‘Our lamps are gone out.’—MATT. xxv. 8.
This is one of the many cases in which the Revised Version, by accuracy of rendering
the tense of a verb, gives a much more striking as well as correct reproduction of the original
than the Authorised Version does. The former reads ‘going out,’ instead of ‘gone out,’ a
rendering which the Old Version has, unfortunately, relegated to the margin. It is clearly
to be preferred, not only because it more correctly represents the Greek, but because it sets
before us a more solemn and impressive picture of the precise time at which the terrible
discovery was made by the foolish five. They woke from their sleep, and hastily trimmed
their lamps. These burned brightly for a moment, and then began to flicker and die down.
The extinction of their light was not the act of a moment, but was a gradual process, which
had advanced in some degree before it attracted the attention of the bearers of the lamps.
At last it roused the half-sleeping five into startled, wide-awake consciousness. There is a
tone of alarm and fear in their sudden exclamation, ‘Our lamps are going out.’ They see
now the catastrophe that threatens, and understand that the only means of averting it is to
replenish the empty oil-vessels before the flame has quite expired. But their knowledge and
their dread were alike too late, and, as they went on their hopeless search for some one to
give them what they once might have had in abundance, the last faint flicker ceased, and
they had to grope their way in the dark, with their lightless lamps hanging useless in their
slack hands, while far off the torches of the bridal procession, in which they might have had
a part, flashed through the night. We have nothing to do with the tragical issue of the process
of extinction; but solemn lessons of universal application gather round the picture of that
process, as represented in our text, and to these we turn now.
I. We must settle the meaning of the oil and the lamps.
The Old Testament symbolism is our best guide as to the significance of the oil.
Throughout it, oil symbolises the divine influences that come down on men appointed by
God to their several functions, and which are there traced to the Spirit of the Lord. So the
priests were set apart by unction with the holy oil; so Samuel poured oil on the black locks
of Saul. So, too, the very name Messiah means ‘anointed,’ and the great prophecy, which
Jesus claimed for His own in His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, put into the
Messiah’s lips the declaration, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed
Me.’ But there are Old Testament symbols which bear still more closely on the emblems of
our text. Zechariah saw in vision a golden lamp-stand with seven lamps, and on either side
of it an olive tree, from which oil flowed through golden pipes to feed the flame. The interpretation of the vision was given by the ‘angel that talked with’ the prophet as being, ‘not
by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.’
Dying Lamps.
Dying Lamps.
So, then, we follow the plainly marked road and Scripture use of a symbol when we take
the oil in this parable to be that which every listener to Jesus, who was instructed in the old
things which he was bringing forth with new emphasis from the ancient treasure-house of
the word of God, would take it to be—namely, the sum of the influences from Heaven which
were bestowed through the Spirit of the Lord.
Such being the meaning of the oil, what was meant by the lamp? We have no intention
of discussing here the many varying interpretations which have been given to the symbol.
To do so would lead us too far afield. We can only say that the interpretation of the oil as
the influence of the Holy Spirit necessarily involves the explanation of the lamp which is
fed by it, as being the spiritual life of the individual, which is nourished and made visible to
the world as light, by the continual communication from God of these hallowing influences.
Turning again to the Old Testament, I need only remind you of the great seven-branched
lamp which stood in the Tabernacle, and afterwards in the Temple. It was the symbol of the
collective Israel, as recipient of divine influences, and thereby made the light of a dark world.
Its rays streamed out over the desert first, and afterwards shone from the mountain of the
Lord’s house, beaming illumination and invitation to those who sat in darkness to behold
the great light, and to walk in the light of the Lord. Zechariah’s emblem was based on the
Temple lamp. In accordance with the greater prominence given by the Old Testament to
national than to individual religion, both of these represented the people as a whole. In accordance with the more advanced individualism of the New Testament, our text so far varies
the application of the emblem, that each of the ten virgins who, as a whole, stand for the
collective professing Church, has her own lamp. But that is the only difference between the
Old and the New Testament uses of the symbol.
