From: Busy Person’s Guide to Matthew 15 to 28 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2019
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Busy Person’s Guide to the New Testament:
Quickly Understanding Matthew
(Volume 2: Chapter 25)
Preparedness and Unpreparedness: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins Attending a Wedding Feast (Matthew 25:1-13): 1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps.
5 “When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 But at there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 11 Later, the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!’ 12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I do not know you!’ 13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
--New English Translation (for comparison)
25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. In the preceding parable of judgment, Jesus speaks of those “at the top of the ladder,” who have a major position in life through which they have authority and control over others. Here he moves down the “societal totem pole” to the level of the masses of people. He does this through a story in which He emphasizes young unmarried women and how they went to attend a marriage feast (25:1-13). They all have gone out together to await and greet the bridegroom upon his arrival.
Sidebar: Whatever symbolic overtone the number “ten” might or might not have had (I’ve always been skittish about such speculation since it is so potentially subjective), it was also the minimum number required to form a synagogue. In addition, the Talmud also refers to ten being the traditional number of “lamps” used by the brides’ friends in accompanying her to the residence of the husband or his parents.
It is a large enough number to suggest a decently sized group; in that context the failure of no less than five to be fully prepared stresses the danger of a majority of believers not being adequately prepared for the Lord’s return. It’s not an effort to give a percentage but to be sufficiently large that all listeners are warned not to take for granted their own spiritual status.
25:2 Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. In all of human society you have some who are “wise” and astute and those who are the opposite, “foolish” and who attempt to cut corners. You have equal numbers of both types in this parable--which should warn us against complacency in spiritual matters--far from “every one” will be prepared for the Lord. They will have the appearance of preparedness but far from enough spiritual substance.
25:3 Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them. The five who cut corners took just the oil already in their lamps. If things went as expected, that should work out perfectly. They did not consider the possibility that the bridegroom might arrive later than anticipated and so they took nothing extra with them to provide for that contingency. They thought in terms of the least required and nothing beyond that. On a spiritual level, they are “minimalists:” What is the least that I must do to keep the Lord happy? Not what I could do but what I must do. Recognizing its importance while still not doing enough to fully prepare for unexpected events.
25:4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. The perceptive weren’t content with having just enough to get by--that which was already in the lamps. They “erred on the safe side” and brought additional. They were prudent, not paranoid. They knew that the coming bridegroom was honorable but that things they were thoroughly unaware of might delay his arrival.
25:5 But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. The worst case scenario now happens: the bridegroom was extremely late in coming. So late in fact that all ten fell asleep. As a parable of the return of the Lord, this shows that He will not arrive at the time we expect, but at the time that best fits God's plans (Matthew 24:36). Their sin was not in nodding off into sleep for “all” did so; the sin was in not being prepared for this long a delay.
25:6 “And at a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ In the middle of the night they heard the cry of either his escorts or of one of their number who had awakened. This is finally the one they had been waiting for! There was nothing else to do but wake up and join him.
25:7 Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. Not wanting to fall in the dark and wanting to see where they were going, all ten prepared their lamps to go outside: “The trimming consisted in removing the charred portion of the wick, and raising the wick itself by means of a pointed wire which was fastened by a chain to each lamp. These operations would be followed by the replenishment of the vase with oil from the vessel carried for what purpose.” (Pulpit Commentary)
25:8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ Those who had not come prepared for a possible delay were desperate and pleaded for additional oil, since their own lamps were sputtering out. They now had an unanticipated problem and it was all of their own making. No one else could be blamed for it.
25:9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ The astute refused to listen because they were not certain there was enough of their own left to get by. They weren't being “mean” or “unkind”--merely cautious and prudent. The others did have an option; indeed it was their only option: They should go out and wake up some merchant and buy some more. The hour was late but five anxious women banging on the door for assistance was certainly going to get his attention!
25:10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. While the unprepared desperately sought help, the bridegroom arrived and the astute virgins entered the site of the feast building with him. (In the practice of the day having walked there with the bride.) Afterwards the door was shut behind them. After all, those who were supposed to be there had had the opportunity to arrive. And simply having people “wander in” uninvited--in the middle of the night--was hardly a prudent course!
Sidebar: On a spiritual level the feasting room is heaven (cf. Revelation 19:9). Jewish thought was well aware of the propriety of describing the next world in such terms. As one Talmudic scholar suggested, “This world is like the vestibule, the world to come is like the dining chamber: prepare thyself in the vestibule, that thou mayest be able to enter the dining chamber.”
