The Ten Virgins and the Talents
Jesus Christ is coming back. It’s an inevitability. He will come in person, with glory and power, to end the present age and usher eternity into being. The dead will rise. The wicked will be judged. The “how long, O, Lord” cries will turn into victory shouts. The tears will be wiped away. Heaven will come down to earth, and all things will be made new.
But that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s this delay of Christ’s return that Christ himself addresses before he begins the first leg of his journey beyond earthly life. His people are to wait and ready themselves. They are not to be slothful, but work as if the day is tomorrow, because, who knows, it could be.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins – Matthew 25:1-13
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
There are two ways to live: foolish or wise. Matthew, more so than the other New Testament writers, pits these two groups against one another many times. In the parable of the ten virgins, he does so once again. The girls are split into two groups, with five comprising each party. One group is wise. The other is foolish.
Weddings in our day are a grand event. But ours pale in comparison to the first century. It was a very grand affair, lasting much longer than today’s weddings. The bridegroom would travel to his bride’s home (or wedding location), which could take days. The bride’s party would go out to meet the bridegroom. Torches were used to create an impressive procession as the bridegroom arrives, usually at night. There was much waiting and great anticipation, and it’s this waiting that Jesus focuses on. We can wait wisely or foolishly, and Jesus tells us to be wise. To do so, we must both be ready and prepared.
Both groups were ready. But not all were prepared. They had their torches and took their place awaiting the bridegroom. They even all slept. But before that, five of the girls brought extra oil for their lamps and five did not. The five who did were wise. The five who didn’t were foolish. When the bridegroom came, they proved they were unprepared to meet him. They ran off to buy more oil, missing their chance to walk with him, and finding a closed door upon their arrival.
As Christians, we live in the “already-but-not-yet” of the kingdom. Jesus has already come, inaugurating the Kingdom, but he hasn’t come again to fully establish it, ending this present world. This parable is about living in this in-between time, how we live awaiting the second coming of our Savior. Matthew spends multiples pages and many words recording Jesus’s teaching about the last days. Throughout, he urges them to watch, to be ready, and to be prepared, because they never know when it will happen. This is one reason the early church lived with such anticipation regarding the second coming of the Lord. They never knew when it could happen.
So, in this parable, we find the bridegroom representing Jesus, the virgins representing us, and the marriage feast the end of the age. Are we ready for the bridegroom? Do we even know?
Very few Christians today live with urgency and awareness of the coming kingdom. It has been thousands of years since Christ ascended into heaven. The delay has been long, and we find it hard to believe he will be back soon. So, we go about our lives, becoming far too interested in things on earth. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we’re not prepared. We’re there. We’re waiting. We have our lamp. But we have no oil. We have whatever was given to us at the start, but we haven’t reached out beyond to find what we need for the future. We lack preparation, thinking someone can help us out when the time comes. And it’s this attitude that Jesus confronts in this parable. We should live as people who are prepared for his arrival. We may sleep, but when he rouses us, we must be ready to meet him and go with him into the feast.
Readiness is a life-long pursuit. It's not glamorous or easy. It’s moment by moment, one day at a time, through trials and tribulations. It’s not something anyone else can do for us. It was not wrong for the five wise virgins to deny the five foolish virgins a bit of their oil. In the procession, it would be an embarrassment for the torches to run out before arriving. Better to have five good, strong torches than ten dim. After all, they were ready. It was not their responsibility to bring enough for others, only enough for themselves. Jesus is saying it’s up to us to be ready and prepared. How we prepare shows how much we love him—or don’t love him. It proves what we think about his return.
So, how do we prepare? Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t tell us. He just tells us to be ready. But we do know salvation, according to Christianity, is not about works. We are saved by faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all our works. This brings glory to God, because it is wholly his work that saves us.
But salvation, according to Christianity, is also not a state of beinglessness. We passively receive the grace of God but must actively respond to it. The Christian life is, therefore, a life of active-passivity. It is one where real people do real things in response to real grace received, by the power of real love from above. So, to prepare, we must be responding to the grace of God. We must put on Christ and walk in him.
Perhaps it helps to see how we should be prepared by looking at how five of these virgins weren’t. In other words, the lack will help us see the way.
John Piper helps us understand the problem.