I need not remind you how the same metaphor recurs frequently in the teachings of
our Lord and of the Apostles. Sometimes the Old Testament collective point of view is
maintained, as in our Lord’s saying in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Ye are the light of the
world,’ but more frequently, the characteristic individualising of the figure prevails, and we
read of Christians shining ‘as lights in the world,’ and each holding forth, as a lamp does its
light, ‘the word of life.’ Nor must we forget the climax of the uses of this emblem, in the
vision of the Apocalypse, where John once more saw the Lord, on whose bosom his head
had so often peacefully lain, ‘walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.’ There,
again, the collective rather than the individual bearing of the figure is prominent, but with
significant differences from the older use of it. In Judaism there was a formal, outward unity,
represented by the one lamp with its manifold lights, all welded together on the golden stem;
but the churches of Asia Minor were distinct organisations, and their oneness came, not
from outward union of a mechanical kind, but from the presence in their midst of the Son
of God.
Dying Lamps.
The sum of all this course of thought is that the lamp is the Christian life of the individual
sustained by the communication of the influences of God’s Holy Spirit.
II. We note next the gradual dying out of the light. ‘Our lamps are going out.’
All spiritual emotions and vitality, like every other kind of emotion and vitality, die
unless nourished. Let no theological difficulties about ‘the final perseverance of the saints,’
or ‘the indefeasibleness of grace,’ and the impossibility of slaying the divine life that has
once been given to a man, come in the way of letting this parable have its full, solemn weight.
These foolish virgins had oil and had light, the oil failed by their fault, and so the light went
out, and they were startled, when they awoke from their slumber, to see how, instead of
brilliant flame, there was smoking wick.
Dear brethren, let us take the lesson. There is nothing in our religious emotions which
has any guarantee of perpetuity in it, except upon certain conditions. We may live, and our
life may ebb. We may trust, and our trust may tremble into unbelief. We may obey, and our
obedience may be broken by the mutinous risings of self-will. We may walk in the ‘paths
of righteousness,’ and our feet may falter and turn aside. There is certainty of the dying out
of all communicated life, unless the channel of communication with the life from which it
was first kindled, be kept constantly clear. The lamp may be ‘a burning and a shining light,’
or, more accurately translating the phrase of our Lord, ‘a light kindled and’ (therefore)
‘shining,’ but it will be light ‘for a season’ only, unless it is fed from that from which it was
first set alight; and that is from God Himself.
‘Our lamps are going out,’—a slow process that! The flame does not all die into darkness
in a minute. There are stages in its death. The white portion of the flame becomes smaller
and the blue part extends; then the flame flickers, and finally shudders itself, as it were, off
the wick; then nothing remains but a charred red line along the top; then that line breaks
up into little points, and one after another these twinkle out, and then all is black, and the
lamp is gone out. And so, slowly, like the ebbing away of the tide, like the reluctant, longprotracted dying of summer days, like the dropping of the blood from some fatal wound,
by degrees the process of extinction creeps, creeps, creeps on, and the lamp that was going
is finally gone out.
III. Again, we note that extinction is brought about simply by doing nothing.
These five foolish virgins did not stray away into any forbidden paths. No positive sin
is alleged against them. They were simply asleep. The other five were asleep too. I do not
need to enter, here and now, into the whole interpretation of the parable, or there might be
much to say about the difference between these two kinds of sleep. But what I wish to notice
is that it was nothing except negligence darkening into drowsiness, which caused the dying
out of the light.
It was not of set purpose that the foolish five took no oil with them. They merely neglected to do so, not having the wit to look ahead and provide against the contingency of a
Dying Lamps.
long time of waiting for the bridegroom. Their negligence was the result, not of deliberate
wish to let their lights go out, but of their heedlessness; and because of that negligence they
earned the name of ‘foolish.’ If we do not look forward, and prepare for possible drains on
our powers, we shall deserve the same adjective. If we do not lay in stores for future use, we
may be sent to school to the harvesting ant and the bee. That lesson applies to all departments
of life; but it is eminently applicable to the spiritual life, which is sustained only by communications from the Spirit of God. For these communications will be imperceptibly lessened,
and may be altogether intercepted, unless diligent attention is given to keep open the
channels by which they enter the spirit. If the pipes are not looked to, they will be choked
by masses of matted trifles, through which the ‘rivers of living water,’ which Christ took as
a symbol of the Spirit’s influences, cannot force a way.
The thing that makes shipwreck of the faith of most professing Christians that do come
to grief is no positive wickedness, no conduct which would be branded as sin by the Christian conscience or even by ordinary people, but simply torpor. If the water in a pond is
never stirred, it is sure to stagnate, and green scum to spread over it, and a foul smell to rise
from it. A Christian man has only to do what I am afraid a good many of us are in great
danger of doing—that is, nothing—in order to ensure that his lamp shall go out.
