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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Matthew 25

 

 

Verses 26-30

Matthew

TRADERS FOR THE MASTER

Matthew 25:14 - Matthew 25:30.

The parable of the Ten Virgins said nothing about their working whilst they waited. This one sets forth that side of the duties of the servants in their master’s absence, and so completes the former. It is clearly in its true historical connection here, and is closely knit to both the preceding and following context. It is a strange instance of superficial reading that it should ever have been supposed to be but another version of Luke’s parable of the pounds. The very resemblances of the two are meant to give force to their differences, which are fundamental. They are the converse of each other. That of the pounds teaches that men who have the same gifts intrusted to them may make a widely different use of these, and will be rewarded differently, in strictly graduated proportion to their unlike diligence. The lesson of the parable before us, on the other hand, is that men with dissimilar gifts may employ them with equal diligence; and that, if they do, their reward shall be the same, however great the endowments of one, and slender those of another. A reader who has missed that distinction must be very shortsighted, or sworn to make out a case against the Gospels.

I. We may consider the lent capital and the business done with it.

Masters nowadays do not give servants their money to trade with, when they leave home; but the incident is true to the old-world relations of master and slave. Our Lord’s consciousness of His near departure, which throbs in all this context, comes out emphatically here. He is preparing His disciples for the time when they will have to work without Him, like the managers of some branch house of business whose principal has gone abroad. What are the ‘talents’ with which He will start them on their own account? We have taken the word into common language, however little we remember the teaching of the parable as to the hand that gives ‘men of talent’ their endowments. But the natural powers usually called by the name are not what Christ means here, though the principles of the parable may be extended to include them. For these powers are the ‘ability’ according to which the talents are given. But the talents themselves are the spiritual knowledge and endowments which are properly the gifts of the ascended Lord to His Church. Two important lessons as to these are conveyed. First, that they are distributed in varying measure, and that not arbitrarily, by the mere will of the giver, but according to his discernment of what each servant can profitably administer. The ‘ability’ which settles their amount is not more closely defined. It may include natural faculty, for Christ’s gifts usually follow the line of that; and the larger the nature, the more of Him it can contain. But it also includes spiritual receptiveness and faithfulness, which increase the absorbing power. The capacity to receive will also be the capacity to administer, and it will be fully filled.

The second lesson taught is that spiritual gifts are given for trading with. In other words, they are here considered not so much as blessings to the possessor as his stock-in-trade, which he can employ for the Master’s enrichment. We are all tempted to think of them mostly as given us for our own blessing and joy; and the reminder is never unseasonable that a Christian receives nothing for himself alone. God hath shined into our hearts, that we may give to others the light of the knowledge which has flashed glad day into our darkness. The Master intrusts us with a portion of His wealth, not for expending on ourselves, but for trading with.

A third principle here is that the right use of His gifts increases them in our hands. ‘Money makes money.’ The five talents grow to ten, the two to four. The surest way to increase our possession of Christ’s grace is to try to impart it. There is no better way of strengthening our own faith than to seek to make others share in it. Christian convictions, spoken, are confirmed, but muffled in silence are weakened. ‘There is that scattereth and yet increaseth.’ Seed heaped and locked up in a granary breeds weevils and moths; flung broadcast over the furrows, it multiplies into seed that can be sown again, and bread that feeds the sower. So we have in this part of the parable almost the complete summary of the principles on which, the purposes for which, and the results to faithful use with which, Christ gives His gifts.

The conduct of the slenderly endowed servant who hides his talent will be considered farther on.

II. We note the faithful servants’ balance-sheet and reward.

Our Lord again sounds the note of delay-’After a long time’-an indefinite phrase which we know carries centuries in its folds, how many more we know not nor are intended to know. The two faithful servants present their balance-sheet in identical words, and receive the same commendation and reward. Their speech is in sharp contrast with the idle one’s excuse, inasmuch as it puts a glad acknowledgment of the lord’s giving in the forefront, as if to teach that the thankful recognition of his liberality underlies all joyful and successful service, and deepens while it makes glad the sense of responsibility. The cords of love are silken; and he who begins with setting before himself the largeness of Christ’s gifts to him, will not fail in using these so as to increase them. In the light of that day, the servant sees more clearly than when he was at work the results of his work. We do not know what the year’s profits have been till stock-taking and balancing-time comes. Here we often say, ‘I have laboured in vain.’ There we shall say, ‘I have gained five talents.’

