Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.XXV.
(1) Then shall the kingdom of heaven . . .—The three parables of this chapter appear here as in closest sequence to the great discourse of Matthew 24, and are as its natural conclusion. On the other hand, no trace of such parables being then spoken appears either in St. Mark or St. Luke, and their absence is at least a phenomenon that calls for explanation. That which seems most probable is that the strictly apocalyptic part of the discourse was, as the destruction of Jerusalem drew near, frequently impressed by oral teaching on the minds of disciples, and then reproduced in writing, with the diversities of detail incidental to such a process, as a document complete in itself, while it was reserved for St. Matthew—here as elsewhere, eager in collecting parables—to add the teaching that actually followed it. The parables have a common aim, as impressing on the disciples the necessity at once of watchfulness and of activity in good, but each has, it will be seen, a very distinct scope of its own.
Be likened unto ten virgins.—On the general meaning of the symbolism of the Wedding Feast enough has been said in the Notes on Matthew 22:2. Here, as there, we have to remember, that while the bride is the Church in her collective unity, the contrasted characters of the members of the Church are represented here by the virgins, as there by the guests who were invited; and for this reason, probably, the bride herself is not introduced as part of the imagery of the parable. As far as the frame-work of the figure is concerned, the stage in the marriage rites which is brought before us is the return of the bridegroom, after the espousals have been completed in the house of the bride’s father, to his own abode, bringing the bride with him. Jewish custom required the bridesmaids to wait at the bridegroom’s house, to receive him and the bride, and as this was commonly after sunset, they were provided with lamps or torches.
Which took their lamps.—Better, torches, as the word is rendered in John 18:3. These were of tow, steeped in oil and fastened to the end of sticks.
And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.(2) Five of them were wise.—The word is the same as in Matthew 24:45, where see Note.
They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:(3) Took no oil with them.—In the interpretation of the parable, the lamp or torch is obviously the outward life of holiness by which the disciple of Christ lets his light shine before men (Matthew 5:16), and the “oil” is the divine grace, or more definitely, the gift of the Holy Spirit, without which the torch first burns dimly and then expires. The foolish virgins neglected to seek that supply, either from the Great Giver, or through the human agencies by which He graciously imparts it.
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.(5) While the bridegroom tarried.—Strictly speaking, the time thus described includes the whole interval between our Lord’s Ascension and His final Advent; but looking to the law of “springing and germinant accomplishments,” which we have recognised as applicable to the whole subject, we may see in it that which answers to any period in the history of any church, or, indeed, in the life of any member of a church, in which things go smoothly and as after the routine of custom. At such a time even the wise and good are apt to slumber, and the crisis, which is to them, if not to the world at large, as the bridegroom’s coming, takes them by surprise; but they have, what the foolish have not, the reserved force of steadfast faith and divine help to fall back upon. We may note that the “delay” in this case is followed by a less glaring form of evil than that in Matthew 24:48. Not reckless and brutal greed, but simple apathy and neglect is the fault noted for condemnation.
Slumbered and slept.—The first word implies the “nodding” which indicates the first approach of drowsiness, the second the continuous sleeping.
And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.(6) At midnight.—The hour was obviously later than the virgins had expected, and in this we may see a half-veiled suggestion of a like lateness in the coining of the true Bridegroom. The “cry” would be that of the companions of the bridegroom, or of the crowd that mingled with them. In the interpretation of the parable we may see in it, over and above its reference to the final Advent, that which answers to the stir and thrill that announce any coming crisis in the history of Church or people.
And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.(8) Our lamps are gone out.—Better, as in the margin, are going out. They were not quite extinguished; the flax was still smoking.
But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.(9) Not so.—The words, as the italics show, are not in the Greek. They are, perhaps, necessary to complete the sense in English; but there is a tone of regretful tenderness in the way in which, in the original, the wise virgins give the reason that makes compliance with the request impossible, without directly uttering a refusal.
Go ye rather to them that sell.—This feature in the parable is too remarkable to be passed over lightly, especially as the “exchangers” in the parable that follows are clearly more or less analogous. We have to ask, then, who they are that, in the interpretation of the parable, according to the data already ascertained, answer to “them that sell.” And the answer is, that they are the pastors and teachers of the Church—the stewards of the mysteries of God. Through them, whether as preachers of the divine Word of Wisdom, or as administering the sacraments which are signs and means of grace, men may, by God’s appointment, obtain the gift and grace they need. The “buying” and “selling” belong, of course, in their literal sense, to the parable only. No gift of God can be purchased with money (Acts 8:20). But the words are not, therefore, any more than in Matthew 13:44-46 (where see Notes), destitute of meaning. Men may “buy” the truth which they are not to sell (Proverbs 23:23). They are invited to buy the “wine and milk,” which symbolise God’s spiritual gifts, “without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). The price that God requires is the consecration of their heart (Proverbs 23:26).