Do you try to keep yours alight? There is only one way to do it—that is to go to Christ
and get Him to pour His sweetness and His power into our open hearts. When one of the
old patriarchs had committed a great sin, and had unbelievingly twitched his hand out of
God’s hand, and gone away down into Egypt to help himself instead of trusting to God, he
was commanded, on his return to Palestine, to go to the place where he dwelt at the first,
and begin again, at the point where he began when he first entered the land. Which being
translated is just this—the only way to keep our spirits vital and quick is by having recourse,
again and again, to the same power which first imparted life to them, and this is done by
the first means, the means of simple reliance upon Christ in the consciousness of our own
deep need, and of believingly waiting upon Him for the repeated communication of the
gifts which we, alas! have so often misimproved. Negligence is enough to slay. Doing nothing
is the sure way to quench the Holy Spirit.
And, on the other hand, keeping close to Him is the sure way to secure that He will
never leave us. You can choke a lamp with oil, but you cannot have in your hearts too much
of that divine grace. And you receive all that you need if you choose to go and ask it from
Him. Remember the old story about Elisha and the poor woman. The cruse of oil began to
run. She brought all the vessels that she could rake together, big and little, pots and cups,
of all shapes and sizes, and set them, one after the other, under the jet of oil. They were all
filled; and when she brought no more vessels the oil stayed. If you do not take your empty
hearts to God, and say, ‘Here, Lord, fill this cup too; poor as it is, fill it with Thine own gracious influences,’ be very sure that no such influences will come to you. But if you do go,
Dying Lamps.
be as sure of this, that so long as you hold out your emptiness to Him, He will flood it with
His fulness, and the light that seemed to be sputtering to its death will flame up again. He
will not quench the smoking wick, if only we carry it to Him; but as the priests in the Temple
walked all through the night to trim the golden lamps, so He who walks amidst the seven
candlesticks will see to each.
IV. And now one last word. That process of gradual extinction may be going on, and
may have been going on for a long while, and the virgin that carries the lamp be quite unaware
of it.
How could a sleeping woman know whether her lamp was burning or not? How can a
drowsy Christian tell whether his spiritual life is bright or not? To be unconscious of our
approximation to this condition is, I am afraid, one of the surest signs that we are in it. I
suppose that a paralysed limb is quite comfortable. At any rate, paralysis of the spirit may
be going on without our knowing anything about it. So, dear friends, do not put these poor
words of mine away from you and say, ‘Oh! they do not apply to me.’
I am quite sure that the people to whom they do apply will be the last people to take
them to themselves. And while I quite believe, thank God! that there are many of us who
may feel and know that our lamps are not going out, sure I am that there are some of us
whom everybody but themselves knows to be carrying a lamp that is so far gone out that it
is smoking and stinking in the eyes and noses of the people that stand by. Be sure that nobody
was more surprised than were the five foolish women when they opened their witless, sleepy
eyes, and saw the state of things. So, dear friends, ‘let your loins be girt about, and your
lamps burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord.’
Dying Lamps.
‘They that were ready went in with him to the marriage.’ —MATT. xxv. 10.
It is interesting to notice the variety of aspects in which, in this long discourse, Jesus
sets forth His Second Coming. It is like the flood that swept away a world. It is like a thief
stealing through the dark, and breaking up a house. It is like a master reckoning with his
servants. These three metaphors suggest solemn, one might almost say alarming, images.
But then this parable comes in and tells how that coming is like that of a bridegroom to the
bride’s house, with joy and music. I am afraid that the average Christian, when he thinks at
all of Christ’s coming, takes these three first aspects rather than the last one, and so loses
what is meant to be a bright hope and a great stimulus. It is not in human nature to think
much about a terrible future. It is not in human nature to avoid thinking a great deal about
a blessed future. And although one does not wish to preach carelessness, or the ignoring of
the solemn side of that coming, sure I am that our Christian lives would be stronger and
purer, brighter and better able to front the solemn side, if the blessed side of it were more
often the object of our contemplation.
Turning to the words of my text, which seem to me to be the very centre and heart of
this parable, I ask:—
I. What makes readiness?
There have been many answers given to that question. One has been that to be ready
means to be perpetually having before us the thought of the coming of the Lord, and that
has been taken to be the meaning of the watchfulness which is enjoined in the context. But
the parable itself points in an altogether different direction. Who, according to it, were
ready? The five who had lamps and oil. To have these was readiness.
