Jesus' Grace-based Judgment, part 4 (preaching resource for Nov. 19 and 26, 2023)
This post exegetes Matthew 25:14-46 to provide context for the RCL Gospel readings for 11/19 and 11/26 of 2023 (24th and 25th Sundays after Pentecost). It draws on commentary from Robert Capon ("Kingdom, Grace, Judgment"), RT France ("New Bible Commentary") and Louis Barbieri ("Bible Knowledge Commentary"). This post is part of a four-part series; to access the other parts, click a number: 1, 2, 3.
In this post we continue looking at the section of the Gospel of Matthew spanning 24:36-25:46 in which Jesus addresses the part of the last days that began in AD 70 then stretches to his appearing (parousia) at the end of the age. In 25:14-46, Jesus elaborates on that time with two additional parables focused on the salvation and judgment that result from his presence.
Be serving: The parable of the talents (25:14-30)
14 "Again, it [the kingdom of heaven] 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.'”
Like the parable of the two servants in Matt 24:45–51, this one envisages a master going away and leaving his servants with responsibilities to fulfill. Again there is a long time (v19) to wait, and the issue is who will be ready for the master’s return. Once again, readiness is defined as having faith (trust) in the master. Such faith is not passive. Rather it is active, living faith—following Jesus in the work that he is doing—making the most of the opportunities which he gives us. These opportunities are represented in the parable as talents. A talent is a very large sum of money, equivalent in our modern terms to several thousand of dollars. Different amounts (though all very large) are given to each servant, according to his ability, and the return expected is in proportion to the sum entrusted.
The point here is not about earning salvation through works. Rather, it's about receiving, in faith, what Jesus has given and then joining with him in using these gifts to share with him in serving others.
It is significant that the two successful servants receive identical commendations from the master (vv21, 23), even though the scale of their original responsibility, and therefore of their achievement, is different. Thus we are shown that what counts is faith-filled response to whatever the master gives. The fault of the third servant is that he does not recognize the master’s goodness and generosity. Thus, instead of responding in faith, he responds in fear, which is a form of unbelief. Hoping to avoid doing anything wrong, he finishes up doing nothing. Rather than trusting in the master (Jesus) to be the generous one that he is, this fearful servant views him as a hard taskmaster. Thus when the master returns, he is not ready, for he does not trust in (know) the master.
Choose: The parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46)
31 "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."
A theme of Jesus’ long discourse in this section of Matthew has been the judgment that results from his presence. Now we are given a picture of the great and final judgment, which will occur at the enthronement in glory of the Son of Man. The nature of this judgment is described using a parable (actually a simile) wherein a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The language here derives from Daniel 7:9–14. This is the ultimate outworking of the kingship and authority which that prophecy envisaged for the Son of Man, and which Jesus has already referred to in several connections (Matt 10:23; 16:28; 19:28; 24:30). The gathering of all the nations for judgment recalls the vision in Joel 3:2; but there the judge is God himself. The whole passage calmly attributes to Jesus the authority and kingship which in the Old Testament belong to God alone.
Note that this judgment involves all nations—no one is left out. Everyone is extended opportunity to see (and thus to know) who Jesus is. And then the great questions arises—how does each person respond to this unimpeded presence of Jesus?
Emphasis is given first to the sheep—those who respond to Jesus with trust (faith). Their trust is evidenced by what they have done in giving food and water to the least of these brothers of mine (v40). These brothers are Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus says that in helping them you did it for me, we are reminded that Jesus has said already (Matt 10:40–42) that receiving his disciples is tantamount to receiving him, and rejecting his disciples is tantamount to rejecting him. The point is that we are not saved by works of charity (as important as these are), but that we are saved (blessed) in receiving Jesus, who is presented to us in the presence and proclamation of his ‘brothers’ (his disciples, the church).
Jesus makes clear the means of this salvation by using the language of inheritance (v34). Salvation is not about earning, but about inheriting (sharing in) Jesus’ life. In trusting Jesus we share (inherit) all that he is and has as the king of the Kingdom of Heaven. This idea of inheritance is prominent throughout this section (see vv21, 23). And so we are told that the basis for salvation and judgment is one and the same: our response to Jesus.
Are we trusting sheep who gladly share in all that Jesus possesses, or are we un-trusting goats who turn away from the master and his gifts? Do we receive Jesus as the King that he is (a truth proclaimed by his brothers, his disciples), or do we repudiate him? At this point, the results of trust or un-trust are eternal—a word that refers not to duration, but to quality of life. The life of those who trust in Jesus is abundant and joy-filled, whereas the life of those who reject him is a self-imposed fiery punishment (vv41, 46).
And so concludes Jesus’ long discourse about grace and grace-based judgment. All through these last days (the end times), which began with his death and resurrection, Jesus is making his presence known. And people are responding—some embracing it; others simply ignoring it; others rejecting it. At this point, his presence is rather hidden. But at the end of this age, with Jesus’ visible parousia, everything will be out in the open. All will see clearly. And all will be able to choose based on this clear understanding.
Note that Jesus is the shepherd of them all—both the sheep and goats. Again, the universality of his work with all humanity is indicated. But in the end, each must choose, for God grants to all the freedom of that choice. In the meantime, we, the brothers of Jesus, are called to make his presence known. We do so in acts of mercy and words of testimony. Let us be faithful in this gospel work, as an expression of our trust in our Master whose parousia we await. Come Lord Jesus! Amen.