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.(10) While they went to buy.—The words imply that had they gone earlier, as the wise virgins, by hypothesis, had done, all would have been well. The mistake lay in their not having gone before. It is too late, in other words, to have recourse to the ordinary means of grace for the formation of character, to ordinances, sacraments, rules of life, at the moment of the crisis in personal or national life, which answers to the coming of the bridegroom. The door is then shut, and is no longer opened even to those who knock.
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.(12) I know you not.—The sentence of rejection is clothed in the same language as in Matthew 7:23. The Lord “ are His” (2Timothy 2:19), and their blessedness will be to know Him even as they are known (1Corinthians 13:12).
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.(14) For the kingdom of heaven.—The italicised words are introduced for the sake of grammatical completeness. The Greek runs simply, “For as a man . . . called his own servants,” with no formal close to the comparison. The parable thus introduced has obviously many points in common with that of the Pounds recorded by St. Luke (Luke 19:12-27), but the distinctive features of each are also so characteristic that it will be well to deal with each separately, and to reserve a comparison of the two till both have been interpreted.
The outward framework of the parable lies in the Eastern way of dealing with property in the absence of the owner. Two courses were open as an approximation to what we call investment. The more primitive and patriarchal way was for the absentee to make his slaves his agents. They were to till his land and sell the produce, or to use the money which he left with them as capital in trading. In such cases there was, of course, often an understanding that they should receive part of the profits, but being their master’s slaves, there was no formal contract. The other course was to take advantage of the banking, money-changing, money-lending system, of which the Phœnicians were the inventors, and which at the time was in full operation throughout the Roman empire The bankers received money on deposit and paid interest on it, and then lent it at a higher percentage, or employed it in trade, or (as did the publicani at Rome) in farming the revenues of a province. This was therefore the natural resource, as investment in stocks or companies is with us, for those who had not energy to engage in business.
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.(15) Unto one he gave five talents.—On the value of the talent see the Note on Matthew 18:24. The languages of modern Europe bear witness, in their use of the word, to the impression which the parable has made. A man’s energies, gifts, capacities, are the “talents,” for the use of which he will have to render an account. We speak, though in this case the word is hardly more than an ill-coined vulgarism, of him who possesses them as “talented.” Common, however, as this use of the word is, it tends to obscure the true meaning of the parable. Here there is an “ability” presupposed in each case, prior to the distribution of the talents, and we are led accordingly to the conclusion that the latter stand here less for natural gifts than for external opportunities—for possessions, offices, what we call “spheres of duty.” These, we are told, are, in the wisdom of God, given to men, in the long run, “according to their several ability.” So taken, the parable does not repeat the lesson of that which precedes it, but is addressed, not as that is to all Christians, but specifically to those who hold any vocation or ministry in the Church of Christ, or have in their hands outward resources for working in it. It is, perhaps, not altogether fanciful to trace, as a first application, in the three-fold scale of distribution, a correspondence with the three groups, four in each, into which the twelve Apostles were divided. The sons of Jona and of Zebedee were as those who had received five talents; the less conspicuous middle group answered to those who received but two; while the “wicked and slothful servant” finds his representative in the only disciple in the third, or last group, who is at all conspicuous.
Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.(16) Traded with the same.—Literally, wrought, or, was busy. The fact that the capital was doubled implies that the trading was both active and prosperous.
But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.(18) He that had received one . . .—There is something strikingly suggestive in the fact that those who had received the higher sums were “good and faithful,” and that it was left to the man who had received the smallest to fail in his duty. Failure in the use of wider opportunities brings with it a greater condemnation; but it is true, as a fact of human nature which our Lord thus recognised, that in such cases there is commonly less risk of failure. The very presence of the opportunities brings with it a sense of responsibility. So faithfulness in a very little receives its full reward, but the consciousness of having but a little, when men do not believe in their Master’s wisdom and love in giving them but a little, tempts to discontent and so to sloth on the one hand, and on the other, as with Judas, to hasty and unscrupulous greed of immediate gain.
