Part 4 of “The Second Coming” series. By Rosie Moore.
The key question asked in Matthew 24 and 25 is this: How do we wait for Jesus?
I’m much better at doing than waiting! Actually, one of my distinct childhood memories is waiting for my parents to arrive at the end of term to fetch me from boarding school and take me home. Sometimes they were late and I’d sit at my dormitory window longing and praying for their car to drive around the circle. It was hardly a traumatic experience, but it did reveal my impatient nature early on!
But when we look at Christ’s parables of the Ten Virgins and the Bags of gold, we see that believers are not expected to wait for Christ’s return like passengers standing idly at the taxi rank, or fiddling on our cellphones while waiting for an Uber. Christians are supposed to wait as stewards or trustees who know that they will give account to the Lord for their lives.
According to Jesus, His return at the end of the age will cause an irreversible division between people: One will be ready, while one will not (Matt 24:40-41). The wise bridesmaids will usher in the bridegroom with brightly lit lamps, while the foolish will scramble for oil in vain (Matt 25:1-13). Faithful servants will be working conscientiously in their Master’s household, while the wicked and lazy are abusing their positions (Matt 24:46, 49-51).
In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus answers the key question of how to wait, using pictures and stories:
“Wait as those who don’t want to be surprised or shocked by your Master’s return (Matt 24:36-39). Wait as wise servants who are ready and expectant at all times, ‘because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him’ (Matt 24:42-44). Wait as those who know that your Master will be delayed a long time” (Matt 25:13).
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Matt 24:45-47).
So how do believers wait for Jesus? Jesus told us to wait as stewards who must give account for our service. This is the point of the parable of the bags of gold, which we will focus on today.
The parable of the gold.
The parable of the gold bags builds on two previous stories Jesus told—the absentee house owner and the Ten Virgins (Matt 24:45-51; 25:1-13). It’s important to place it in this context.
In “The Midnight Cry”, we saw that the only way to prepare for Christ’s future return is to accept His gospel invitation now, by faith. The folly of the five virgins was not merely that they were forgetful or negligent. They were foolish because they expected to be admitted to the wedding banquet while utterly unprepared to meet Christ as their Bridegroom. They did not know Christ or the holiness that only the Bridegroom can impart (Matt 25:12). And so, without ‘oil’ in their lamps, they were gatecrashers in God’s kingdom.
No small fortune.
The parable of the bags of gold (also known as the talents) rests on three assumptions already established in the parable of the ten virgins: The Lord’s return will be 1) after a long time, 2) at an unexpected time, and 3) only those who know Christ personally will be prepared to meet Him on that day.
The parable is about three slaves commissioned by their Master to invest some of his huge fortune while he is away. Because it’s usually called the parable of the talents, I often pictured ‘talents’ as human gifts, like a little toolkit of personal strengths or spiritual gifts that God has given to each person. While this is true, it misses the meaning of the Greek word ‘talenton’ in the parable.
A single talenton was a measure of money worth about six thousand denarii, roughly twenty years of wages, or around one million US dollars in today’s terms! A single ‘talenton’ of gold was the most valuable measure of all, worth many millions of dollars. And so, for an average South African, a single talenton would be worth more than a lifetime’s earnings. Imagine a room full of gold bars!
So, when the Master entrusted his slaves with five, two and one ‘talents’, he didn’t just toss them a few coins to invest on the Jerusalem Stock Exchange! They were commissioned to invest a massive fortune belonging to the Master, “each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey” and “returned after a long time” (Matt 25:15; 19).
Once we understand the value of the talenton, it’s clear that the property owner demonstrated shocking benevolence towards his slaves, giving them liberal latitude and responsibility when he “entrusted his wealth to them.” He expected them to step up to the plate; to actively buy and build businesses, farms, bakeries, mills, wells and fishing boats.