It is beautiful to notice how these five who were ready when the Master came had
‘slumbered and slept’ like the other five. Ah! that touch in the picture shows that ‘He knoweth
our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.’ It is not in human nature to keep up permanently a tension of expectation for a far-off good; and in profound knowledge of the weakness
of humanity, our Lord, in this parable, says: ‘While the Bridegroom tarried they all
slumbered’—and yet the five were ready when the Bridegroom came. In like manner,
Christian men and women who have no expectation at all that the Second Coming of the
Lord will occur during their lifetimes, may nevertheless be ready, if they have the burning
lamps and the store of oil. The question then comes to be, What is meant by these?
Perhaps harm has been done by insisting upon too minute and specific interpretation.
But, at the same time, we must not forget that, from the very beginning of the Jewish Revelation, from the time when the seven-branched candlestick was appointed for the Tabernacle,
right down to the day when the Apocalyptic Seer saw in Patmos the Son of Man walking in
the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, the metaphor has had one meaning. The aggregate
‘They That Were Ready!’
‘They That Were Ready!’
of God’s people are intended to be, as Jesus told us immediately after He had drawn the
character of a true disciple, in the wonderful outlines of the Beatitudes, ‘the light of the
world,’ and they will be so in the measure in which the gentle radiance of that character
shines through their lives, as the light of a lamp through frosted glass. But the aggregate is
made up of units, and individual Christians are to shine ‘as lights in the world,’ and their
separate brightnesses are to coalesce in the clustered light of the whole Church. What makes
an individual Christian a light is a Christ-like life, derived from that Life which was ‘the
Light of men.’ The lamp which the five wise virgins bear is the same as the light which the
consistent Christian is. The inner self illuminated from Christ, the source of all our illumination, lights up the outward life, which each of us may be conceived as carrying in our hands.
It is not ourselves, and yet it is ourselves made visible. It is not ourselves, but Christ in us;
and so we shine as lights in the world, only by ‘holding forth the word of life.’
That modification of the figure by Paul is profoundly true and important, for after all
we are not so much lights as candelabra, and only as we bear aloft the flashing light of Christ
shall we shine ‘in a naughty world.’ Our lamps, then, are Christ-like characters derived from
Christ, and to have and bear these is the first element in being ready for the Bridegroom.
Dear friends, remember that this whole parable is spoken to professing Christians and
real members of Christ’s Church; and that there is no meaning in it unless it is possible to
quench the light of the lamp. Remember that our Lord said once, ‘Let your loins be girt,’
and put that as the necessary condition of lamps burning. ‘Let your loins be girt’ with resolved
effort of faith and dependence, and make sure that you have the provision for the continuance
of the light. So, and only so, shall any man be of the happy company of them that were ready.
II. Note that this readiness is the condition of entrance.
‘They that were ready went in with Him to the marriage.’ Now faith alone unites a man
to Jesus Christ, and makes him an heir of salvation. But faith alone, if that were possible,
would not admit a man to the marriage-feast. Of course the supposed case is an impossible
case, for as James has taught us in his plain moral way, faith which is alone dies, or perhaps
never lived. But what our Lord tells us here is that moral character, which is of such a sort
as to shine in the world’s darkness, is the condition of entrance. People say that salvation is
by faith. Yes, that is true; but salvation is by works also, only that the works are made possible
through faith. In the very necessity and nature of things nothing but the readiness which
consists in continued Christ-like character will ever allow a man to pass the threshold. Now
do you believe that? Or are you saying, ‘I trust to Jesus Christ, and so I am sure I shall go to
Heaven.’ No, you will not, unless your faith is making you heavenly, in your temper and
conduct. For to talk about the next world as a place of retribution is but an imperfect statement of the case. It is not a place of retribution so much as of outcome, and the apostle gives
a completer view when he says, ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ That
future life is not the reward of goodness so much as the necessary consequence of holiness.
‘They That Were Ready!’
Holiness and blessedness are, in some measure, separated here; there they are two names
for the one condition. ‘No man shall see the Lord,’ without that holiness. ‘They that were
ready went in.’ Of course they did. Am I ready? That question means, Am I, by my faith in
Jesus Christ, receiving into my heart the anointing which that great anointed One gives us?
