“Then the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were foolish and five were wise. For when the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take olive oil with them. . . . But while they had gone away to buy [oil] the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding celebration, and the door was shut. And later the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you!’ Therefore be on the alert, because you do not know the day or the hour!”–Matthew 25:1-3, 10-13
Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins to highlight the importance of adopting a mind-set that looks forward to the coming of Christ’s kingdom with diligent anticipation. If we truly long for something, we ought to be ready when it finally transpires. Our faith that it will occur is reflected in this posture of readiness. And nothing provides evidence of that “ready posture” like a continual willingness and ability to serve Christ (the bridegroom) wherever we encounter Him. The bridegroom’s rejection of the foolish virgins may strike us as graceless and unforgiving. But we should not take the five women barred from the wedding feast and blame their misfortune on mere imprudence. Rather, we should see in their “unreadiness” a lackadaisical attitude toward the promises of God. The Bridegroom has announced His intent to return. Our actions–indeed, everything about us–should gratefully resound with the hope we have in the One who will fulfill that promise.
Jesus reinforces this message in the parable of the talents.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money.”–Matthew 25:14-18
Here, two servants maintain an attitude of diligent readiness while they await the return of their master. Given responsibility over a portion of the master’s wealth, they commit themselves to the master’s gain and go on to enjoy the master’s reward. In contrast to his fellows, the third servant squanders the opportunity afforded to him and proves unready when the time for accounting comes.
“After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. . . . Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. . . . And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”–Matthew 25:19, 24-28, 30
On the surface, we can muster some sympathy for this hapless servant. At worst, he may strike us as lazy. If we’re charitable, we might label him as just a bit too risk-averse. In any case, we can accept the fear he has of his master as a plausible excuse for the inaction that results in his harsh punishment. Yet while we tend to think that this third servant is afflicted by fear, he seems–on closer inspection–to be driven more by selfishness.
Consider how the “one-talent” servant explains his poor performance and then tries to make amends. The underlying logic reveals a thing or two about how he thinks about ownership. His perspective on what rightfully belongs to his master and what he can justifiably claim for himself severely distorts the master-servant relationship. He sees only the one talent at play here. It’s all he’s been given, so it must be all he owes. Once he returns it, they’re even-steven.
But there is much more to this transaction. It is not enough to hand back the one talent with some subtle appeal to a pseudo-silver lining (“well, at least I didn’t lose any money”). Why is this not enough? Because the master’s claim over the servant extends far beyond a single talent. It encompasses the servant’s entire life and livelihood . . . everything the servant possesses . . . everything about him. Having entrusted this servant with a portion of his wealth, the master now expects a return on investment commensurate with the servant’s abilities, which (we might presume) had been acquired and refined under the master’s charge. Instead, the master gains nothing . . . just a hole in the ground.
When the servant indirectly accuses the master of “reaping where he has not sown,” he is saying that the master habitually takes what does not belong to him. We need not accept the servant’s statement as a fair and accurate judgment. The problem lies not with an abusive master but with an envious, selfish servant whose hard heart has blinded him to the master’s true character.
It’s not a case of the master greedily overstepping his bounds. In the servant’s world, there are no limits to the master’s authority. Again, everything belongs to the master. It is the servant, rather, who implicitly claims something that is not his to claim. Forget about the talent . . . his very life is not his own.
Are we living in joyful expectation of the promise, tending to the Master’s business and thus ready to welcome the Master when He returns? As servants, how do we view the life we have been given? Do we compartmentalize . . . setting aside one talent as a peace offering to the Master while clinging to a string of passing days that we imagine to be our own? Are we afraid to let go of that life, hiding behind a mask of fear but really stewing–as the wicked servant does–in a tepid pool of selfishness? We don’t have to be.
Read what the Master longs to say to each of us:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master.”–Matthew 25:21
By His grace, we can have a heart that is truly ready to hear those words.