by Keeva Kase
Matthew 25 is divided into three seemingly disconnected parables, each one describing the kingdom of heaven:
- “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” v.1
- “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them.” v.14
- “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” v.31
Typically, the first understood as is a lesson on being prepared. Half of the virgins don’t have oil for their lamps when the bridegroom comes, so they get locked out of the wedding banquet. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” v.13
The second parable is most often interpreted as an exhortation to amplify God’s gift by doing more with what we’re given. The “worthless servant” is thrown outside into the darkness (“where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” v.30) for not investing the single bag of gold his master gave him while away on a journey.
Finally, and most famously, the sheep and goats parable explains that if you took care of the poor (you are a “sheep”) you are blessed by God and will receive your inheritance, “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” v.34. If you did not take care of the poor (you are a “goat”), however, you “will go away to eternal punishment.”v.46
In all three parables, people are being locked out or separated based on certain qualities. And, in the same way most interpret the “Son of Man” in the final parable as being Jesus, most see the bridegroom and master from the first two parables as Jesus as well. While some might be confused by these parables, the general take away is that God’s judgement will split us up according to God’s will, so be prepared, do as much as you can with your gifts, and take care of the poor. Or else!
A stark look at these parables, however, is as utterly confounding as it is concerning. The first aligns the would-be Jesus as a bridegroom who rewards those who don’t share and punishes those who are in need. The second aligns Jesus with a corrupt money hungry slave owner who punishes the servant who stands up to him and calls him out for being corrupt. “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.”v.24 Only in the final parable do we have what appears to be a character that aligns with the values we’d expect from Jesus – one who sticks up for the needy.
The “bridegroom” and “master” are accepted metaphors for referring to Jesus. This does not necessarily mean these characters are intended to represent Jesus here. Even if they are representative of Jesus, we have little evidence throughout the Gospels that Jesus would treat the vulnerable with enmity, particularly when the final parable, which specifically identifies the Son of Man coming into his glory over all the nations condemning those who did not assist those who, in no uncertain terms, were treated like the virgins who were locked out and the servant who did not make a return for his greedy and corrupt master.
These parables are not distinct. They are a series showing how the honorific trod on the vulnerable and take away their dignity. The first two parables show us who the Son of Man wants us to serve. We are to leave the wedding banquet and visit with the shut-out virgins who have no oil; we are to rescue the righteous servant who is punished for not investing dirty money. We are to tend to those in prison, those who are sick, and those who are hungry and thirsty.
“The kingdom is like ten virgins,” not five. We are to restore those who are locked out.
“It is a man on a journey” who does wicked things along the way, rewarding those who launder and grow his ill-gotten gains, while allowing greed to overwhelm his humanity to a point that he would harm a righteous man. We are to restore that relationship through forgiveness, grace, and justice.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, with his angels, and on his throne, dividing the people as a shepherd divides the sheep and goats, sending those who have not showed kindness to the “least of these” to eternal punishment, and those who have to eternal life, we are evermore confident that even then – we are to go retrieve the goats.
It’s obviously hard work. Perhaps this is why Jesus gives us eternity to sort it out.
Clearly, the above is unorthodox exegesis. It’s our job as theologians, ministers, and disciples of Jesus to think deeply about the lessons we are taught through scripture. As we enter the Christmas season, I urge families to reimagine parables like these. Many of us will be reading to our children the story of the virgin birth in a few weeks. Unquestionably, there will be questions. Do not be afraid to be creative in how you respond or interpret the story. The reason for the season is Jesus. He brings with him the kingdom where the lion and lamb as well as the corrupt banker and indebted borrower are at peace.
As it says in Isaiah 11:6 a little child will lead them all. Let the curious child in you read afresh the scriptures of our faith and enjoy the Christmas season.
Keeva Kase is the Director of External Relations for the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Keeva holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and has held a variety of ministerial positions and continues to serve congregations and communities. He has served on various government and nonprofit boards, committees, and taskforces concerning child welfare, interfaith social action, public arts, and civic engagement. He lives with his wife and children in Charlottesville.