25:11 “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ Arriving after the feast had begun, the unwise girls naturally hollered out for admission. If they had been prudent this problem would never have occurred in the first place. However sad their situation, it was produced by no one but themselves. What would be the act of wisdom in this situation?
To let them in when they had had just as much opportunity to prepare as anyone else? Or to restrict the reward strictly to those who had made the serious effort to be prepared? The judgment of the bridegroom. . . .
25:12 But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ The bridegroom rejected the plea without even opening the door. After all, if they were part of the wedding party they would have been waiting for him and already be inside. So far as he was concerned, these were simply strangers that had no right to admission to the festivities.
The image is of permanent exclusion from the joy of the marriage feast. They are not ordered to depart--as in the picture of the great judgment scene in verse 41--for there is no need. They are already excluded.
25:13 “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. The conclusion of the parable is to always be spiritually alert (“watch”), i.e., always be prepared since no one knows when the Son of Man will return. On a spiritual level the “foolish” virgins were the minimalists in religion: they did just enough to meet their obvious obligations. The “wise” virgins were those who always attempted to do more than that. When the final accounting comes, the latter are prepared no matter how long the Lord’s “delay” may be, while the former discover how woefully unprepared they actually are. But too late to correct the situation. The same will be true in the time of Jesus’ final judgment of believers--and the human race.
One Is Rewarded According to How One’s “Talents” [= Abilities and Opportunities] Are Either Used or Not Used—The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30): 14 “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it.
19 “After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’
22 “The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’
24 “Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest!
28 “Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” --New English Translation (for comparison)
25:14 “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. This chapter’s second parable of the kingdom (25:14-30) concerns a wealthy man who gives “talents”--in its literal meaning of large amounts of money--to various servants to manage in his behalf. The context is that the man is going to travel a vast distance and will not be able to directly supervise what is going on. His choice of these individuals implies that he believes that they are fully capable of handling the responsibility he gives them. The amount is based upon a judgment of their abilities and not happenstance, a fact that is explicitly stated in the following verse (“to each according to his own ability”). The fact that he knew their abilities was because they were “his own servants” and, therefore, he had full opportunity and reason to become aware of both their strengths and limitations.
25:15 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. The amounts varied, as natural in such a case. Yet each endowment was generous in its own terms.
And each represented the amount that the Lord realized that the person had the “ability” to wisely use. “So God distributes his endowments, not to all alike, but in such proportions as men are [inherently] able to bear and to profit by. The infinite variety in men's dispositions, intellects, will, opportunities, position, and so on, are all taken into account, and modify and condition their responsibility. . . . To all is given some grace or faculty which they have to employ to the glory of God. ‘Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:7). No one can justly say he is neglected in this distribution. Whatever natural powers, etc., we possess, and the opportunities of exercising and improving them, are the gift of God, and are delivered to us to be put out to interest [i.e., to be used].” (Pulpit Commentary)
Note: The modern evaluation of the value of a Biblical “talent” runs from a low figure in the thousands to a high of $1.25 million. In a “cash poor” or “minimal cash” society like the first century, the purchasing power must be greatly multiplied far beyond the literal amount.
25:16 Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. There is more than one way to make honest income but the five talent person chose trade and he impressively doubled the amount to be returned. A 100% return on investment is certainly nothing to be scoffed at!
25:17 And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. The two talent person also traded and doubled the amount entrusted to him. Both had a responsibility and both exercised it prudently and successfully.
25:18 But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. The one talent man did absolutely nothing beyond making sure that the money would not be stolen. Burying the money in a hiding place in the ground was a good method to assure safety, but kept it from being used for the purpose for which it had been granted in the first place. The servant was “not dishonest—the master had not misjudged as to that—but indolent, unenterprising, timid. What he did was often done for safety. The master might have done it himself, but he wanted increase as well as safety.” (Expositor’s Greek Testament)
25:19 After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. The text does not tell us how many years went by beyond the vague description of it being “a long time.” Yet that expression indicates that all three had abundant opportunity to do something constructive with the responsibility given them. Even the one talent person had time enough to change course and do something with the funds. But such a course reversal does not occur. He would rather be “cautious” than run any risk.
Sidebar: “After a long time:” In the context of the Lord Jesus returning, this is one of those hints that He knew, at a minimum, that there would be a very extended period between His ascension and final return. He had denied knowledge of the time of that return (Matthew 24:36), but He did know that there would be a long duration before it.
25:20 “So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ One can almost hear the pride in the five talenter who presents the Lord with double that sum. And he has certainly earned it! And he hadn’t done it to benefit himself, but someone else--his Lord.