After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.(19) After a long time.—Here, as in the previous parable, there is a faint suggestion, as it were, of a longer delay than men looked for in the Coming which is the counterpart to this.
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.(20) I have gained beside them five talents more.—The result of the right use of opportunities could not be otherwise expressed within the limits of the imagery of the parable. In the kingdom of God the gain commonly takes another form than the mere increase of the gifts or opportunities which we call “talents” (though even here that increase is often the result of faithfulness), and appears as good done to men and souls gained for God.
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.(21) I will make thee ruler over many things.—Better, I will set thee over many things. The word “ruler” is not in the Greek. Here again, as in Matthew 24:47, we have a glimpse given us into the future that lies behind the veil. So far as the parable brings before us prominently either the final judgment or that which follows upon each man’s death, we see that the reward of faithful work lies not in rest only, bat in enlarged activity. The world to come is thus connected by a law of continuity with that in which we live; and those who have so used their “talents” as to turn many to righteousness, may find new spheres of action, beyond all our dreams, in that world in which the ties of brotherhood that have been formed on earth are not extinguished, but, so we may reverently believe, multiplied and strengthened.
Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.—The words are almost too strong for the framework of the parable. A human master would hardly use such language to his slaves. But here, as yet more in the parable that follows, the reality breaks through the symbol, and we hear the voice of the divine Master speaking to His servants, and He bids them share His joy, for that joy also had its source (as He told them but a few hours later) in loyal and faithful service, in having “kept His Father’s commandments” (John 15:10-11).
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:(24) I knew thee that thou art an hard man.—The word “hard” points to stiffness of character—St. Luke’s “austere,” to harshness and bitterness. Was the plea an after-thought, put forward as an excuse for what had been originally sloth pure and simple? On that view, the lesson taught is that neglect of loyal service leads before long to disloyal thoughts. But it may have been our Lord’s intention to represent the slothful servant as having all along cherished the thought which he now pleads in his defence. That had been at the root of his neglect. The eye sees only so far as it brings with it the power to see, and therefore he had never seen in his master either generous love or justice in rewarding. The proverb, “One soweth, another reapeth” (John 4:37), taken on its darker and more worldly side, seemed to him the rule of his master’s conduct. So in the souls of men there springs up at times the thought that all the anomalies of earthly rule are found in that of God, that He too is arbitrary, vindictive, pitiless, like earthly kings; and that thought, as it kills love, so it paralyses the energy which depends on love. So, we may believe, following the thought already thrown out, the heart of the Traitor was full of envy and bitterness because he stood so low in the company of the Twelve, and thought hardly of his Master because He thus dealt with him and yet looked for faithful service.
And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.(25) And I was afraid.—The words are those of simulated rather than real fear. That would have led him to shrink from the unfaithful service which was sure to draw down his master’s anger. The excuse did but cover the implied taunt that he dared not venture anything in the service of a master who would make no allowance for intentions where the result was failure. So, in the life of the soul, a man wanting in the spirit of loyalty and trust contents himself with making no use of opportunities, and therefore they are to him as though they were not, except that they increase his guilt and his condemnation.
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:(26) Thou wicked and slothful servant.—The words of the master pierce below the false excuse, and reveal the faults which had eaten like a canker into the man’s heart and soul.
Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.(27) Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers.—Literally, table or counter-keepers, just as bankers were originally those who sat at their bancum, or bench. These were the bankers referred to in the Note on Matthew 25:14. In that case, if the servant had been honestly conscious of his own want of power, there would have been at least some interest allowed on the deposit.
Usury.—Better, interest; the word not necessarily implying, as usury does now, anything illegal or exorbitant. The question—What answers to this “giving to the exchangers” in the interpretation of the parable?—is, as has been said, analogous to that which asks the meaning of “them that sell” in the answer of the wise virgins in Matthew 25:9. Whatever machinery or organisation the Church possesses for utilising opportunities which individual men fail to exercise, may be thought of as analogous to the banking-system of the old world. When men in the middle ages gave to a cathedral or a college, when they subscribe largely now to hospitals or missions, doing this and nothing more, they are “giving their money to the exchangers.” It is not so acceptable an offering as willing and active service, but if it be honestly and humbly given, the giver will not lose his reward.
Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.(28) Take therefore the talent from him.—The sentence passed on the slothful servant confirms the view which sees in the “talents” the external opportunities given to a man for the use of his abilities. The abilities themselves cannot be thus transferred; the opportunities can, and often are, even in the approximate working out of the law of retribution which we observe on earth. Here also men give to him that hath, and faithful work is rewarded by openings for work of a higher kind. So, assuming a law, if not of continuity, at least of analogy, to work behind the veil, we may see in our Lord’s words that one form of the penalty of the slothful will be to see work which might have been theirs to do, done by those who have been faithful while on earth.
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.(29) Unto every one that hath.—The meaning and practical working of the law thus stated have been sufficiently illustrated in the Note on Matthew 25:28. What is noteworthy here is the extreme generality with which the law is stated. Analogies of that law are, it need even scarcely be said, to be found both in nature and in human society. Non-user tends to invalidate legal right. A muscle that is not exercised tends to degenerate and lose its power.
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.(30) Cast ye the unprofitable servant . . .—We have had so far the special punishment of sloth, but it is not complete without the solemn and emphatic recurrence of the “darkness” and “gnashing of teeth.”
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:(31) When the Son of man shall come.—We commonly speak of the concluding portion of this chapter as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, but it is obvious from its very beginning that it passes beyond the region of parable into that of divine realities, and that the sheep and goats form only a subordinate and parenthetic illustration. The form of the announcement is in part based, as indeed are all the thoughts connected with the final Advent, upon the vision of Daniel 7:13. The “throne of His glory” is that which He shares with “the Ancient of Days,” the throne of Jehovah, surrounded with the brightness of the Shechinah.
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:(32) Before him shall be gathered all nations.—Better, all the nations, or even better, perhaps, all the Gentiles. The word is that which, when used, as here, with the article, marks out, with scarcely an exception, the heathen nations of the world as distinguished from God’s people Israel (as, e.g., in Romans 15:11-12; Ephesians 2:11). The word, thus taken, serves as the key to the distinctive teaching that follows. We have had in this chapter, (1) in the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the law of judgment for all members of the Church of Christ; (2) in the Talents, that for all who hold any office or ministry in the Church: now we have (3) the law by which those shall be judged who have lived and died as heathens, not knowing the name of Christ, and knowing God only as revealed in Nature or in the law written in their hearts. Every stage in what follows confirms this interpretation.
As a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.—Elsewhere the shepherd’s work is the symbol of protective, self-sacrificing love, and, as such, our Lord had emphatically claimed for Himself the title of the Good Shepherd (John 10:14). Here we are reminded that even the shepherd has at times to execute the sentence of judgment which involves separation. The “right” hand and the “left” are used, according to the laws of what we might almost call a natural symbolism, as indicating respectively good and evil, acceptance and rejection.
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:(34) Ye blessed of my Father.—The Greek is not identical with “blessed by my Father,” but means rather, “ye blessed ones who belong to my Father.”
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.—Yes; not for Israel only, or those among the brethren who should in this life believe in Christ, had the kingdom been prepared, but for these also. For those who came from east and west and north and south (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:29)—for all who in every nation feared God and wrought righteousness (Acts 10:35)—had that kingdom been prepared from everlasting, though it was only through the work of Christ, and by ultimate union with Him, that it could be realised and enjoyed.
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:(35) I was an hungred.—The passage furnishes six out of the list of the seven corporal works of mercy in Christian ethics, the seventh being found in the care and nurture of the fatherless.
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.(36) Ye visited me.—The Greek word is somewhat stronger than the modern meaning of the English, and includes “looking after,” “caring for.” The verb is formed from the same root as Episcopos, the bishop, or overseer of the Church.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?(37) When saw we thee an hungred?—It is clear that this question of surprise could not be asked by any who, as believers in Christ, have come under this teaching. They know, even now, the full significance of their acts of mercy, and that knowledge is as their strongest motive. But in the lips of the heathen who stand before the judgment-seat such a question will be natural enough. They have acted from what seemed merely human affection towards merely human objects, and they are therefore rightly represented as astonished when they hear that they have, in their ministrations to the sons of men, been ministering to the Son of Man.
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.(40) Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren.—The words are true, in different degrees of intensity, in proportion as the relationship is consciously recognised, of every member of the family of man. Of all it is true that He, the Lord, who took their flesh and blood, “is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Hebrews 2:11). We have here, in its highest and divinest form, that utterance of sympathy which we admire even in one of like passions with ourselves. We find that He too “counts nothing human alien from Himself.”
