The Story of the Ten Virgins, #36

Matthew 25:1-13, CSB

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they didn’t take oil with them; but the wise ones took oil in their flasks with their lamps. When the groom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“In the middle of the night there was a shout: ‘Here’s the groom! Come out to meet him.’

“Then all the virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’

“The wise ones answered, ‘No, there won’t be enough for us and for you. Go instead to those who sell oil, and buy some for yourselves.’

10 “When they had gone to buy some, the groom arrived, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut. 11 Later the rest of the virgins also came and said, ‘Master, master, open up for us!’

12 “He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you!’

13 “Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour.

There were three stages in every ancient Jewish wedding.

  • Engagement–when fathers got together to make sure that it would be a good match.
  • Betrothal—a ceremony in which formal promises were made by the lovers.
  • Marriage—a surprise arrival, usually a year later, by the groom at the home of the woman.

Each was incredibly important. There couldn’t be any short-cuts; one just didn’t jump into this. It wasn’t a Las Vegas approach to just getting hitched. This parable was an extension of the previous verses in Matthew 24:36-51 and had to do with being prepared.

We can extract this from the third step of marriage. The groom would show up at night, and torches were used to light their way, (apparently the flashlight hadn’t been invented yet). Within Jesus’ parable was the idea of suddenness or surprise.

But no one knew exactly when the groom would show up.

Hence there is an emergency feel to this story. The text states in verse 5:

Five of them were foolish and five were wise.”

The story hinges on this sentence. Readiness is the issue here. Everything of any significance must take on the sudden arrival of the groom’s entourage. The virgins, apparently, would go out to meet him—the torches mingling their light, and drive out any darkness. (It seems that 10 was the acceptable number for a proper rabbinical ceremony).

The problem was that only 1/2 of them were ready. It’s interesting to note that everyone was sleeping. Obviously, that didn’t mean anything for it was the availability of “oil” that would make the difference. The idea was a surprise visit.

The oil was the key. And for us, it represents the Holy Spirit.

Sleep is not the whole issue here, but being prepared is. Five girls were foolish, they were simply not ready. They realized their error and tried to finagle oil from the others, but ultimately that would short everyone in their group. There was an idea that a trip to the local oil merchant would work. It was an idea anyway.

But it was already too late!

The door was closed. The five simply missed it. They stood outside knocking and calling, but they didn’t enter in on time. Reading between the lines, I sense they were desperate. Verse 12 is meant to penetrate and reveal the price of tolerating spiritual sloth.

“He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you!’

The purpose of this parable is the ending line that stresses alertness in a society that dulls everything. The temptation is to act like you’re spiritually aware when you’re not. It’s one of our greatest sins. We assume our lamps are lit when the reality is that our oil (the Holy Spirit) is running close to zero. When our sloth gets mixed with hypocrisy it’ll surely destroy us.

We’re snoring our way to spiritual death.

We must resist slumber and slothfulness. Jesus asserts that his virgins must be prepared and ready for his coming. We must be ready, we must—the price of our unreadiness is high indeed.

“Take care of giving up your first zeal; beware of cooling in the least degree. Ye were hot and earnest once; be hot and earnest still, and let the fire which once burnt within you still animate you. Be ye still men of might and vigor, men who serve their God with diligence and zeal.”

    Charles Spurgeon

Art by Eugène Burnan

The Parable of the Two Sons, #26

Matthew 21:28-32

  28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go work in the vineyard today.’

29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. ‘I will, sir,’ he answered, but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; but you, when you saw it, didn’t even change your minds then and believe him.

It isn’t what you say, it’s what you do.

The parable kicks-off the last week of Jesus’ ministry. Consider the following, Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem, and on a single day:

  • He has just rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
  • He has received the praise of the crowd that he’s the Messiah
  • He has cleansed the temple
  • He has healed many sick in the temple courts
  • He’s had a showdown with the leadership of Israel
  • He rebuked a fig-tree for not having figs to eat
  • He had another encounter with the leaders of Jerusalem over his authority,
  • He teaches two parables (this one, and “the Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” vv. 33-46.)
  • He has another go-around with the Jewish leadership

And you thought you had a busy day! Jesus realizes that time is running short for him and on his earthly ministry. This parable, and the one that follows is a clear indictment on the Jewish leadership—the scribes, Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The parable must be understood by those in his audience. The leaders listened, and so did the crowds. Everyone got to hear the truth, whether they liked it or not. We must realize that Jesus didn’t intend to antagonize his audience purposefully. He only spoke these two parables to clarify what was true in the kingdom of God. Two sons, two reactions. The story divides the people right down the middle—you either accepted his word, or you ignored it.

It doesn’t matter what you said, it does matter what you did.

Tax-collectors and prostitutes (!) discover that the door to the kingdom opens up for them, but slams shut when the religious people want in. Jesus’ story declares that the Pharisees must go to the back of the line, and wait for others to enter in first. (Now that’s a mind blower.)

Let’s not get it mixed up. Salvation is 100% pure grace, and it has zero per cent human effort. He saves us, not because we’re such wonderful people (at least on Sundays, anyway!), but because of his gracious love. “It is by grace that we’re saved,” (Eph 2:8-9).

We’re the ones who won’t go to work when asked, but afterwards we decide to go. When we listen to Jesus—either from a Pharisee or a sinner viewpoint, will determine our real position in the kingdom.

What we say matters little, but what we do matters a great deal more.

“They talk of repenting, but they do not repent. They speak of believing, but they never believe. They think of submitting to God, but they have not submitted themselves to him yet. They say it is time they broke up the fallow ground, and sought the Lord, but they do not seek him. It all ends in a mere promise.”

