A Strange Set of Parables
Matthew 25 recounts a set of parables told by Jesus to his disciples, instructing them to be diligent as they wait for his return.
The parables are dark stories of hardship and punishment. Their morals seem buried under ugly twists of fate for the characters involved.
Still, I believe that, if we dig a little deeper to the message of hope underneath these parables, we can learn a valuable message about faithfulness and discipleship.
The Prudent Bridesmaids
The first parable (Matthew 25:1-13) is a story that opens with ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the groom to arrive (he has been inexplicably “delayed”) for the bridal feast. Eventually, they tire of waiting and fall asleep.
In the middle of the night, when the groom finally arrives, the prudent bridesmaids who have brought extra oil awake to find their lamps ready and burning. The other bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra lamp oil, in a panic, beg the wise bridesmaids to spare some of their oil. “Go buy your own!” they say.
While the poor bridesmaids run off to find some midnight oil, the groom gets back and starts the feast without them. They return to find a locked door and a groom who says, “Tough luck, girls. I do not know you.”
The moral is supposed to be something about diligence and alertness, but it certainly didn’t leave me feeling very confident about the moral integrity of those “wise” bridesmaids. I was left asking: what is the line between prudence and selfishness? Why such a dark story of rejection to illustrate the kingdom of God?
The Industrious Servants
The next parable (Matthew 25:14-30) offers a similar story about three servants who attempt to store wisely their master’s money while he is away. The servant who is put in charge of the largest amount boldly risks trading the money; he gets lucky, and his return is good. The second servant follows his lead and is able to make as much as he bets as well.
However, the last servant — nervous about how “harsh” the master has been with his money in the past — decides just to keep the money safe and snug. So he buries it in the ground, therefore, of course, making no return at all.
This earns him the label of “wicked and lazy” (v. 26) when his master arrives. The master tells the risk-taking servants that he will reward them with more responsibility, but he is too disappointed in the last servant to trust him. Further, the parable tells us that the “worthless” servant should be “thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30). Talk about harsh.
The moral for this one is: “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (v. 29).
Tough pill to swallow. Especially now, when folks across the country are standing up to big business and declaring that the wealth gap between the haves and have-nots has gotten out of control.
Lessons to Learn
These are difficult stories for me, especially coming from the mouth of Jesus. But I think there are some valuable pieces to take away. It just takes some extra digging and thinking.
After all, Jesus challenged a rich man to give away all of his wealth as part of the process of bringing his life into alignment with kingdom values only a few chapters earlier. It’s hard to believe that the point of his stories here is to advocate for selfishness and increasing wealth.
More to the Story
I wonder what more there could be to each of these stories.
For instance, I wonder what kinds of conversations the bridesmaids had when they first got to the house to wait for the groom. They all brought their lamps, but half of them didn’t bring any oil. Perhaps the prudent bridesmaids suggested that the others go then to get oil, just in case. It seems as though they all expected the groom to arrive quickly, so perhaps the oil-less bridesmaids mocked the others for being overly cautious or worrisome.
But here’s the key: their preparation is not in vain. The gospel doesn’t condemn any of the women for falling asleep. It’s nighttime, after all, and the women who are prepared have no reason to stay awake. They have already done the work they needed to do.
When the groom arrives, the prudent bridesmaids rightly explain that if they give any of their oil away, there will not be enough for anyone. Some things each one has to bring for herself. Some things cannot be provided or shared last minute but are only created over time, with intention and faithfulness. Perhaps the bridesmaids grieved as they closed the door to the feast, knowing that the others had not returned in time and would be excluded. Perhaps they wished they had been able to afford more oil to cover the foolish women’s forgetfulness. But because they were careful, even when they didn’t know how close or far was the return of the groom, they are rewarded with entry into celebration and joy.
I also wonder what kinds of conversations the servants had while their master was away. Perhaps the more industrious servants were actually nervous when they risked the master’s money, but they desired to please him more than they desired financial security. (Do we desire to please our Master more than we desire financial security??) Perhaps they urged the final servant to do more with what he had been given, to be brave and to value his own skill, but he refused to hear them or accept their encouragement.
I wonder, also, what the master would have said to the servants if they had risked the money and lost. Would they still be labeled faithful and trustworthy because they were willing to do the master’s business while he was gone? It does seem, after all, as though the master is upset with the final servant for not trying to risk anything, in addition to not turning a profit.
So again: Perhaps we can read this story a little bit differently. These servants are part of the Master’s household. They are busy doing the work of the house while he is gone, the work he would be doing himself if he weren’t occupied with other things. And their efforts aren’t in vain: in the end they are able to contribute the welfare of their household. They are considered trusted members of the community who can carry responsibility.
They are wise enough to know when to invest and when to hold back. They are discerning enough to know the master’s wishes, even when he is silent and distant. The final servant may have thought that he was safe simply treading water, but his master expected more from him. He expected him to invest his own energy, skill, and courage in the good of the household.
The call to be faithful
Instead of thinking of the wise bridesmaids as selfish and the industrious servants as profitable, we can think of both groups as faithful.
They are so faithful, they are willing to endure scorn in order to be prepared to serve the groom. They are so faithful, they are willing to put themselves into the work of their master, even in his absence. They are willing to step forward and creatively find a way to carry on without their lords.
And we have the same call, as disciples of Jesus, as members of God’s household, as maids to God’s bride that is the church. Our work is never in vain if we are given ourselves to it.
When we pray in the morning before our day begins, we are investing in that extra oil, in case our day brings a time of unexpected darkness and we need the light to get through. When we pour time and love into relationships, even the most challenging ones, we are trimming our lamps in hopes that they will burn through the tough nights. There are no guarantees in the Christian walk. The call is not to hurry and be radical love to the world at the last minute; the call is to be the hands and feet of Christ the whole way through, whether it has been one minute or two thousand years.
When we pour ourselves into our churches, our families, our marriages, we are investing our talents in this world, even though all that we possess is truly God’s money. God has gifted us with our personalities, our bodies, our lives, our relationships, our abilities, our possessions. But it is not enough to let these things fall to waste because they are physical and worldly. Faithfulness involves challenging ourselves to dig deep into our own blessings and turn them into more blessings for God’s people. We need to be generous and risky with our loving, being prepared to take some hits in order to build the community of God’s kingdom.
That kind of community is not built over night, and it is not built without deep sacrifice and care on the part of its builders.
We are those builders of the kingdom community. We are those wise bridesmaids who are ready for the long night. We are those trusted servants who are courageous enough to invest ourselves into the master’s business. We are those faithful followers who are called upon to bring the light of God’s radical love to a hurting world.
And that kind of work, the Master’s business, is never in vain, no matter how long that waiting and darkness lasts.