The verbatim repetition of the same words to both servants teaches the great lesson of this parable as contrasted with that of the pounds, that where there has been the same faithful work, with different amounts of capital, there will be the same reward. Our Master does not care about quantity, but about quality and motive. The slave with a few shillings, enough to stock meagrely a little stall, may show as much business capacity, diligence, and fidelity, as if he had millions to work with. Christ rewards not actions, but the graces which are made visible in actions; and these can be as well seen in the tiniest as in the largest deeds. The light that streams through a pin-prick is the same that pours through the widest window. The crystals of a salt present the same facets, flashing back the sun at the same angles, whether they be large or microscopically small. Therefore the judgment of Christ, which is simply the utterance of fact, takes no heed of the extent but only of the kind of service, and puts on the same level of recompense all who, with however widely varying powers, were one in spirit, in diligence, and devotion. The eulogium on the servants is not ‘successful’ or ‘brilliant,’ but ‘faithful,’ and both alike get it.

The words of the lord fall into three parts. First comes his generous and hearty praise,-the brief and emphatic monosyllable ‘Well,’ and the characterisation of the servants as ‘good and faithful.’ Praise from Christ’s lips is praise indeed; and here He pours it out in no grudging or scanty measure, but with warmth and evident delight. His heart glows with pleasure, and His commendation is musical with the utterance of His own joy in His servants. He ‘rejoices over them with singing’; and more gladly than a fond mother speaks honeyed words of approval to her darling, of whose goodness she is proud, does He praise these two. When we are tempted to disparage our slender powers as compared with those of His more conspicuous servants, and to suppose that all which we do is nought, let us think of this merciful and loving estimate of our poor service. For such words from such lips, life itself were wisely flung away; but such words from such lips will be spoken in recognition of many a piece of service less high and heroic than a martyr’s. ‘Good and faithful’ refers not to the more general notion of goodness, but to the special excellence of a servant, and the latter word seems to define the former. Fidelity is the grace which He praises,-manifested in the recognition that the capital was a loan, given to be traded with for Him, and to be brought back increased to Him. He is faithful who ever keeps in view, and acts on, the conditions on which, and the purposes for which, he has received his spiritual wealth; and ‘he who is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much.’

The second part of the lord’s words is the appointment to higher office, as the reward of faithfulness. Here on earth, the tools come, in the long run, to the hands that can use them, and the best reward of faithfulness in a narrower sphere is to be lifted to a wider. Promotion means more to do; and if the world were rightly organised, the road to advancement would be diligence; and the higher a man climbed, the wider would be the horizon of his labour. It is so in Christ’s kingdom, and should be so in His visible Church. It will be so in heaven. Clearly this saying implies the active theory of the future life, and the continuance in some ministry of love, unknown to us, of the energies which were trained in the small transactions of earth. ‘If five talents are “a few things,” how great the “many things” will be!’ In the parable of the pounds, the servant is made a ruler; here being ‘set over’ seems rather still to point to the place of a steward or servant. The sphere is enlarged, but the office is unaltered. The manager who conducted a small trade rightly will be advanced to the superintendence of a larger business.

‘We doubt not that for one so true

There must be other, nobler work to do,’

and that in that work the same law will continue to operate, and faithfulness be crowned with ever-growing capacities and tasks through a dateless eternity.

The last words of the lord pass beyond our poor attempts at commenting. No eye can look undazzled at the sun. When Christ was near the Cross, He left His disciples a strange bequest at such a moment,-His joy; and that is their brightest portion here, even though it be shaded with many sorrows. The enthroned Christ welcomes all who have known ‘the fellowship of His sufferings’ into the fulness of His heavenly joy, unshaded, unbroken, unspeakable; and they pass into it as into an encompassing atmosphere, or some broad land of peace and abundance. Sympathy with His purposes leads to such oneness with Him that His joy is ours, both in its occasions and in its rapture. ‘Thou makest them drink of the river of Thy pleasures,’ and the lord and the servant drink from the same cup.

III. The excuse and punishment of the indolent servant.

His excuse is his reason. He did think hardly of his lord, and, even though he had His gift in his hand to confute him, he slandered Him in his heart as harsh and exacting. To many men the requirements of religion are more prominent than its gifts, and God is thought of as demanding rather than as ‘the giving God.’ Such thoughts paralyse action. Fear is barren, love is fruitful. Nothing grows on the mountain of curses, which frowns black over against the sunny slopes of the mountain of blessing with its blushing grapes. The indolence was illogical, for, if the master was such as was thought, the more reason for diligence; but fear is a bad reasoner, and the absurd gap between the premises and the conclusion is matched by one of the very same width in every life that thinks of God as rigidly requiring obedience, which, therefore, it does not give! Still another error is in the indolent servant’s words. He flings down the hoarded talent with ‘Lo, thou hast thine own.’ He was mistaken. Talents hid are not, when dug up, as heavy as they were when buried. This gold does rust, and a life not devoted to God is never carried back to Him unspoiled.