25:21 His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ The Lord praises him as a “good and faithful servant.” Since the modest talents (modest, from the Lord’s standpoint and not his own) had been so well managed, he would make him administrator over many more things. Note that work has not ended; rather the opportunity is granted to use one’s skills in an even larger framework. Recognition is granted; new opportunities given.
Although a parable and its heavenly implications should be made with caution, it does not seem an exaggeration to deduce that heaven will not consist merely of singing hymns of praise to God or of “sitting on your bottom all day,” but involve some useful form of on-going productive service to the Eternal Creator.
25:22 He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ The two talenter presents his funds with emphasis on how he, also, had doubled the amount. Again, quite praiseworthy.
25:23 His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ Just as the individual who had received a greater blessing, this servant is also praised as “good and faithful”--reliable and trustworthy. This servant also would be promoted into greater responsibility “over many things.” Both would share “the joy of your lord”--his happiness in giving and his joy in their receiving. Since he had just returned home, perhaps an honored place at the banquet celebrating it as well.
25:24 “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. The one talenter must know by now that the Lord is not going to take kindly to the fact that nothing more than the initial money is available to return. Since there are no reasons, all that can be done is to throw out excuses (hopefully believable ones) that will explain the situation.
One is that the Lord doesn’t need this servant’s contribution. So successful had he been, it seemed as if the Lord reaped crops where none had even been sown. This is attached to another, the description of the Lord as “a hard man,” a discrete way, one suspects, of saying that “no matter what I did I could not expect it would be praiseworthy in your sight.” (A scenario already proved wrong by the other two servants.)
The word “hard” may also carry the connotation “hard-headed, persistent, rolling over obstacles” and that his success had been due to these character traits that the servant lacked: “Since I don’t have the temperament I couldn’t possibly be successful.” He views himself as foredoomed to failure; success is not an option in his book.
25:25 And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ The servant admits that he was “afraid” and this caused him to take the one policy guaranteed to avoid uncertainty and danger of loss: he buried the money in a hiding place. “Look, there you have what is yours.” Not one penny has been lost in any way! Even if his evaluation of the “harshness” of the master was true, he still had taken the one course absolutely guaranteed to annoy the master--to have been given a useful resource and failing to use it in any way.
A spiritual application--Pulpit Commentary: “So evil men persuade themselves that God asks from them more than they can perform, and content themselves by doing nothing; or they consider that their powers and means are their own, to use or not as they like, and that no one can call them to account for the way in which they treat them.”
25:26 “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. Merely breaking even and not improving was woefully inadequate. If that was all the lord wanted he didn’t have to give the servant this opportunity in the first place! So the Lord rejects the excuse: it is not really a matter of the servant being “afraid” . . . or at least not basically; the fundamental faults were those of character (“wicked”) and of temperament (“lazy”). Both could have been overcome. Then the Lord grants to him the premise (at least for discussion purpose) that the Lord was successful without even making an effort.
25:27 So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Even from the premise given by the failed servant, he could at least have given the money to the bankers. That way there would have been at least interest added to the talent. It required no personal effort beyond putting it in their hands.
Sermonically this material has been used--and properly--to stress such factors as that every person has a different set of abilities and opportunities and that though God does not expect us to be equal in how successfully we have utilized them, He does expect them to be used. Jesus chooses to emphasize a different point, however, in the next verse:
25:28 Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. Either you use your “talents” or you lose them. In the terms of the story literally so: the one talent is given to the ten talent person. In the real world, the person who has a great singing voice is not going to maintain it without regular and persistent practice. Likewise the person who is great at basketball, unless there is a regular workout with competitors. And similarly the able writer unless there is an on-going effort to produce more material. “They use it or loose it.” Likewise if you don’t “grow” your Christianity it rots away.
25:29 ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. Everyone who has exercised his or her talents the way they should, that person will gain more promises the parable. But to decline to do anything, to avoid all risk taking in spiritual affairs, assures that what little one has will itself be lost. In the parable, the talent is literally given to someone else.
In everyday life, our former abilities become forgotten and overlooked as those who are utilizing their talents replace us in the attention of others. Our talents aren’t given to them but the recognition that would be given to our talents is certainly transferred to other parties. We, too, have “lost our talents,” so to speak, by not using or developing them.