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:(41) Ye cursed.—The omission of the words “of My Father,” which might have seemed necessary to complete the parallelism with Matthew 25:34, is every way significant. He is not the author of the curse. Those who have brought themselves under the curse by their own evil deeds He no longer acknowledges as His.
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?(44) When saw we thee . . .?—There is, as before, an unconsciousness of the greatness of the things that had been done for good or evil. Men thought that they were only neglecting their fellow men, and were, it may be, thinking that they had wronged no man. It is significant that the sins here are, all of them, sins of omission. As in the case of the parable of the Talents, the opportunities (here those that are common to all men, as there those that attached to some office or ministry in the Church) have simply not been used.
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.(46) Everlasting punishment . . . life eternal.—The two adjectives represent one and the same Greek word, αἰώνιος, and we ought therefore to have the same word in both clauses in the English. Of the two words, “eternal” is philologically preferable, as being traceably connected with the Greek, the Latin ætemus being derived from ætas, and that from ævum, which, in its turn, is but another form of the Greek ἀιὼν (æon). The bearing of the passage on the nature and duration of future punishment is too important to be passed over; and though the question is too wide to be determined by a single text, all that the text contributes to its solution should be fully and fairly weighed. On the one hand, then, it is urged that as we hold the “eternal life” to have no end, so we must hold also the endlessness of the “eternal fire.” On the other hand, it must be admitted (1) that the Greek word which is rendered “eternal,” does not in itself involve endlessness, but rather duration, whether through an age or a succession of ages; and that it is therefore applied in the New Testament to periods of time that have had both beginning and ending (Romans 16:25, where the Greek is “from æonian times,” our version giving “since the world began”—comp. 2Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2), and in the Greek version of the Old Testament to institutions and ordinances that were confessedly to wax old and vanish away (Genesis 17:8; Leviticus 3:17); and (2) that in the language of a Greek Father (Gregory of Nyssa, who held the doctrine of the restitution of all things) it is even connected with the word “interval,” as expressing the duration of the penal discipline which was, he believed, to come to an end after an æonian intervening period. Strictly speaking, therefore, the word, as such, and apart from its association with any qualifying substantive, implies a vast undefined duration, rather than one in the full sense of the word “infinite.” The solemnity of the words at the close of the great prophecy of judgment tends obviously to the conclusion that our Lord meant His disciples, and through them His people in all ages, to dwell upon the division which was involved in the very idea of judgment, as one which was not to be changed. Men must reap as they have sown, and the consequences of evil deeds, or of failure to perform good deeds, must, in the nature of the case, work out their retribution, so far as we can see, with no assignable limit. On the other hand, once again, (1) the symbolism of Scriptural language suggests the thought that “fire” is not necessarily the material element that inflicts unutterable torture on the body, and that the penalty of sin may possibly be an intense and terrible consciousness of the presence of God, who is as a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) in the infinite majesty of His holiness, united with the sense of being at variance with it, and therefore under condemnation. And (2), assuming the perpetuity of the “punishment,” it does not involve necessarily an equality of suffering for the whole multitude of the condemned at any time, nor for any single soul throughout its whole duration. Without dwelling, as some have done, on the fact that the Greek word here used for “punishment” had acquired a definite significance as used by ethical writers for reformative rather than vindictive or purely retributive suffering (Aristot. Rhet. i. 10), it is yet conceivable that the acceptance of suffering as deserved may mitigate its severity; and we cannot, consistently with any true thoughts of God, conceive of Him as fixing, by an irresistible decree, the will of any created being in the attitude of resistance to His will. That such resistance is fatally possible we see by a wide and painful experience, and as the “hardening” in such cases is the result of a divine law, it may, from one point of view, be described as the act of God (Romans 9:18); but a like experience attests that, though suffering does not cease to be suffering, it may yet lose something of its bitterness by being accepted as deserved, and the law of continuity and analogy, which, to say the least, must be allowed some weight in our thoughts of the life to come, suggests that it may be so there also. (For other aspects of this momentous question, see Notes on Matthew 5:26; Matthew 18:34.) (3) As to the nature of the “eternal life” which is thus promised to those who follow the guidance of the Light that lighteth every man, we must remember, that within a few short hours of the utterance of these words, it was defined by our Lord in the hearing of those who listened to them: “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). That life in its very nature tends to perpetuity, and it is absolutely inconceivable that after having lasted through the ages which the word “eternal,” on any etymological explanation, implies, it should then fail and cease.