Am I living a life that is a light in the world? If so, and not else, my entrance is sure.
We have seen what this readiness consists in, and how it is the condition of entrance.
There is one last thought—
III. To delay preparation is madness.
There is nothing in all Christ’s parables more tragical, more pathetic, than this picture
of the hapless five when they woke up to find their lamps going out. They heard the procession coming, the sound of feet drawing nearer, and the music borne every moment more
loudly on the midnight air. And there were they, with dying lamps and empty oil-cans. Their
shock, their alarm, their bewilderment, are all expressed in that preposterous request of
theirs, Give us of your oil.’
The answer of the wise virgins has been said to be cold and unfeeling. It is not that; it
is simply a plain statement of facts. The oil that belongs to me cannot be given to you. That
is the first lesson taught us by the request of the foolish and the answer of the wise. ‘If thou
be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself; and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.’ ‘Every
man shall bear his own burden.’ There is no possible transference of moral character or
spiritual gifts in that fashion. The awful individuality of each soul, and its unshareable personal responsibility, come solemnly to view in the words which superficial readers pass by:
‘Not so, lest there be not enough for us and you.’ You cannot share your brother’s oil. You
may share many of his possessions; not this.
‘Go to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.’ The question of whether there was time
to buy was not for the five wise to answer. There was not much chance that the would-be
buyers would find a shop open and anybody waiting to sell them oil at twelve o’clock at
night. But they risked it; and when they came back they were too late.
Now, dear friends, all the lessons of this parable may be taken by us, though we do not
believe, and think we have good reason for not believing, that the literal return of Jesus
Christ is to take place in our time. It does not matter very much, in so far as the teaching of
this parable is concerned, whether the Bridegroom comes to us, or whether we go to the
Bridegroom. I do not for a moment say that there is no such thing as coming to Jesus Christ
in the last hours of life, and becoming ready to enter even then, but I do say that it is a very
rare case, and that there is a terrible risk in delaying till then. But I pray you to remember
that our parable is addressed to, and contemplates the case of, not people who are away
from Jesus Christ, but Christians, and that it is to them that its message is chiefly brought.
It is they whom it warns not to put off making sure that they have provision for the continuance of the Christ-life. We have, day by day, to go to Him that sells and ‘buy for ourselves.’
‘They That Were Ready!’
And we know, what it did not fall within our Lord’s purpose to say in this parable, that the
price of the oil is the surrender of ourselves, and the opening of our hearts to the entrance
of that divine Spirit. Then there will be no fear but that the lamp will hold out to burn, and
no fear but that ‘when the Bridegroom, with His feastful friends, passes to bliss, at the midhour of night,’ we shall gain our entrance.
‘They That Were Ready!’
‘For the kingdom of heaven la as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own
servants, and delivered unto them his goods. 15. And unto one he gave five talents, to another
two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took
his journey. 16. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same,
and made them other five talents. 17. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained
other two. 18. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s
money. 19. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.
20. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying,
Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents
more. 21. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been
faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy
of thy lord. 22. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst
unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. 23. His lord said
unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I
will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. 24. Then to which
had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man,
reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: 25. And I
was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. 26. His
lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I
reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: 27. Thou oughtest therefore
to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received
mine own with usury. 28. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which
hath ten talents. 29. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance:
but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. 30. And cast ye the
unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
—MATT. xxv. 14-30.
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
Traders for the Master.
Traders for the Master.
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
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
Traders for the Master.
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.
Traders for the Master.
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
Traders for the Master.
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
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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.
Traders for the Master.
‘Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou
art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not
strawed: 25. And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth.’—MATT. xxv. 24,
That was a strangely insolent excuse for indolence. To charge an angry master to his
face with grasping greed and injustice was certainly not the way to conciliate him. Such
language is quite unnatural and incongruous until we remember the reality which the parable
was meant to shadow—viz., the answers for their deeds which men will give at Christ’s
judgment bar. Then we can understand how, by some irresistible necessity, this man was
compelled, even at the risk of increasing the indignation of the master, to turn himself inside
out, and to put into harsh, ugly words the half-conscious thoughts which had guided his
life and caused his unfaithfulness. ‘Every one of us shall give account of himself to God.’
