The current adult study at church is a NT survey by the Okenga Institute – distance learning from Gordon Conwell Seminary. I have liked these courses, not merely because they challenge my assumptions about Scripture and the faith, but because of how they do it. I find that many things I thought I knew have a pretty slender foundation. I have been told things over the years about when various NT books were written and why. It’s a pastiche of information, some of it dating back to confirmation class in 1967 with Rev. Willard Soper. Bill would have been in seminary thirty years before that, and his professors in turn … well, you get the idea. Much of the rest comes from writings or sermons by evangelicals pretty close to the fundamentalist side of things, or the introductions and notes for each book from study Bibles. Or whatever everyone else at various Bible studies had been exposed to.
It doesn’t mean that any of that information is wrong. I simply note that the supports for what we think we know are often weak.
In discussing the 25th chapter of Matthew, the instructor mentioned almost offhandedly that these three parables of judgment had been arranged thematically to connect with Matthew 24, in which Jesus speaks of his eventual return. For no reason I can identify, I have always treated the gospels, especially the Synoptics, as chronological. I figured these three parables showed up then because that was about when Jesus said them, at least according to Matthew’s memory. That they might be specifically chosen to be part of a package about judgment, though they had been uttered weeks or even years apart, had simply never occurred to me.
So let’s look at them as a package, rather than three individual parables. This is unlikely to make things simpler at first, because these three are among the most troubling of parables: The Wise and Foolish Maidens; The Servants and Talents; and The Sheep and the Goats. Read them over – at least glance rather than work entirely from recollection.
The first thing I’m noticing is that judgment is going to work out very, very badly for some people, and they are going to be surprised at this. This is Jesus talking, red-letter direct quotes, and he is quite clear that some are going to be condemned. He tells the foolish maidens “Truly, I don’t know you.” The goats he tells “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The third servant he tells “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Hyperbole to make a point? Maybe. But it sure sounds to me like he means it.
Second, I notice that the lack of generosity shown by the wise maidens to the foolish is in sharp contrast to the behavior applauded in the sheep of the third parable. I recognise that the Wise and Foolish Maidens isn’t about generosity, and parables are supposed to have but one focused meaning, but still – it’s quite a difference. Similarly, the Parable of the Talents seems to tell us to take enormous risks, and the Sheep and the Goats is at least compatible with that. But the first parable counsels the opposite: be cautious. Be overcautious. Again, not the main point of the story, but the different tone is unmistakable. Taken as a group, however, they are consistent. The wise maidens don’t help the foolish, the first two servants don’t help the third, the sheep don’t help the goats, and Jesus is down with that. You snooze, you lose.
Third, I’m not seeing a strong element of grace in these parables. It looks like works from here. I can make them fit with a little effort, but even as I do, I wonder if I am stretching and rationalising in order to fit a theory of my own rather than what the Scriptures are trying to tell me.
Fourth, there is the phrase in the Sheep and the Goats about the least of these, and Jesus’s brothers and sisters. We leap to the conclusion that the first of these means “poor people,” and the latter means “everyone,” but we are drawing heavily on modern misreadings of the parable of the Good Samaritan for those meanings. Consistent with the actual meaning, the text seems to be saying we should be generous to a new group of people – people who follow Jesus, not simply everyone. That’s rather troubling, to think that the order is to be generous to our new family, those other Christians. Not very American. Not very melting pot/multiculti/religious tolerance. Though that is consistent with some other things Scripture says. John 17, 1 John 4.
Relatedly*, notice that there is nothing about government or even collective action here. I grow weary of those Christians (left or right, depending on the issue), who seem to regard that as a mere technicality because they cannot conceive of work being done any other way. I go more to the opposite extreme, wondering if the sheep get any credit for of the good works done by sheep-influenced governments, or credit for keeping goats out of office. They might even incur blame for these things, as they could conceivably be regarded as tricking others into thinking they have done good works when they haven’t. Jesus never goes near those ideas – and given the sharp examples here of how he judges people who we might think got it almost right, we might fearful of presuming too much.
So I'm acknowledging that it's difficult and puzzling. What say you?
*That was an entirely futile paragraph put in for my own pleasure. It will have absolutely zero effect on those in both the social justice or Christian America movements. I despair of them ever being able to examine their assumptions in this area.