The lord’s answer again falls into three parts, corresponding to that to the faithful servants. First comes the stern characterisation of the man. As with the others’ goodness, his badness is defined by the second epithet. It is slothfulness. Is that all? Yes; it does not need active opposition to pull down destruction on one’s head. Simple indolence is enough, the negative sin of not doing or being what we ought. Ungirt loins, unlit lamps, unused talents, sink a man like lead. Doing nothing is enough for ruin.

The remarkable answer to the servant’s charge seems to teach us that timid souls, conscious of slender endowments, and pressed by the heavy sense of responsibility, and shrinking from Christian enterprises, for fear of incurring heavier condemnation, may yet find means of using their little capital. The bankers, who invest the collective contributions of small capitalists to advantage, may, or may not, be intended to be translated into the Church; but, at any rate, the principle of united service is here recommended to those who feel too weak for independent action. Slim houses in a row hold each other up; and, if we cannot strike out a path for ourselves, let us seek strength and safety in numbers.

The fate of the indolent servant has a double horror. It is loss and suffering. The talent is taken from the slack hands and coward heart that would not use it, and given to the man who had shown he could and would. Gifts unemployed for Christ are stripped off a soul yonder. How much will go from many a richly endowed spirit, which here flashed with unconsecrated genius and force! We do not need to wait for eternity to see that true possession, which is use, increases powers, and that disuse, which is equivalent to not possessing, robs of them. The blacksmith’s arm, the scout’s eye, the craftsman’s delicate finger, the student’s intellect, the sensualist’s passions, all illustrate the law on its one side; and the dying out of faculties and tastes, and even of intuitions and conscience, by reason of simple disuse, are melancholy instances of it on the other. But the solemn words of this condemnation seem to point to a far more awful energy in its working in the future, when everything that has not been consecrated by employment for Jesus shall be taken away, and the soul, stripped of its garb, shall ‘be found naked.’ How far that process of divesting may affect faculties, without touching the life, who can tell? Enough to see with awe that a spirit may be cut, as it were, to the quick, and still exist.

But loss is not all the indolent servant’s doom. Once more, like the slow toll of a funeral bell, we hear the dread sentence of ejection to the ‘mirk midnight’ without, where are tears undried and passion unavailing. There is something very awful in the monotonous repetition of that sentence so often in these last discourses of Christ’s. The most loving lips that ever spoke, in love, shaped this form of words, so heart-touching in its wailing, but decisive, proclamation of blackness, homelessness, and sorrow, and cannot but toll them over and over again into our ears, in sad knowledge of our forgetfulness and unbelief,-if perchance we may listen and be warned, and, having heard the sound thereof, may never know the reality of that death in life which is the sure end of the indolent who were blind to His gifts, and therefore would not listen to His requirements.


Verses 31-46

Matthew

THE KING ON HIS JUDGMENT THRONE

Matthew 25:31 - Matthew 25:46.

The teachings of that wonderful last day of Christ’s ministry, which have occupied so many of our pages, are closed with this tremendous picture of universal judgment. It is one to be gazed upon with silent awe, rather than to be commented on. There is fear lest, in occupying the mind in the study of the details, and trying to pierce the mystery it partly unfolds, we should forget our own individual share in it. Better to burn in on our hearts the thought, ‘I shall be there,’ than to lose the solemn impression in efforts to unravel the difficulties of the passage. Difficulties there are, as is to be expected in even Christ’s revelation of so unparalleled a scene. Many questions are raised by it which will never be solved till we stand there. Who can tell how much of the parabolic element enters into the description? We, at all events, do not venture to say of one part, ‘This is merely drapery, the sensuous representation of spiritual reality,’ and of another, ‘That is essential truth.’ The curtain is the picture, and before we can separate the elements of it in that fashion, we must have lived through it. Let us try to grasp the main lessons, and not lose the spirit in studying the letter.