The unabashed impudence of such an excuse for idleness as this is but putting into vivid
and impressive form this truth, that then a man’s actions in their true character, and the
ugly motives that underlie them, and which he did not always honestly confess to himself,
will be clear before him. It will be as much of a surprise to the men themselves, in many
cases, as it could be to listeners. Thus it becomes us to look well to the under side of our
lives, the unspoken convictions and the unformulated motives which work all the more
mightily upon us because, for the most part, they work in the dark. This is Christ’s explanation of one very operative and fruitful cause of the refusal to serve Him.
I. I ask you, then, to consider, first, the slander here and the truth that contradicts it.
‘I knew thee that thou art an hard man,’ says he, ‘reaping where them hast not sown’
(and he was standing with the unused talent in his hand all the while), ‘and gathering where
thou hast not strawed.’ That is to say, deep down in many a heart that has never said as
much to itself, there lies this black drop of gall—a conception of the divine character rather
as demanding than as giving, a thought of Him as exacting. What He requires is more considered than what He bestows. So religion is thought to be mainly a matter of doing certain
things and rendering up certain sacrifices, instead of being regarded, as it really is, as mainly
a matter of receiving from God. Christ’s authority makes me bold to say that this error underlies the lives of an immense number of nominal Christians, of people who think themselves
very good and religious, as well as the lives of thousands who stand apart from religion altogether. And I want, not to drag down any curtain by my own hand, but to ask you to lift
away the veil which hides the ugly thing in your hearts, and to put your own consciousness
to the bar of your own conscience, and say whether it is not true that the uppermost thought
about God, when you think about Him at all, is, ‘Thou art an hard man, reaping where thou
hast not sown.’
Why the Talent Was Buried.
Why the Talent Was Buried.
It is not difficult to understand why such a thought of God should rise in a heart which
has no delight in Him nor in His service. There is a side of the truth as to God’s relations
to man which gives a colour of plausibility to the slander. Grave and stringent requirements
are made by the divine law upon each of us; and our consciences tell us that they have not
been kept. Therefore we seek to persuade ourselves that they are too severe. Then, further,
we are, by reason of our own selfishness, almost incapable of rising to the conception of
God’s pure, perfect, disinterested love; and we are far too blind to the benefits that He pours
upon us all every day of our lives. And so from all these reasons taken together, and some
more besides, it comes about that, for some of us, the blessed sun in the heavens, the God
of all mercy and love, has been darkened into a lurid orb shorn of all its beneficent beams,
and hangs threatening there in our misty sky. ‘I knew Thee that Thou art an hard man.’ Ah!
I am sure that if we would go down into the deep places of our own hearts, and ask ourselves
what our real thought of God is, many of us would acknowledge that it is something like
Now turn to the other side. What is the truth that smites this slander to death? That
God is perfect, pure, unmingled, infinite love. And what is love? The infinite desire to impart
itself. His ‘nature and property’ is to be merciful, and you can no more stop God from giving
than you can shut up the rays of the sun within itself. To be and to bestow are for Him one
and the same thing. His love is an infinite longing to give, which passes over into perpetual
acts of beneficence. He never reaps where He has not sown. Is there any place where He has
not sown? Is there any heart on which there have been no seeds of goodness scattered from
His rich hand? The calumniator in the text was speaking his slanders with that in his hand
which should have stopped his mouth. He who complained that the hard master was asking
for fruit of what He had not given would have had nothing at all, if he had not obtained the
one talent from His hand. And there is no place in the whole wide universe of God where
His love has not scattered its beneficent gifts. There are no fallow fields out of cultivation
and unsown, in His great farm. He never asks where He has not given.
He never asks until after He has given. He begins with bestowing, and it is only after
the vineyard has been planted on the very fruitful hill, and the hedge built round about it,
and the winepress digged, and the tower erected, and miracles of long-suffering mercy and
skilful patience have been lavished upon it, that then He looks that it should bring forth
grapes. God’s gifts precede His requirements. He ever sows before He reaps. More than that,
He gives what He asks, helping us to render to Him the hearts that He desires. He, by His
own merciful communications, makes it possible that we should lay at His feet the tribute
of loving thanks. Just as a parent will give a child some money in order that the child may
go and buy the giver a birthday present, so God gives to us hearts, and enriches them with
many bestowments. He scatters round about us good from His hand, like drops of a fragrant
perfume from a blazing torch, in order that we may catch them up and have some portion
Why the Talent Was Buried.
of the joy which is especially His own—the joy of giving. It would be a poor affair if our sole
relation to God were that of receiving. It would be a tyrannous affair if our sole relation to
God were that of rendering up. But both relations are united, and if it be ‘more blessed to
give than to receive,’ the Giver of all good does not leave us without the opportunity of entering in even to that superlative blessing. We have to come to Him and say, when we lay
the gifts, either of our faculties or of our trust, of our riches or of our virtues, at His feet, ‘All
things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee.’