C.H. Spurgeon

Art by Eugène Burnand

The Parable of the Growing Seed, #21

Mark 4:26-29

 “The kingdom of God is like this,” he said. “A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day; the seed sprouts and grows, although he doesn’t know how.” 

“The soil produces a crop by itself—first the blade, then the head, and then the full grain on the head. 29 As soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

From a seed to a plant. We have no idea how this happens, it just does. This is a “kingdom” parable, one of several that explain what God’s realm is, and how it happens. In this particular story, we’re told how the Holy Spirit works. It also explains our role in this (which isn’t a whole lot).

The farmer puts the seed in the ground—and that’s it. He’s done his work, there’s nothing more he can do. He doesn’t do anything else from this point, and honestly he can’t. And yet the soil needs to be prepared—plowed, fertilized and tilled again. You might say he creates the conditions (that’s what makes a good farmer, I guess) for something to happen.

He doesn’t massage the seed, coaxing it to grow. He doesn’t sing to it, or tell it about the wonders of being lush and green. He does zero. The seed grows on its own. He goes to bed, and gets up. After several days, bingo! That seed turns into a plant—something green and alive. He doesn’t do a thing. Life occurs without his work.

The point is this. God’s work is done invisibly within us (and that’s a relief)!

“The secret of growth is in the seed, not in the soil nor in the weather nor in the cultivating. These all help, but the seed spontaneously works according to its own nature.”

Robertson’s Commentary

God’s kingdom works pretty much like this. The farmer doesn’t cause the seed growth, all he does is go to bed! He sleeps and waits and watches. It grows and he hasn’t the slightest. It’s a complete mystery. He has done everything he can, and God has done the rest. He “shares” in this amazing transformation, but the father has done it all.

We trust in a process we cannot see, or really understand.

We don’t dig the seed up every morning to see what’s happening. We just let the (super)natural happen. And it does!

The farmer has faith in the process (after all, he did plant the seed), but that’s it. There’s a verse in 2 Thessalonians 1:3 the should be considered. It gives us confidence and a definite trust in this process of growth. The Apostle Paul understands this “principle of growth.”

“We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, since your faith is flourishing and the love each one of you has for one another is increasing.”

We must trust God completely to grow. We’re responsible for tilling and planting. But you need to understand what happens after that is up to him. The kingdom of God is supernatural. It’s exactly how the kingdom happens—and we must be patient and wise.

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold Glascow

The Dishonest Manager, #17

eugene-burnand.com/

Luke 16:1-9, ESV

“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 

And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’” 

“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures[a] of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures[b] of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’” 

The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world[c] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth,[d] so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

This one’s a challenge. I’ve wrestled off and on with this passage for 40 years, and until just lately have I’ve gotten an idea, (maybe) of what this parable is about. (If I’m off the wall, please let me know.) I must say, first of all, that the dishonest manager’s trickery is never endorsed by Jesus. The man is a thief and a scoundrel. He has embezzled his master’s money, and betrayed his trust. That’s a bad thing.

But yet there is something worth emulating about his conduct.

He’s a genuine businessman–focused and direct. He’s always got a plan, he’s always thinking ahead. He has a definite direction. There’s a purpose and a direct idea–a focus, and that sets him apart from others. Jesus makes an observation to his disciples. It’s the key to this parable. Notice what I’ve highlighted:

8-9 “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself.” “Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.”

“They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right

—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

Luke 16:8-9, Message

A sailor will tell you that the hardest boat to steer is one that is dead in the water. Perfectly still it can’t be directed. It has to be moving. I wonder sometimes if some of Jesus’ disciples are too passive. They’ve repented and experienced God’s grace; they are definitely saved and going to heaven. That’s wonderful. But they’re just stalled after that. They have become passive and unfocused. They seem to float and drift and take whatever current that moves them along.

That “dead in the water” passivity isn’t what Jesus is looking for. This parable stresses the need to be aware, alert and always “looking for angles.” People like this have an edge about them, they’re like the salesman in a leisure suit– they’re always focused on their next “lucrative” move. They’re the “hustlers” of the Christian walk!

Jesus made an observation about that same sort of intensity in the ministry of John the Baptist:

“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.”

Luke 16:16

There needs to be a holy violence, it seems, something that’s pressing–something we’re striving for. Paul understood this also:

 “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 3:14, KJV

Jesus is making it quite clear that a passive walk is contrary to true discipleship. There must be movement towards a goal. We can’t just float through a nice, quiet Christian life. There needs to be a zeal and a holy direction. Yes, we need to wait, and listen! Being still and quiet before him is critical. But we can’t lose our direction and focus. It seems we must be forceful.

I believe that this parable reveals to us that a holy zeal is needed. The dishonest manager was a rascal and a cheat. But yet there was something that Jesus approved of, a directed zeal for that which we should have. Perhaps we’ve gotten a bit lax–floating through our salvation without any direction.

We definitely need to be people who love, and who are controlled by the Spirit. But we also need to be a people who press into the things of God. We need a directed zeal and definite purpose. Being a passive believer isn’t an option, and it doesn’t please God. We need to become believers who are always looking at God’s glory, and are moving toward it with a holy zeal, and a specific purpose.

“Men could be content to have the kingdom of Heaven; but they are loathe to fight for it. They choose rather to go in a feather bed to Hell than to be carried to Heaven in a ‘fiery chariot’ of zeal and violence.”

    Thomas Watson

Art by Eugène Burnand