NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
The early church patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt gives us his thoughts on this parable by Jesus. He writes: “Jesus compares the rulers of the people with virgins. The person who discharges a sacred function must be undefiled in soul and body, just as Paul says, ‘that she might be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.’1 For it is customary for the Scripture to divide the present age into five seasons or times.2 It assigns to each time both God-fearing and foolish souls, just as each time has wise persons and simpletons, righteous persons and wicked ones.”3
Down through church history up to this day, there have been a certain class of scholars who look for dispensationalism in all the numbers quoted in scripture. But patriarch Cyril goes on: “In the parable, all the virgins go out with their lamps. Jesus indicates by this that all souls have been illuminated by God through innate and natural laws but also indeed by the laws written by Moses. Now all the virgins went out to meet the groom. All were determined to seek favor with God and to join themselves spiritually to the groom. He sows in the hearts of the faithful the seed of every kind of virtue. Indeed, this is why He is called a groom! Nevertheless, some prove to be undistinguished, though they possess an illumination from God.”4
Apparently in Cyril’s mind, growing in the knowledge of the truth is not only tied to a born again transformation but also part of growing up in an environment where Scripture is taught and learned mentally rather than being experienced spiritually. This may help us understand what Cyril says next. “God mockingly calls their drowsiness the death of the flesh, which by necessity will go before both wise and foolish, whom the trumpet of the angels awakes at the time of Christ’s second coming. For all who have been rendered powerless by death are awakened, the good and the bad, and all are made ready to present their defense before the judge. This is represented in the parable when each virgin trims her lamp, summing up all that has occurred in her life. The thoughtless virgins have brought no oil with them. Their soul begins to grow gloomy and as if snuffed out departs into a hallucinating state, so as to think they will be shown mercy through the virtue of the others. They are rejected as the other virgins say there is not enough for us and for you. The virtue of each scarcely suffices for the salvation of the soul, because even those who are very wise transgress in many ways.”5 Knowing this way of thinking should help us better understand where the Roman Catholic church, as well as some mainline Protestant churches, stand on this subject of our Lord’s sudden return to catch away the living saints and raise to life those asleep in the grave.
Those who were listening to Jesus knew what happened to the children of Israel out in the wilderness when they became stubborn and refused to do what God told them to do in order to enter the Promised land. This idea of being shut out of the kingdom of the Messiah was not new to the Jews. We read in their verbal teachings where one Rabbi said: “Jerusalem, of the world to come, will not be like Jerusalem of the present world. To Jerusalem of the present world anyone who wishes can go in, but to that of the world to come only those invited will go.‘”6
So it was, that Jesus taught a day was coming when the Messiah would return for His bride and only those who had the light (understanding) would have prepared themselves to be ready.
STUDY NOTES: Whenever this first parable is used as a text for a sermon or Bible study, most often the main emphasis will be on the “oil,” the “lamp,” and the “bridegroom.” In many cases, they will identify the oil as representing the Holy Spirit, while the bridegroom is a figure of Christ at His return to meet the Church – His bride, in the air. While this certainly falls within the purview of reasonable interpretation, it does so only on this side of Calvary. When placed back in the time it was spoken, those listening to Jesus knew nothing of the infilling of the Holy Spirit as part of the Christian experience or the second coming of the Messiah to rapture the saints. Therefore, the parable stops in verse twelve, and in verse thirteen Jesus gives the spiritual truth contained in the story: “So always be ready. You don’t know the day or the exact time when the Son of Man will come.” Therefore, Jesus was trying to warn His listeners that they be vigilant and committed to their mission because only God knows when the moment will come and Jesus returns. However, we can see some application of such exegesis in order to give today’s believers some insight so that other points in the parable may be seen and become helpful in understanding what being ready means. The opening line of this chapter ties it to the monologue of Jesus that Matthew recorded at the end of Chapter 24. The main point in this parable, when Jesus spoke it, was certainly on the amount of oil necessary to be ready for things to come. But let’s not get so caught up in the oil that we forget about the lamp which would allow the oil to become fuel for light. The ten virgins could each have had a barrel of oil, but with no lamp, it would have been a worthless supply. Christ’s use of the lamp in this context was consistent with what the Psalmist David said of the Word of God as being a lamp giving light to their feet to follow because it illuminated their pathway. So here we can see how those who await the return of the Messiah can be made even more ready by the light they received from God’s Word. Therefore, it makes sense to insure that there is enough oil to keep it burning. When we connect this parable to what Jesus said in Chapter 24, that the Jews had been given enough light from God’s Word to know that a Messiah would be coming, where He would be born, and that He would be born of a virgin, now that He was here, some of them did not interpret those scriptures well enough to recognize Him and go out to welcome Him. Jesus wanted them to understand that should they end up being among the foolish virgins, they were encouraged to go back to the scriptures to learn more about Him and His coming. But even after they learned of their mistake and would try to gain entry to the celebration, they would be denied, because that would have taken away the importance of being ready and the joy received by those who were ready when He came. So if the post-Calvary interpretation puts the emphasis on needing the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make us aware through the Scriptures of His pending return, and the advent of the bridegroom represents His second coming, we still should take note of the fact that the light of the God’s Word can help the believer see that by examining the Scriptures and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance they can make sure they are ready when they hear the trumpet sound.
Verse 14: “At that time God’s kingdom will also be like a businessman leaving home to travel to another place for a visit. Before he left, he talked with his servants. He told his servants to take care of his things while he was away.”
You would think by now that the disciples were getting the point. But that would assume that Jesus was telling all these parables one after the other. The fact is, Matthew collected all these sayings on our Lord’s teaching about the end times and put them together here in this chapter, because when it is finished, then the last section describing our Lord’s betrayal, arrest, torment, crucifixion, and resurrection will follow.
Many of the early church scholars tried to interpret this parable as our Lord’s going back into heaven and leaving the priests and bishops in charge of taking care of the church until His return.7 As far as the money left behind, they see the profitability of two of the servants and the unprofitability of the one as the significant lesson, not what the individual number of coins represent.8 And to others, these coins are those responsibilities given to the leaders in the church and how some of them who are diligent will be given more, while those who are lazy will have what was given to them taken away.9
Verses 15-17: “He decided how much each servant would be able to care for. The man gave one servant five bags of money. He gave another servant two bags. And he gave a third servant one bag. Then he left. The servant who got five bags went quickly to invest the money. Those five bags of money earned five more. It was the same with the servant who had two bags. That servant invested the money and earned two more.”
Again, the characters in this parable are not to become the only story. Rather, there is the principle that the story uncovers and illustrates. The previous parable dealt with the readiness of the believer, while this one deals with responsibilities of the believer. There is an interesting tradition practiced by the Jews that Rabbi Moses Maimonides writes about: “When a master living in the land of Israel desires to move abroad, he cannot compel the servant to move with him against his will. This law applies at all times, even in the present era.”10 Likewise in Jesus’ parable, the estate owner went abroad but out of necessity left his servants behind to take care of things until he returned.
It is important to keep in mind, that these servants were all left in charge of the owner’s property. The money given to them was also the owner’s money, and the amount given to each of them coincided with the amount of responsibility given to them by the owner of the estate. The investment of these finances was intended to do two things: First, to maintain the property, inventory, and production of the business. And second, to make the business expand and grow and thereby earn the owner a profit.
1 1 Corinthians 7:34
2 Scholars say that these five seasons are represented by the five virgins, and symbolize all of humanity divided into five ages: infancy, childhood, youth, maturity and old age.
3 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 280
6 Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 75b
7 Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies, 9.1
8 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 78.2
9 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 283
10 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit Tractate Avadim, Ch. 8:9