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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Five Parables

Matthew 25, Mark 13:33-37

Jesus is on the Mount of Olives with his disciples. He has just told them the signs of his coming again, and now he tells them what to do while awaiting his return. There are five parables – his favorite form of teaching – and each has its own specific meaning and message.

The Doorkeeper

(Mark 13:33-37 NIV) Be on guard! Be alert ! You do not know when that time will come. {34} It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. {35} "Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back--whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. {36} If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. {37} What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!'"

There is an interesting phrase here: “the one at the door.” In one of the other uses of this word (it is a single word in the Greek, and the King James translates it “porter,”) Jesus tells us that the doorkeeper of the sheep pen will open the door only to the true Shepherd. Most of Jesus’ followers, however, would have associated this idea with an older passage, one of two found for Ezekiel:

(Ezek 3:17-21 NIV) "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. {18} When I say to a wicked man, 'You will surely die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. {19} But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself. {20} "Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. {21} But if you do warn the righteous man not to sin and he does not sin, he will surely live because he took warning, and you will have saved yourself."

This is the clear function of the porter, the doorkeeper. He is not to correct sin by force or by law; he is to warn. He is to scan the times, alert for the plague of sin, and warn those who might be affected. Note that this is not an administrative position, or one of power. The doorkeeper indeed is a minor servant in a rich household. The only real qualification for the job is that you have to stay awake. Indeed, the word translated “watch” at the end of this passage really means “stay awake.” Jesus reproached his disciples with it in Gethsemane, that they could not “watch” one hour with him.

Military veterans, particularly naval ones, know the meaning of the term all too well. It is the custom in the navy that if you are the one in charge, whatever happens during your term in your fault. The phrase is, “It happened on my watch.”

Who are these people today? I might be one of them. Some years ago one of my students, who had previously been divorced, came to my home to “talk about it.” She was concerned that I would soon be visiting her, telling her not to be married, because she did not have Scriptural grounds for the divorce. (I knew that she did have such grounds, and amply so.) We both came from churches where the Sunday School teacher was expected to make such a call, and she wanted to prevent any misunderstandings. She knew that I was expected to be (and she’s right) a watchman.

The man in charge

(Mat 24:45-51 NIV) "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} I tell you the truth, 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.

This parable is addressed to “those in charge.” Note that this is not the same as the watchman. The watchman is a solo performer, if you will. His function is to warn; this person is intended to have authority. We might see such a person as being a deacon or elder in our churches today, or anyone given responsibility and authority. This particular one is said to be in charge of feeding the servants – so we might see him as a minister of the Gospel, for example.

Responsibility defines the job and the authority that goes with it, in the church. We might see this person in the literal sense – the one who is responsible for distributing food to the poor (remember the seven deacons who passed out food to the widows?) We might see this spiritually, as in the minister. We might, moreover, see it figuratively. This could apply to anyone whom God has put in a position of authority – in the church or in the world. If you are a Christian manager, I submit this parable applies to you.

Let’s look on the positive side first. Suppose you’re doing a good job when He returns, what happens? You get more responsibility. This may not sound so good! But consider: if you truly have the gift of administration or management, you are intended to be a manager. God has given you that gift. It is as natural for you to manage as it is for an eagle to fly. God simply promises that when He comes again, you will have more scope for your gift. It would be like telling an eagle that at the renewal of all things he will fly higher and faster.

Punishment is not only in proportion to crime but to responsibility. The greater the authority given, the greater the punishment for its abuse. (Or so it should be.) What is done here is an abuse of authority. This wicked servant is abusing the other ones “under color of authority.” But note something else: our Lord gives us a symptom of such abuse. Look at the company the man keeps! If you are given authority, check your friends!

Wise and Foolish Virgins

(Mat 25:1-13 NIV) "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. {2} Five of them were foolish and five were wise. {3} The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. {4} The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. {5} The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. {6} "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' {7} "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. {8} The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' {9} "'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.' {10} "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. {11} "Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!' {12} "But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.' {13} "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

This parable applies to all of us. Note that we have a lot of people involved here, and there is no particular function. They are wedding guests. This is a story that Jesus’ disciples would have found quite familiar. The custom of the time was (and still is, in some places) that the bridegroom would arrive at some unexpected hour to “steal” his bride. It is considered a good sign for the groom if he finds the bridal party asleep. He then carries his bride away to his parents house, and the wedding party begins (these things tend to go on for a week or so.) The lamps and oil are necessary at night (no street lights, you see).