25:30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Once again the punishment is pictured in terms of exclusion (“outer darkness”) and sorrow and frustration (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”). To the extent that this might have a “literal” application, it would be that the servant was cast out of the Lord’s service and was doomed to live the rest of his life in shame and sorrow. Spiritually, it points to a far more serious and painful destiny. Their evil lay not in what they did, but in what they did not do. This is true both in this case (25:14-30) as well as the earlier parable of the unprepared virgins attending a wedding feast (25:1-13)
The Standards Used by the Messiah in Judging His People (Matthew 25:31-46): 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like 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, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited 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 naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been 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 receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’ 46 And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. The final section of this chapter is the picture of the great final judgment (25:31-46). The parabolic nature of the two preceding parables are indicated by the introductory words of both: “the kingdom of heaven is likened to” (verse 1) and “For the kingdom of heaven is like” (verse 14). Here, though, such verbal clues are lacking. That there is a parabolic element, however, would be suggested by the use of the terms “sheep” (to reflect those who are acceptable) and “goats” (to describe those who are unacceptable). Such are certainly not going to be literally judged for their behavior!
Yet that something far beyond a mere parable is involved seems required by the fact that “the Son of Man” Himself is depicted as the central authority figure (25:31) and not some anonymous earthly “Lord.” Furthermore, the standard of gaining Jesus’ acceptance or rejection is explicitly and directly the subject. In the parables of 25:1-30 we gain such information by inference; here they are on the very surface of the narrative and quite clear cut. Whatever term one chooses to apply to this section, the central point centers on the behavior demanded by Jesus for acceptance or rejection when our earthly conduct ultimately comes to its final judgment.
Sidebar: “That this
refers to the last judgment, and not, as some have supposed, to the destruction
25:32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. Although “all the nations” are at this judgment bar, judging from the criteria actually utilized for making the verdict--humanitarianism to Christians while faith in Christ is not mentioned at all--the idea seems clearly to be the judgment of Christians who are from “all the nations.” Otherwise the omission of any reference to the essentiality of faith is inexplicable.
If one wishes to expand the scene beyond that limited one, the best place to go is probably Romans 2:12-16, which describes “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (verse 16). This is presented as one in which the standard for those without Divine law is whether “by nature [they] do the things in the law, [and if they do] these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves” (verse 14).
Since this, obviously, can not refer to instinctively acting according to all of what God has commanded--for much of that will only be done if one accepts the authority of the scriptures--the reference is likely to be with one’s moral behavior in how others are treated. And what better criteria for making that judgment than the one pictured in this section of Matthew 25--the treatment of those who are hurting and abused and in need? However even that would only argue for a similarity in criteria for their judgment rather than for their presence in this judgment.
25:33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. The “right” hand is considered the most important one since it is the dominant and most used hand by the bulk of individuals. (It was also used of the person embodying wisdom in Ecclesiastes 10:2). The “sheep” are on that side since ancient society also considered sheep more valuable than goats. Goats had their use, of course, but it wasn’t as great as the other animal; so they get placed on the less important side of the judge. Furthermore sheep gave you milk and wool; goats stank.
Sidebar on goats: “Goats are an appropriate figure, because the goat was regarded as a comparatively worthless animal. Hence the point of the elder son's complaint in the parable of the Prodigal: Not so much as a kid (Luke ). The diminutive (ἐρίφια) expresses contempt.” (Vincent’s Word Studies)
25:34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. The judge is described as royalty (“King”) and He notes that the reward the faithful are about to receive is not one recently decided upon; rather it is one prepared for individuals like them since the world began. Receiving such a reward makes them “blessed” by God (with the connotations of honored and respected).
Sidebar: The text does not say that the redeemed themselves are chosen “from the foundation of the world” (i.e., predestination), but that the reward for the redeemed had been selected and prepared at that time.
25:35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in. The standard of reward was their humanitarian aid to Jesus: As we will shortly see, they will not have recognized the recipient as Jesus, but it was Him nonetheless--because it was fellow church members who are part of Christ's body, the church: “You are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians ).
It doesn’t even matter whether you particularly like them or not--it’s their need that is the deciding feature. Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, Paul wrote that this old principle was just as valid as it had ever been:
“17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 Therefore if ‘tour enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12)
25:36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Providing food and drink and accommodations for the visitor (“a stranger,” verse 35) was laudable in itself, but they went far beyond this level of helpfulness. If they encountered a local who was virtually naked, they managed to provide the needed clothing. If He was sick they visited and cared for him. If he was unjustly imprisoned they also visited Him--though in this context that surely includes food, clothing, medical assistance . . . whatever He needed that they could bring with them. (Modern jails can be rough; ancient ones were normally far worse.)
