Text: Matthew 25
I don’t really fly all that much, especially now with kids. Nevertheless, there is something that always happens every time I do fly. If you have ever flown, you know the routine. You check in and leave whatever bags are being checked at the counter. You maze through security and go to the particular gate listed on your boarding pass. Now, occasionally, the gate will change – even after getting your boarding pass. Therefore, it is imperative to continually check the gate signs to make sure the flight you want is the one that will be serviced at that particular gate.
Occasionally, I’ve had to make a mad dash from one gate to another to get to the plane that I really needed to be on. Those signs are helpful.
After a waiting period that is either always far too short or far too long, but never anywhere in the middle, the gate opens and the attendant starts boarding passengers. They scan my boarding pass, I make my way through the gate onto the plane and down the aisle to my seat. I settle in my seat and get my carry-ons arranged in a satisfactory wait.
Finally, the captain’s voice comes over the intercom system. And this is where it happens. Invariably, I get strangely tense when I hear that voice say, “This is the Captain.” I’ve gone to the right gate, checked the signs, and the attendant has accepted my boarding pass for the flight. It doesn’t matter. When the captain starts talking, he always tells the passengers where the plane is headed – the destination where it is going to land. And I am always nervous that despite all of my good efforts, I’m going to have wound up on the wrong plane.
Thankfully, all worries aside, that has never actually happened to me. Though there was one fleeting panic where I was on one leg of a plane’s journey to an international destination. I was getting off at Houston – a busy airport for international travel – but most of my fellow passengers were headed to somewhere in South America. Fortunately, after first making me panic by saying we were on our way out of the country, the pilot then reaffirmed that it would be “after a short stop in Houston.”
Usually, one of the most important things about travel is knowing where you’re going. Occasionally, someone may legitimately want to just wander aimlessly, letting the wind determine their course with no particular stop or destination in mind. But most of the time, when we travel, we have a particular place we are trying to go.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Jesus then went on for the whole of Matthew 24 talking about the terrible end of the age and his second coming. The chapter ends with Jesus asking and answering the question, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?”
With no break in Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ monologue about the end of the age and the coming of the kingdom, Matthew 25 continues the thought with three pictures of what the kingdom of heaven is like. The parables are familiar, almost hyper familiar. They are the parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and the goats.
When we read these parables, we know who we want to be. We want to be among the five wise virgins who brought extra oil in case the bridegroom was delayed. We want to be one of the faithful servants who hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We want to be part of the throng of sheep on his right who are invited to, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
That’s our destination. That’s the flight we want to be on. That’s where all of our sights are set. That’s the end for which we have been packing our bags. That’s the expectation we have when we show our boarding pass at St. Peter’s gates, however mythical, metaphorical, and unbiblical popular culture’s idea of those gates are.
The question is, just how certain are we that we are at – or are still at – the gate for that departure?
Hermeneutics is a big word that academic types use for the study and interpretation of Scripture. And any good hermeneutics course, professor, or textbook will teach you that when Jesus gives a parable in Scripture, he is making one point. There is one, central idea He is communicating to His disciples (and any others who have ears that let them hear). So however much we might be able to dive deep into any one of these parables, together, the three of them in this chapter are teaching us three things we need to know and do in order to be ready to approach and enter the Kingdom when the Kingdom finally comes at the last day.
From the parable of the virgins, we learn the lesson that we need to be wise, particularly in the way in which we are prepared for the kingdom’s arrival. You see, the kingdom can come at any moment. Literally. The clouds can roll back, and the trumpet can sound, and the Lord can descend on us before I finish my next sentence. Or not for another thousand years or two. Or longer. The point is, we don’t know. The only thing we do know is that the king IS coming to usher in the kingdom. That is a certainty. Just like the virgins knew that the bridegroom was sure to come, however late his arrival might be.
So what is our oil with which we are to be prepared? Well, that’s not the point of this parable. The virgins don’t show us what our oil is, only that we need to have it so that we are ready when the Bridegroom comes. The point is we need to be prepared for the king’s arrival. Always.
The second lesson we learn from the parables of Matthew 25 concerns the talents. We get caught up in the good reports of the first two servants who receive the five and two talents, respectively. But the parable isn’t about those two servants. The parable is about the third servant. The third servant takes no risks, attempts nothing with the things He is given. He does the absolute safest thing he can do with what he has been given – burying the talent in the ground. Safely stowed away, he is certain that he can therefore bring it back, unused, unspoilt, and in its entirety when the Master finally returns.
And that hedging of his bets; that relying on comfort, safety, and protection; that returning it to the Master exactly as it was given is the servant’s downfall. It is because he didn’t even try to use it that the last servant is condemned to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
As with the oil of the virgins, the parable of the talents isn’t worried about telling us what the talents represent. The single point is that the talents are meant to be used, whatever they are. We are to be bold in the things we do with what God has given to us. They are not meant for us to hold onto. They are not meant for our protection or safety or continuation or prosperity. They are not meant to be returned equally to the Master when He returns.
Our first command was to be fruitful and to multiply. We are to do, and we are to do boldly. William Carey, the English missionary to India who is credited as the father of the modern missionary movement, is widely credited with challenging his listeners to, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
So then, what are we – individually and collectively – expecting from God? What are we attempting for him? How are we USING all of the things that we have been given? Or are we too busy hiding and protecting them? Do we have more in common with the first two servants we so much want to be like, or are we actually more like the third servant who doesn’t even venture to try anything out of a motivation of self-preservation?
Be wisely prepared, the virgins tell us. Be boldly active, the talents tell us. What is the third lesson?
Jesus tells His disciples that when He comes back in all of His kingly glory, He will sit on His throne and judge all the nations of the world, separating the sheep who go to the right from the goats who are sent to the left. What is the defining characteristic that separates one from the other? It is not immersion versus sprinkling. It is not sobriety over against drunkenness. It is not proper understanding of Trinitarian theology. It is not depth of biblical memorization. It is not self-flagellation. It is not church attendance. It is not the number of hours of Bible study. It is not one’s wardrobe or hairstyle. It is not one’s allegiance to a political party. It is not one’s citizenship in this country or that country.
The defining characteristic that separates the sheep from the goats is their compassion for the least of those in the world. The naked, the lame, the imprisoned, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick. How we respond to them makes all the difference. The sheep and the goats tell us it is about our loving compassion, as God has been lovingly compassionate to us.
There they are. Jesus’ three lessons to teach us how to make sure we arrive at our desired final destination on His right, as the sheep when He comes in His glory. Be wisely prepared, be boldly active, and be lovingly compassionate.
So, how are you doing on your journey to the end of the age? How are we doing together as Christ’s body in showing our preparations for being actively compassionate with the things we as a church have been given?
We have been given the absolute greatest gifts any sinner could possibly imagine: a broken body, and the spilled blood of the Savior of the world whose tomb today stands empty because its former occupant sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven awaiting the fullness of time to come in all of His glory.
Are you prepared? Are you bold? And are you compassionate? Are we as a church prepared? Are we bold? Are we compassionate?
Jesus was prepared to do the Father’s will, whatever that entailed. He was bold in His teachings and miracles and march to the cross. And He was compassionate to all of the needy, and to you and to me.
Today, at this table, we celebrate, and we remember.
Today, at this table, with His words, we are challenged to be prepared, to be bold, and to be compassionate.