There are some things to note:

·         First, all the wedding party were virgins. There is no difference between the groups, except that one group is prepared for the long trip, and the other is not.

·         The oil may be seen as symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Some commentators then see this as the difference between those living a spirit filled life, and those just along for the party.

·         Note one thing: they all slept. God knows that we’re human. It’s hard to keep awake, constantly vigilant. But the issue here is not vigilance, it’s preparation. He will surprise us with the time, but we know he’s coming. Are we ready? (Hope your answer isn’t “not yet.”)

Some commentators take this in the apocalyptic view, and see repentant Israel in this. Who can say?

The parable of the talents

(Mat 25:14-30 NIV) "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. {15} 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. {16} The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. {17} So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. {18} But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. {19} "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. {20} 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.' {21} "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!' {22} "The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.' {23} "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!' {24} "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. {25} So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.' {26} "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? {27} 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. {28} "'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. {29} 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. {30} And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

This is a rich parable (pardon the pun). It can be taken in so many ways: as dealing with money; or (taking the fortunate English translation) as dealing with talent; or for that matter dealing with anything we have. This story is about using what we have, and we all have something.

Now, there is a curious point to this parable, often missed. What was the motive of the third servant? Fear. He has misunderstood his master’s thought. Out of fear he hides the money in the ground.

In the kingdom responsibility and authority come together. When God gives you something to work with, he has handed you the responsibility, whether that be a checkbook or a singing voice. He also hands you the authority to use it, for (as the world would say) it is “your own.” All the complaints of the workers of the world (I’m responsible for failure but don’t have the authority to do the job, or I have the wherewithal to do the job, but somebody else has the task) are nonexistent here. If you have the responsibility (i.e., you have the money or the talent) you have the authority to use it as you see fit.

Indeed, God is the ideal manager. Not only does he match authority and responsibility, he rewards those who perform. Very richly; the bonus program in the kingdom of heaven is exceedingly generous. But God works on the same principle you do when you pick out a mutual stock fund: he rewards the ones that perform.

One interesting side note: this is an example of why we are to “judge not.” We have no idea what God may have given the other servant.

But if God rewards, it is only fair that he withdraw that reward from the servant who does not perform. Indeed, it is a hard part of a manager’s job to tell the poor performer of his reward; it is never pleasant. The third servant presents his excuses, and expects to be rewarded for them. It doesn’t work that way.

Sheep and Goats

(Mat 25:31-46 NIV) "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. {32} 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. {33} He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. {34} "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. {35} 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, {36} 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.' {37} "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? {38} When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? {39} When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' {40} "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.' {41} "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. {42} For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, {43} 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.' {44} "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?' {45} "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.' {46} "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

We come to what C. S. Lewis once called “the most terrifying passage in the New Testament.” Please note that this passage also applies to each and every one of us. This is not specific to ministers, elders or deacons or teachers. It applies to all.

The scene is simple, and familiar to all who herd animals. The flocks must be separated because they graze differently. The meaning for us is clear: the day will come when Jesus will take his people out, and sort out those he wants with Him for eternity, and those to be condemned. Note one interesting thing: neither of these groups noticed at the time that they were doing something for God. They didn’t see it that way. They saw it as doing something for their fellow men. The face of Christ is hidden in the pauper’s eyes.

There is a story from the early days of the church. Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier, and like such he normally wore a cloak. As he approached a town he saw a beggar. He had nothing to give him, but seeing the man cold he tore his cloak in half and gave the half to the beggar. That night, in his dreams, he saw the Lord Jesus, wrapped in his half cloak. “Where did you get that, my Lord?” he asked. “My servant Martin gave it to me.”

This is the practical side of the faith. It is not the sign on the door, the doctrine taught inside (though this should be as sound as we can make it) nor the type of worship service that Jesus will examine. He will examine the fruits of our lives to see if the Spirit was flowing through them. What will he find when he comes?

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