Although slavery in the first century was very different to the African slave trade, this liberal stewardship given to a slave would have stunned Jesus’s hearers. These three slaves were expected to use their discretion and skill to build buildings; to be enterprising and strategic in their planning, and to employ people in the name of the Master, over a long period of time. They were not commanded to wait passively for their Master to return.
When we think of what this stewardship implied, let’s remember that in those days, there was no online trading from the comfort of high-rise offices, no robots like Blackrock’s “Aladdin” to compute failsafe investment algorithms! They were expected to take calculated risks and work diligently, as they invested millions and millions of their Master’s wealth.
Moreover, each slave was individually responsible to multiply and improve his Master’s assets until the settling of accounts. Like the ten virgins, accounts were not settled as a collective.
This is how the slaves responded to their Master’s commission and this is how the Master responded when he settled accounts with them:
“The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matt 25:16-30)
From this parable, there are at least two practical implications of what it means to wait for Christ’s return.
Live to improve our Master’s assets.
Don Carson points out that there is no sin in the quiet pride of the first two slaves. They simply know that they’ve worked hard and invested wisely with what was “entrusted” to them” by doubling their capital (Matt 25:20, 22). There is nothing narcissistic about knowing that they have increased their Master’s assets.
The first two slaves recognise that the Lord assigned them their place in the world “each according to their ability”. They take no credit, nor feel shame, for their initial loan, because it was the Master’s wealth to distribute as he pleased. They understand that they are stewards, not owners of what God has given them.
And so, as faithful stewards, we’ll joyfully embrace our role as Christ’s slaves. Our job is not to create a name or legacy for ourselves, but for Him and His kingdom. We have the freedom to be industrious and creative wherever God has placed us, so there is dignity and individuality in this role.
As faithful stewards, we recognize and improve whatever the Lord has put into our hands by his providence — Time, education, money, gifts and skills, mentors, good health, living in a country where we still have religious freedoms; being raised in a Christian family; having a local church where we can serve and support others; owning a home or business. We are alert and put all this to work for His kingdom.
This parable opens our eyes to the vast bag of treasure God has placed in our hands to steward. Do you long for him to say, “Well done, my good and faithful slave? Come and share in your Master’s happiness!”
Work as if it matters.
The foolish virgins failed because they thought their part in the Groom’s return was unimportant, so they made no provision for it. But the wicked, lazy slave failed, not because he only had one talenton, but because he thought his part was too hard and unfair. His disdain and resentment towards God is palpable, so that even what he had was taken from him.
It’s ironic that the lazy slave refused to serve his ‘harsh’ Master, who was actually stunningly generous towards him in the first place. This was Christ’s accusation of the Pharisees who rejected his offer of grace, but there are still many ministers of the gospel and pretenders today who are lazy and disinterested in their commission.
Instead of working for the Master’s eye, they exploit and mislead people for their own ends, building their own kingdoms of wood, hay and stubble. False teachers lead others to believe that God is a cruel taskmaster and they live as if they’ll never account to Christ for their work.
But the ‘waiting’ of a faithful steward means ‘working’ as if it matters. The first slave was alert and “went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more.” Instead of taking his commission casually, he was a gutsy entrepreneur for his Master. His accountability and loyalty drove him to action.
There’s no pleasure in a month of Sundays. Our work matters, because the way we serve God today prepares us for our work in eternity. In this world, work takes many shapes and forms, but when Christ returns, He will set up a fruitful Kingdom on the new earth, filled with diligent, responsible, joyful, persevering, creative workers! (Revelation 22:1-21)
We will be part of a massive, productive labour force that never goes on strike and is never retrenched. It will be labour minus the fatigue, frustrations, jealousies, failures, bankruptcies, redundancies, discouragements and negative cash flow of much of our work, marred by sin. And every precious person we have led into the Kingdom will be there to share it with us.
When the Lord returns and the accounts are finally settled, faithful stewards will be given more responsibilities and will share in our Master’s happiness. Can you conceive of a greater reward for our labours?
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)