved.

    Jesus said, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” [John 15:4, 5]

    Our lamps cannot remain lit by our own efforts. It is only as we abide in Jesus Christ that we remain illuminated. Those who are abiding in Him will be prepared upon His return but those are not holding fast to Jesus and His word are in danger of loosing their light in this dark world. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

  2. “Our lamps cannot remain lit by our own efforts.” and “It is only as we abide in Jesus Christ…” are somewhat contradictory. “Abiding” requires effort on our part, after all. It doesn’t “just happen,” or what would be the point of encouraging people to “abide” in the first place?

    Incidentally, while oil = “Holy Spirit” is one very good interpretation of this parable, it should be noted that there are others, as well. I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that comes off as more definitive than a passage warrants, so I beg your indulgence.

  3. Mt 25:12 echos 7:21 – “I never knew you” – then the question of talents … followed by the “final judgment” – the sheep and the goats. As Matthew gathers these parables, is Matthew interpreting Jesus? If so, Matthew is clear: get ready for the bridegroom’s coming, be prepared to invest your talent for a return, and if you want to know what all of this oil and talent looks like, then pay attention to the Lord who is found in those most likely to be ignored by religious people – the poor, the imprisoned, the naked, etc.. You’re right when you say that Jesus’ toughest words are directed at the insiders.

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