I. The first broad teaching is that Christ is the Judge of all the earth.

Sitting there, a wearied man on the Mount of Olives, with the valley of Jehoshaphat at His feet, which the Jew regarded as the scene of the final judgment, Jesus declared Himself to be the Judge of the world, in language so unlimited in its claims that the speaker must be either a madman or a god. Calvary was less than three days off, when He spoke thus. The contrast between the vision of the future and the reality of the present is overwhelming. The Son of Man has come in weakness and shame; He will come in His glory, that flashing light of the self-revealing God, of which the symbol was the ‘glory’ which shone between the cherubim, and which Jesus Christ here asserts to belong to Him as ‘His glory.’ Then, heaven will be emptied of its angels, who shall gather round the enthroned Judge as His handful of sorrowing followers were clustered round Him as He spoke, or as the peasants had surrounded the meek state of His entry yesterday. Then, He will take the place of Judge, and ‘sit,’ in token of repose, supremacy, and judgment, ‘on the throne of His glory,’ as He now sat on the rocks of Olivet. Then, mankind shall be massed at His feet, and His glance shall part the infinite multitudes, and discern the character of each item in the crowd as easily and swiftly as the shepherd’s eye picks out the black goats from among the white sheep. Observe the difference in the representation from those in the previous parables. There, the parting of kinds was either self-acting, as in the case of the foolish maidens; or men gave account of themselves, as in the case of the servants with the talents. Here, the separation is the work of the Judge, and is completed before a word is spoken. All these representations must be included in the complete truth as to the final judgment. It is the effect of men’s actions; it is the result of their compelled disclosing of the deepest motives of their lives; it is the act of the perfect discernment of the Judge. Their deeds will judge them; they will judge themselves; Christ will judge.

Singularly enough, every possible interpretation of the extent of the expression ‘all nations’ has found advocates. It has been taken in its widest and plainest meaning, as equivalent to the whole race; it has been confined to mankind exclusive of Christians, and it has been confined to Christians exclusive of heathens. There are difficulties in all these explanations, but probably the least are found in the first. It is most natural to suppose that ‘all nations’ means all nations, unless that meaning be impossible. The absence of the limitation to the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ which distinguishes this section from the preceding ones having reference to judgment, and the position of the present section as the solemn close of Christ’s teachings, which would naturally widen out into the declaration of the universal judgment, which forms the only appropriate climax and end to the foregoing teachings, seem to point to the widest meaning of the phrase. His office of universal Judge is unmistakably taught throughout the New Testament, and it seems in the highest degree unnatural to suppose that He did not speak of it in these final words of prophetic warning. We may therefore, with some confidence, see in the magnificent and awful picture here drawn the vision of universal judgment. Parabolic elements there no doubt are in the picture; but we have no governing revelation, free from these, by which we can check them, and be sure of how much is form and how much substance. This is clear, ‘that we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ’; and this is clear, that Jesus Christ put forth, when at the very lowest point of His earthly humiliation, these tremendous claims, and asserted His authority as Judge over every soul of man. We are apt to lose ourselves in the crowd. Let us pause and think that ‘all’ includes ‘me.’

II. Note the principles of Christ’s universal judgment.

It is important to remember that this section closes a series of descriptions of the judgment, and must not be taken as if, when isolated, it set forth all the truth. It is often harped upon by persons who are unfriendly to evangelical teaching, as if it were Christ’s only word about judgment, and interpreted as if it meant that, no matter what else a man was, if only he is charitable and benevolent, he will find mercy. But this is to forget all the rest of our Lord’s teaching in the context, and to fly in the face of the whole tenor of New Testament doctrine. We have here to do with the principles of judgment which apply equally to those who have, and to those who have not, heard the gospel. The subjects of the kingdom are shown the principles more immediately applicable to them, in the previous parables, and here they are reminded that there is a standard of judgment absolutely universal. All men, whether Christians or not, are judged by ‘the things done in the body, whether they be good or bad.’ So Christ teaches in His closing words of the Sermon on the Mount, and in many another place. ‘Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.’ The productive source of good works is not in question here; stress is laid on the fruits, rather than on the root. The gospel is as imperative in its requirements of righteousness as the law is, and its conception of the righteousness which it requires is far deeper and wider. The subjects of the kingdom ever need to be reminded of the solemn truth that they have not only, like the wise maidens, to have their lights burning and their oil vessels filled, nor only, like the wise servants, to be using the gifts of the kingdom for their lord, but, as members of the great family of man, have to cultivate the common moralities which all men, heathen and Christian, recognise as binding on all, without which no man shall see the Lord. The special form of righteousness which is selected as the test is charity. Obviously it is chosen as representative of all the virtues of the second table of the law. Taken in its bare literality, this would mean that men’s relations to God had no effect in the judgment, mid that no other virtues but this of charity came into the account. Such a conclusion is so plainly repugnant to all Christ’s teaching, that we must suppose that love to one’s neighbour is here singled out, just as it is in His summary of ‘the law and the prophets,’ as the crown and flower of all relative duties, and as, in a very real sense, being ‘the fulfilling of the law.’ The omission of any reference to the love of God sufficiently shows that the view here is rigidly limited to acts, and that all the grounds of judgment are not meant to be set forth.

