The keys that unlock the action: Matthew’s last parables

Posted: June 16, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Jesus has been prepping his disciples for his coronation, and all that will accompany it. There will be great suffering, there will be mission, there will be judgement, there will be many people unprepared. He’s taking his cues from the prophet Daniel.

It’s time to see these themes played out in full colour. Jesus turns them into a series of parables. The point is to concretise and dramatise his teaching, to condense its complexity into simple stories with emotional punch. He wants his disciples to get a sense of what all this will mean for them and for others. The parables help apply all this teaching from ch.24 personally. Let’s see how they do that.

First, we meet a master who comes home and assesses his head slave’s work:

Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.  24:46

This is about leadership in Israel. God has entrusted its leaders with care for his people. But the stewards are conscious that master has been absent a long time. This addresses a fundamental experience and problem in the life of Israel: the throne of David has been vacant for centuries. Israel has been crying out ‘How long O Lord?’ in their communal psalm singing, generation after generation. Meanwhile, the nation has been left in the hands of the priests and teachers of the law. How have these stewards behaved in the king’s long absence? Has their ‘love grown cold’? Have they fallen away to become those who ‘hate and betray one another’? Now the master is returning: the throne will be occupied once more, when the son of man receives the kingdom.  Now we will find out who was faithful!

The arriving master assesses their work. Those leaders found negligent in their duties, are judged to belong among the hypocrites. Six times in the previous chapter Jesus used this term specifically about the Pharisees and scribes. Here he makes it clear that those groups are in his cross hairs once again. The scribes and Pharisees are the stewards who will be judged.

We see this play out in Acts 1-8, and even more so at the fall of Jerusalem, AD 70, when the establishment and priesthood is effectively made redundant.

Next the parable of the 10 virgins emphasises the need to be prepared. The great day long waited for, is arriving now. The bridegroom is arriving. Those found unprepared, with no light in their lamps, they won’t get any more chances. They will be shut out. Once again, it is the leaders in view, who are supposed to shine the light of God’s word to the nation and the world. The hour of reckoning is at hand for the Jerusalem establishment. The false prophets will be completely discomfited. The parable ends with an urgent warning and summons to readiness, like a trumpet note.

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. 25:13

Next the parable of the talents is also about those left with a trust, a responsibility from the master. But once again, the master has been absent a long time. Now the master is returning, to find out what they did with their trust. A division will be made between those who used it well and those who didn’t.

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  25:29

These are the words Jesus used back in ch.13 regarding how the nation of Israel listened to the word of God. The slaves here, then, are the people of Israel. They hold this sacred trust: the oracles of God. What did they do with that trust? Did the word of God spring up and come to fruition in their lives? Or did they sit on it? Did the activate the word or bury it? On this question hangs the future of the nation. And now is the time for the ‘settling of the accounts’. For the master has come to home: Jesus is about to be crowned.

The last parable is the most explicit, in picturing the son of man taking his throne. It reminds us that the whole set of parables relates closely to the ‘son of man’ teaching that came before it, in ch.24. These parables describe the things that will happen when the son takes up his rule and authority. His throne is a throne of judgement. The ‘sheep and the goats’ parable focusses on the division caused by Jesus and his brothers. They have been on mission throughout Israel. Some have received them, assisted them, befriended them – others have rejected them. This division will continue to take place throughout Israel and beyond, over the years following Jesus’ resurrection. In this way the nations will be divided: into those who welcomed Christ and those who did not. How they treat the messengers is how they treat Christ himself:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’   25:40

Jesus repeatedly identified the disciples as ‘his brothers’  (12:49, 23:8, 28:10). They are the ones in view here: the ones who go out on mission with and for him. They are the ones who are going to be hungry and a stranger and in prison etc.

As Jesus has insisted before, people effectively divide and judge themselves by their response to these brothers (Matt 10). And, once the son is on his throne, people will receive the reward for their conduct. The welcomers will themselves be welcomed into the new kingdom. The rejecters will be rejected and fall under judgement.

But of course, Jerusalem is about to reject Messiah and all who belong to him. We see all this played out in Acts, and in the story of Jerusalem in the 1st century. Messiah’s people will be abused and suffer at the hands of the establishment. But within 40 years the Jerusalem establishment will be completely demolished.

These parables, so long puzzled over, are in fact keys that unlock the meaning of the events taking place right then in Jerusalem, in that Passover week. They tell us what is going on, and how to understand the things about to happen.

There will certainly be broader applications possible for these parables as we read them today.  However, we want to start by understanding what they are about, and how they fit into the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, which is about to unfold in Matthew’s gospel. In the first instance – can we bear to accept it? – they are not about us. They are about the people in the story. The parables, like the teaching they dramatise, are about Jewish issues and concerns. They are spoken to a Jewish audience in Jerusalem, by the Jewish Messiah, at the Passover. If we are not interested in Jewish issues, or feel they are irrelevant to us, or just haven’t the patience for them, that is hardly Jesus’ problem!


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