I mentioned in my last post the sermon I heard some years ago by Roy Clements, in which he preached on the whole of Matthew 25 one evening at Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge (D.S. Ketelby was also there, and may be able to correct my recollections of the evening!).
This was classic Roy: lucid, expository, persuasive and unforgettable. None of those qualities are lost by anything that might have happened later (we’re not Donatists round here, after all…). There is certainly more to Matthew 25 than he preached that night, but I don’t think his overall framework, his presentation of what Dick Lucas would call the “melodic line” of the chapter, can be bettered. In the following summary, the usual disclaimers apply: any weaknesses are the result of my fading recollections of a sermon I heard a good twelve years ago, and not the fault of Clements himself.
Matthew 25 follows on from Jesus’ discourse in chapter 24, where he has been teaching of “the sign of [his] coming and of the end of the age”. I assume Clements would take the usual conservative evangelical position (which I share) of saying this chapter speaks both of the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in the first century AD, and the second coming of Christ at the end of the age (even if the precise division between the two is not always easy to identify).
This then raises the question of what the disciples are to do while waiting for “that day and hour”. This is the question that the three parables in chapter 25 answer, as follows:
- The wise and foolish bridesmaids (vv.1-12)
This story depicts a basic division: there are those who are ready for Christ’s return, and there are those who are caught unawares and end up being locked out of the “wedding banquet”.
However, the wise and the foolish bridesmaids all fall asleep in the parable. So taken on its own, this parable could be seen as implying that all you need to be a “wise” bridesmaid is to get yourself ready (lamp-oil to hand) and then you can snooze your way through life with little apparent difference from the “foolish” ones around you. Hence the second parable.
- The parable of the talents (vv.14-30)
This parable corrects the potential misunderstanding of the preceding story by showing that the life we live while waiting for our master to come and settle accounts with us is not one in which we are to be drowsy and asleep. Rather, we are about our father’s business, doing those good works that flow from the faith that is given to us. I’m pretty sure this is the sermon where I first heard the old line that “we are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone”.
So we now know we are to be prepared, and we know that this preparedness manifests itself in action rather than drowsy indolence. But another misunderstanding can now arise, as we suppose that generalised busyness – or even worse, the pursuit of financial gain (see those talents double!) – are what Jesus has in mind here. Which brings us to the third and final parable.
- The parable of the sheep and the goats (vv.31-46)
This parable shows the nature of the works that we are to be about as we wait for the Lord’s return. Not simply “using our talents” or seeking personal gain, but serving Christ as we encounter him in others. (I’m pretty sure Clements took the view that “brothers” here is restricted to Christians; I’m undecided on this.)
[As a separate point (i.e. we’re not in Cambridge any more, Toto), it is worth bringing in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s emphasis that this parable is teaching gospel rather than law. The crucial thing about the works described in vv35 and 36 is that the saints are unconscious of these works. These are not works that we ourselves do under our own steam or by our own conscious decision: they are the works that Christ does in and through us, that will astonish us when they are revealed to us at the end of the age. It’s easy for us to miss the point that most of the sheep – us! – will already know this parable. Hence it cannot be referring to a “tick-box” approach of deliberately-chosen, self-motivated good works – feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, etc. – but rather to unconscious works of which we are currently unaware.]
So there, in very brief outline, is the argument of Roy Clements’ sermon on this chapter. I hope it goes some way towards communicating the “melodic line” of the chapter as described by Clements: we are to be ready; we are to be active; and those activities are to be directed towards serving others. A lot more can be said, and needs to be said, about each of those parables, but that basic framework still strikes me as sound.