He asks for our sakes, and not for His own. ‘If I were hungry I would not tell thee, for
the cattle upon a thousand hills are Mine. Offer unto God praise, and pay thy vows unto
the Most High.’ It is blessed to us to render. He is none the richer for all our giving, as He
is none the poorer for all His. Yet His giving to us is real, and our giving is real and a joy to
Him. That is the truth lifted up against the slander of the natural heart. God is love, pure
giving, unlimited and perpetual disposition to bestow. He gives all things before He asks
for anything, and when He asks for anything it is that we may be blessed.
But you say, ‘That is all very well—where do you learn all that about God?’ My answer
is a very simple one. I learn it, and I believe there is no other place to learn it, at the Cross
of Jesus Christ. If that be the very apex of the divine love and self-revelation; if, looking upon
it, we understand God better than by any other means, then there can be no question but
that instead of gathering where He has not strawed, and reaping where He has not sown,
God is only, and always, and utterly, and to every man, infinite love that bestows itself. My
heart says to me many a time, ‘God’s laws are hard, God’s judgment is strict. God requires
what you cannot give. Crouch before Him, and be afraid.’ And my faith says, ‘Get thee behind
me, Satan!’ ‘He that spared not His own Son, . . . how shall He not with Him also freely give
us all things?’ The Cross of Christ is the answer to the slander, and the revelation of the
giving God.
II. Secondly, mark here the fear that dogs such a thought, and the love that casts out the
‘I was afraid.’ Yes, of course. If a man is not a fool, his emotions follow his thoughts,
and his thoughts ought to shape his emotions. And wherever there is the twilight of uncertainty upon the great lesson that the Cross of Jesus Christ has taught us, there there will be,
however masked and however modified by other thoughts, deep in the human heart, a
perhaps unspoken, but not therefore ineffectual, dread of God. Just as the misconception
of the divine character does influence many a life in which it has never been spoken articulately, and needs some steady observation of ourselves to be detected, so is it with this dread
of Him. Carry the task of self-examination a little further, and ask yourselves whether there
does not lie coiled in many of your hearts this dread of God, like a sleeping snake which
only needs a little warmth to be awakened to sting. There are all the signs of it. There are
many of you who have a distinct indisposition to be brought close up to the thought of Him.
Why the Talent Was Buried.
There are many of you who have a distinct sense of discomfort when you are pressed against
the realities of the Christian religion. There are many of you who, though you cover it over
with a shallow confidence, or endeavour to persuade yourselves into speculative doubts
about the divine nature, or hide it from yourselves by indifference, yet know that all that is
very thin ice, and that there is a great black pool down below—a dread at the heart, of a
righteous Judge somewhere, with whom you have somewhat to do, that you cannot shake
off. I do not want to appeal to fear, but it goes to one’s heart to see the hundreds and thousands of people round about us who, just because they are afraid of God, will not think about
Him, put away angrily and impatiently solemn words like these that I am trying to speak,
and seek to surround themselves with some kind of a fool’s paradise of indifference, and to
shut their eyes to facts and realities. You do not confess it to yourselves. What kind of a
thought must that be about your relation to God which you are afraid to speak? Some of
you remember the awful words in one of Shakespeare’s plays: ‘Now I, to comfort him, bid
him he should not think of God. I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such
thoughts yet.’ What does that teach us? ‘I knew Thee that Thou art an hard man; and I was
Dear friend, there are two religions in this world: there is the religion of fear, and there
is the religion of love; and if you have not the one, you must have the other, if you have any
at all. The only way to get perfect love that casts out fear is to be quite sure of the Fatherlove in heaven that begets it. And the only way to be sure of the infinite love in the heavens
that kindles some little spark of love in our hearts here, is to go to Christ and learn the lesson
that He reveals to us at His Cross. Love will annihilate the fear; or rather, if I may take such
a figure, will set a light to the wreathing smoke that rises, and flash it all up into a ruddy
flame. For the perfect love that casts out fear sublimes it into reverence and changes it into
trust. Have you got that love, and did you get it at Christ’s Cross?