But the benevolence here spoken of is not the mere natural sentiment, which often exists in great energy in men whose moral nature is, in other respects, so utterly un-Christlike that their entrance into the kingdom prepared for the righteous is inconceivable. Many a man has a hundred vices and yet a soft heart. It is very much a matter of temperament. Does Christ so contradict all the rest of His teaching as to say that such a man is of ‘the sheep,’ and ‘blessed of the Father’? Surely not. Is every piece of kindliness to the distressed, from whatever motive, and by whatsoever kind of person done, regarded by Him as done to Himself? To say so, would be to confound moral distinctions, and to dissolve all righteousness into a sentimental syrup. The deeds which He regards as done to Himself, are done to His ‘brethren.’ That expression carries us into the region of motive, and runs parallel with His other words about ‘receiving a prophet,’ and ‘giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones,’ because they are His. Seeing that all nations are at the bar, the expression, ‘My brethren,’ cannot be confined to the disciples, for many of those who are being judged have never come in contact with Christians, nor can it be reasonably supposed to include all men, for, however true it is that Christ is every man’s brother, the recognition of kindred here must surely be confined to those at the right hand. Whatever be included under the ‘righteous,’ that is included under the ‘brethren.’ We seem, then, led to recognise in the expression a reference to the motive of the beneficence, and to be brought to the conclusion that what the Judge accepts as done to Himself is such kindly help and sympathy as is extended to these His kindred, with some recognition of their character, and desire after it. To ‘receive a prophet’ implies that there is some spiritual affinity with him in the receiver. To give help to His brethren, because they are so, implies some affinity with Him or feeling after likeness to Him and them. Now, if we hold fast by the universality of the judgment here depicted, we shall see that this recognition must necessarily have different degrees in those who have heard of Christ and in those who have not. In the former, it will be equivalent to that faith which is the root of all goodness, and grasps the Christ revealed in the gospel. In the latter, it can be no more than a feeling after Him who is the ‘light that lighteneth every man that cometh into the world.’ Surely there are souls amid the darkness of heathenism yearning toward the light, like plants grown in the dark. By ways of His own, Christ can reach such hearts, as the river of the water of life may percolate through underground channels to many a tree which grows far from its banks.

III. Note the surprises of the judgment.

The astonishment of the righteous is not modesty disclaiming praise, but real wonder at the undreamed-of significance of their deeds. In the parable of the talents, the servants unveiled their inmost hearts, and accurately described their lives. Here, the other side of the truth is brought into prominence, that, at that day, we shall be surprised when we hear from His lips what we have really done. True Christian beneficence has consciously for its motive the pleasing of Christ; but still he who most earnestly strove, while here, to do all as unto Jesus, will be full of thankful wonder at the grace which accepts his poor service, and will learn, with fresh marvelling, how closely He associates Himself with His humblest servant. There is an element of mystery hidden from ourselves in all our deeds. Our love to Christ’s followers never goes out so plainly to Him that, while here, we can venture to be sure that He takes it as done for Him. We cannot here follow the flight of the arrow, nor know what meaning He will attach to, or what large issues He will evolve from, our poor doings. So heaven will be full of blessed surprises, as we reap the fruit growing ‘in power’ of what we sowed ‘in weakness,’ and as doleful will be the astonishment which will seize those who see, for the first time, in the lurid light of that day, the true character of their lives, as one long neglect of plain duties, which was all a defrauding the Saviour of His due. Mere doing nothing is enough to condemn, and its victims will be shudderingly amazed at the fatal wound it has inflicted on them.

IV. The irrevocableness of the judgment.

That is an awful contrast between the ‘Come! ye blessed,’ and ‘Depart! ye cursed.’ That is a more awful parallel between ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘eternal life.’ It is futile to attempt to alleviate the awfulness by emptying the word ‘eternal’ of reference to duration. It no doubt connotes quality, but its first meaning is ever-during. There is nothing here to suggest that the one condition is more terminable than the other. Rather, the emphatic repetition of the word brings the unending continuance of each into prominence, as the point in which these two states, so wofully unlike, are the same. In whatever other passages the doctrine of universal restoration may seem to find a foothold, there is not an inch of standing-room for it here. Reverently accepting Christ’s words as those of perfect and infallible love, the present writer feels so strongly the difficulty of bringing all the New Testament declarations on this dread question into a harmonious whole, that he abjures for himself dogmatic certainty, and dreads lest, in the eagerness of discussing the duration {which will never be beyond the reach of discussion}, the solemn reality of the fact of future retribution should be dimmed, and men should argue about ‘the terror of the Lord’ till they cease to feel it.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Matthew 25:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/matthew-25.html.

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