The parable we hear this morning follows the one we heard last week. In that parable, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to ten virgins who were waiting for the bridegroom. The bridegroom was delayed, and his delay revealed which of the virgins were foolish and which were wise. The wise virgins brought extra oil with them, while the foolish virgins did not. In short, the wise virgins made provisions for the delay, while the foolish virgins did not. As a result, only those who were prepared were welcomed to the wedding feast, while those who were not were denied entry. Even worse, the Lord says:
But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’Matthew 25:12 (ESV)
The final command is not spoken to the virgins but to those listening to Jesus. He says:
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.Matthew 25:13
In the history of biblical interpretation, this parable is often interpreted as a command to stay vigilant in response to what is known as the delay of the parousia.
The Delay of the Parousia
I won’t get into this topic now, but suffice it to say that many have argued that the kingdom of God parables containing this notion of a delay or an extended period were reshaped by the early church because Jesus didn’t return as quickly as they expected. So, the idea here is Jesus takes longer to return than we thought, so the early church reshaped or even invented parables on the lips of Jesus to be able to see, “Look, he told us all along that this would take a while.”
There is no doubt that many of the earliest Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetime. I suspect many of them thought he would return at the fall of Jerusalem, and some might even argue that he did, at least in some sense of the word “return.” But that does not necessitate that these parables, the one last week and ours this Sunday, were reshaped or invented out of thin air.
That is to say, they make sense in their historical context if we don’t assume that WE are the original audience for the parables. So, this is a reminder for all of us, when we read our Bibles (and I expect and hope that we are reading them daily), that before we start asking what a passage means today, we must first ask what it meant in its historical context.
Before we ask what a passage means, we must ask what it meant.
Suppose we apply this principle to last week’s parable and this morning’s parable. In that case, we come away with relatively straightforward and overlapping ideas. The delay in the parable of the ten virgins and the long journey in the parable of the talents are two sides of the same Old Testament idea.
Yahweh, Israel’s husband, was supposed to come back to his land and his people at the end of the exile, but that exile had been delayed and extended. Since then, Israel has been waiting for its God to return, so the question in both parables is: What should Israel have been doing while they waited?
In this morning’s parable, the man who goes on a journey is God, who has entrusted his servants Israel with his “property.” Paul says in Romans about the physical offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.Romans 9:4–5
In short, God entrusted his salvific plan to his servants, and he expected them to take what he had given them and invest it back into the world. Notice that, in this parable, the master commends all the servants but one. The only one he does not commend is the one who hid his master’s talents in the ground rather than sharing them with the world.
The imagery ought to draw our mind to Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.Matthew 5:14–16
Israel was not called to hide the light of the world nor to put their lamps under basked. They were called to give light to all who were in the house. They were called to let their light sign before others so that others may see their good works and give glory to their Father in heaven. In short, they were to invest what God had given them back into the world so that it might multiply to the glory of God.
But that’s what it meant. So what does it mean? How do we cross the contextualizing bridge, as we’ve called it in our adult catechesis? We, too, are waiting for the return of our Lord. That’s what I preached on last week. We are not waiting for him to take us away from here but rather to return, bring back the dead in Christ with him, and usher in the new heavens and new earth.
But in between now and then, we wait, and so parables spoken to Israel while she was waiting speak also to us today. From the Parable of the Ten Virgins, we learn to always live in expectation. The Lord might return at any minute. We must always be prepared and always be waiting.
And from the Parable of the Talents we learn that what God has gifted to us is meant to be invested back into the world so that it might multiply to the glory of God. That is the basic principle, but there are a few more things I want to point out here for your edification and mine.
First, as servants of God, everything we have comes from God and ultimately belongs to God. He entrusts different amounts of talents to various servants, but the amount entrusted isn’t the point. The point, as we say in our liturgy, is: “All things come from you.” Whatever we have isn’t ours. It belongs to God, and to use the language of the parable, he has entrusted it to us.
Second, what he has entrusted to us, he expects to be invested for the good of his kingdom. One servant receives five talents, another only two. The one who receives five makes five more; the one who receives only two makes only two more. To both, the Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The only chastised servant is the one who hoards what has been entrusted to him.
Third, God never expects more of you than you’ve been given. Notice that the Lord doesn’t say to the servant who brought back two additional talents, “Why didn’t you bring back five talents like the other servant?” The one who is given five brings back five more. The one who is given two brings back two more. God does not expect more from you than you’ve been given. But he does expect you to take what you’ve been given, your time, treasure, and talents, and invest them into the world to spread his kingdom and increase his glory.
That’s the question for us this morning. How are we using what we’ve been given to spread God’s kingdom and increase God’s glory? Some of us are blessed with lots of free time. How are we using our free time to spread God’s kingdom and increase God’s glory?
Some of us are blessed with treasure. How are we using our treasure to spread God’s kingdom and increase God’s glory?
Some of us are blessed with talents. How are we using all the ways in which we are gifted to spread God’s kingdom and increase his glory in this world?
We must wrestle with these questions because, one day, the Lord is coming back, and he expects us to have been wise. He expects us to take what we’ve been given and invest it back into the world for the spread of his kingdom and the praise of God’s glory.