III. Lastly, mark the torpor of fear and the activity of love. ‘I was afraid, and I went and
hid thy talent in the earth.’
Fear paralyses service, cuts the nerve of activity, makes a man refuse obedience to God.
It was a very illogical thing of that indolent servant to say, ‘I knew that you were so hard in
exacting what was due to you that therefore I determined not to give it to you.’ Is it more
illogical and more absurd than what hundreds of men and women round about us do today, when they say, ‘God’s requirements are so great that I do not attempt to fulfil them’?
One would have thought that he would have reasoned the other way, and said, ‘Because I
knew that Thy requirements were so great and severe, therefore I put myself with all my
powers to my work.’ Not so. Logical or illogical, the result remains, that that thought of
God, that black drop of gall, in many a heart, stops the action of the hand. Fear is barren,
or if it produces anything it is nothing to the purpose, and it brings gifts that not even God’s
love can accept, for there is no love in them. Fear is barren; Love is fruitful—like the two
Why the Talent Was Buried.
mountains of Samaria, from one of which the rolling burden of the curses of the Law was
thundered, and from the other of which the sweet words of promise and of blessing were
chanted in musical response. On the one side are black rocks, without a blade of grass on
them, the Mount of Cursing; on the other side are blushing grapes and vineyards, the Mount
of Blessing. Love moves to action, fear paralyses into indolence. And the reason why such
hosts of you do nothing for God is because your hearts have never been touched with the
thorough conviction that He has done everything for you, and asks you but to love Him
back again, and bring Him your hearts. These dark thoughts are like the frost which binds
the ground in iron fetters, making all the little flowers that were beginning to push their
heads into the light shrink back again. And love, when it comes, will come like the west
wind and the sunshine of the Spring; and before its emancipating fingers the earth’s fetters
will be cast aside, and the white snowdrops and the yellow crocuses will show themselves
above the ground. If you want your hearts to bear any fruit of noble living, and holy consecration, and pure deeds, then here is the process—Begin with the knowledge and belief of
‘the love which God hath to us’; learn that at the Cross, and let it silence your doubts, and
send them back to their kennels, silenced. Then take the next step, and love Him back again.
‘We love Him because He first loved us.’ That love will be the productive principle of all
glad obedience, and you will keep His commandments, and here upon earth find, as the
faithful servant found, that talents used increase; and yonder will receive the eulogium from
His lips whom to please is blessedness, by whom to be praised is heaven’s glory, ‘Well done!
good and faithful servant.’
Why the Talent Was Buried.
‘When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then
shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: 32. And before Him shall be gathered all nations:
and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the
goats: 33. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34. Then
shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the
Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35. For I was an hungred, and
ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in:
36. Naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came
unto Me. 37. Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee an
hungred, and fed Thee? or thirsty, and gave Thee drink? 38. When saw we Thee a stranger,
and took Thee in! or naked, and clothed Thee! 39. Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison,
and came unto Thee? 10. And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto
you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done
it unto Me. 41. Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from Me, ye
cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42. For I was an hungred,
and ye gave Me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink: 43. I was a stranger, and
ye took Me not in: naked, and ye clothed Me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited Me not.
44. Then shall they also answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee an hungred, or athirst,
or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee? 45. Then shall
He answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least
of these, ye did it not to Me. 46. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but
the righteous into life eternal.’—MATT. xxv. 31-46.
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.
The King on His Judgment Throne.
The King on His Judgment Throne.
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
The King on His Judgment Throne.
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.
The King on His Judgment Throne.
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
The King on His Judgment Throne.
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 everduring. 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.
The King on His Judgment Throne.
‘Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, 7. There came unto
him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on His head,
as He sat at meat. 8. But when His disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what
purpose is this waste? 9. For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the
poor. 10. When Jesus understood it, He said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for
she hath wrought a good work upon Me. 11. For ye have the poor always with you; but Me
ye have not always. 12. For in that she hath poured this ointment on My body, she did it for
My burial. 13. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole
world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. 14.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, 15. And said unto
them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver Him unto you? And they covenanted with
him for thirty pieces of silver. 16. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray
Him.’—MATT. xxvi. 6-16.