25:37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? Here we learn the moral identity of those receiving praise and admission into the eternal kingdom--“the righteous” . . . those who have lived up to the moral ideals the Lord had taught. They are certainly not unhappy to receive the profound blessing they are about to gain, but they are unquestionably mystified: They don't have the foggiest idea of where and when they had encountered the Lord in this fashion.
Theoretically this could indicate non-Christians are being addressed since Christians should already know that they are doing so. Or should they--except in the most literal of senses? Shouldn’t our minds be virtually exclusively on the one actually receiving assistance? If not . . . and our minds are concentrating on making a good impression on God . . . then isn’t our help merely self-serving “buttering up of the Lord?” Our actions become empty pretense: “We aren’t helping you to help you; we are trying to impress someone else and you are the tool we are using.” So we concentrate on them and push out of our minds the One we are simultaneously honoring.
25:38-39 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? The benevolent do not have the slightest memories of being kind to Him in these ways either. These actions are even more dramatic than the previous ones. They would inevitably remember--wouldn't they?
25:40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ The answer to their puzzlement was that they had done this for Jesus indirectly: whenever they provided assistance to His disciples they were also doing it for and to Him. He again introduces the idea of His disciples being His kin (“brethren,” for they are all part of His body, the church). Furthermore “whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew ).
Barnes’ Notes has some good words on how and why this close linkage automatically exists: “The union between Christ and his people is the most tender and endearing of all connections. It is represented by the closest unions of which we have knowledge, John 15:4-6 [branch and vine]; Ephesians 5:23-32 [husband and wife]; 1 Corinthians [“Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body?”]. This is a union--not physical, but moral; a union of feelings, interests, plans, destiny; or, in other words, He and His people have similar feelings, love the same objects, share the same trials, and inherit the same blessedness, John 14:19; Revelation 3:5, 21; Romans 8:17. Hence, He considers favors shown to His people as shown to Himself, and will reward them accordingly, Matthew , 42.”
If it is only the treatment of believers that is under consideration, the fact that there is such a close linkage between Christ and His people makes perfect sense. It seems hopeless to make a credible case that such a close linkage exists between Christ and the human race in general. General humanitarianism is certainly a virtue, but that is not the kind that Jesus describes as salvational.
25:41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. They are “cursed” by their lack of benevolence to believers (see the following verses). For these lapses their destiny is the same “everlasting” one prepared for Satan and His followers (“angels”): that of “fire.” Interpret it however one will, painful punishment and rejection are inescapably included. Permanent rejection and anguish.
25:42-43 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did
not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did
25:44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Whatever literalness or symbolism the “fire” language is intended to include, they are wise enough to know that they need to stay away from that place of retribution. Hence they understandably protest since they have no memory of these things happening at all. How in the world could He make such an unjust accusation? (The latter not spoken, but surely implicit in their very protest.) They would never treat their Lord in such a manner—surely He knew that!
25:45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ The answer is the same as in regard to the rewarded but in reverse: by not doing these things for Jesus’ disciples they had refused to do it for Him as well. You can't sever the relationship of Leader and followers; they are bound together. Or to make a modern application: You can't reverence, respect, and revere the Lord while treating His earthly followers like garbage through neglect or outright mistreatment. “The chickens come home to roost.” And it won't be a pleasant “homecoming.”
25:46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Two eternities now loom ahead. For those believers who had fulfilled their humanitarian obligations to their coreligionists the joy of “eternal life” but to those who had declined and ignored those opportunities and obligations, the condemnation of an “everlasting punishment.” The time duration is the same. If Heaven will never end will “everlasting punishment” ever end? And who in their right mind really wants to be there to find out?
Sidebar: How long does one stay in Hell? In this verse we read of “everlasting [αἰώνιον, aiōnion] punishment” and “eternal [αἰώνιον, aiōnion] life,” with the duration of both being described with the same Greek term. Although people of good will have often struggled to make the punishment part comparatively “short term” as compared with the duration of heaven, the use of the same durational language for both makes that task extremely difficult--unless one is willing to make both “short term” (compared with literally non-ending).
The only way to deal with this would seem to be to argue that the place of both reward and punishment is literally non-ending, the duration in either might be far less. For example, we read of angels being cast out of heaven (Revelation 12:9 and various other texts interpreted as referring to such). The best approach would be to live in such a manner that we won’t learn the duration of “everlasting punishment” on a personal basis.
It certainly isn’t presented in such indefinitely
long terms because it’s going to be as pleasant and temporary as a summer vacation