Five of them did not take seriously their calling to give light, and they neglected the only means by which they could do what they were called to do. They took no oil. They only had lamps. Their job was to provide light, and they had lamps without oil. Candles without wicks. Torches without fire. Light bulbs without electricity. The outward form of religion and no internal power. They liked their position, otherwise they would have left. But they did not have a passion to use the necessary means to fulfill their point of their position. Light! Their foolishness was to think that the mere form of a religious lamp would be sufficient. Or, perhaps, that the power to light a lamp could simply be borrowed at the last minute. In fact, it can’t be borrowed at all.
Do you see what they lacked? They lacked the seriousness for which the task required. They took their lamps, but they didn’t take what the lamp needed. It wasn’t that they couldn’t get it. They wouldn’t get it.
In his earthly life, Jesus had the same spiritual resources we have today. He had the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and prayer. He used them. And by using them, he saved the world. The Father has given us the same resources, and what he requires of us is to come to him with all he provides. The lamps are useless without the oil, just as oil without a lamp is useless. But together, they light the way. What we need to be prepared is to use the gifts God has given us in Christ, by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit.
If we aren’t using God’s gifts, we may reach the end of our days, or the return of Christ, with a lack that we cannot cram in. We can’t get back the wasted time, the spurned gifts, the neglected hours. We are left in that moment with only what we’ve decided to take along with us—and that decision was made a long time ago. These virgins did not decide to take no oil that night. They decided during the day, and it was the decision of the past that ruined the present and damned the future. What we do with our life now matters for what we will be able to do in the future. This is not works righteousness. This is godly wisdom. It is the one who sows who will reap a harvest. It is the one who works who will see a reward. It is the one who invests who will return a profit. But those who neglect the call of Christ find themselves lacking at the time of his coming. But that need not be the case! He’s provided the way. Let’s walk in it.
If we fail to walk with the Lord all our days, we will reach the end and hear the words, “I do not know you.” The warning is clear. Temporary zeal cannot replace life-long faithfulness. Just as the lamps required regular filling of oil, so too our souls require regular filling of the gospel. We must use all the means of grace God grants. We must know Christ personally, living in reality with him. We cannot merely rest in our association with those who do. No one can have faith for us. And the longer the wait, the more we need faith. In the gospel, he’s given us the lamp, are we tending it or neglecting it?
The Parable of the Talents – Matthew 25:14-30
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Jesus tells another parable, in case we don’t get it the first time. The Lord loves us deeply, and he provides for us immensely, but he doesn’t coddle us. He tells us like it is, with power and authority. We are to work for him while he’s gone. We are not to be idle. Idleness proves we don’t love him. Hard works proves we do.
From the start, we must say this parable is not about works righteousness. The work doesn’t come before the call. The call comes before the work. But the work is vital, and it is proof of the call. So, let’s lay down our ideas of works righteousness. Let’s not let those thoughts muddy the living waters Jesus is speaking to us now.
So, we have three servants who are given three different amounts—all of them very large sums of money. Each is given his amount based on his ability. God knows what we are capable of, and he graciously gives us gifts of which we are to use for advancement. He knows our limitations. He made us that way. He’s like a good coach, happy with the player who lives up to his potential, even if he never becomes a superstar. Two of these servants double the money, proving they’re good servants, always about the Master’s business. The third buries it in the ground, proving he’s a bad servant, concerned only for himself. He doesn’t lose anything, but he doesn’t gain anything either. And in that, he fails.
The parable of the ten virgins taught us to be prepared for the bridge groom’s arrival. As he delays, we must be ready whenever he comes. The parable of the talents teaches us what to do as he delays—how we should work and serve as we wait. We must work diligently on his behalf now. We aren’t guaranteed a great investment opportunity later on. And if we fail to do what we should, we will find ourselves unprepared when he arrives.
The Lord is not looking for us to make a big splash in the world on our own. He’s giving us his gifts and asking us to steward them well. If we make a splash, that’s great. If we don’t, at least we tried with what he gave us. Ultimately, it’s up to him what happens. We are his responsibility. All he asks of us is to do the best with what we’ve been given.
We all admire the first two servants. And we should. They lived their life in the in between time well. They grew the Master’s estate. But the third servant is the focus. He doesn’t do anything, and that’s a real threat to all of us. We are at risk of burying what the Lord has given in the ground because we take him to be a harsh master, and no matter what we do, we feel as if we can’t win. Try and lose? Condemned. Try and win? He takes it. So, why try at all? Just maintain the status quo and give back to him what he gave you. But that is not the Christian life. It’s the non-Christian life—blaming God no matter what the outcome.
The word “talent” often throws us off course in interpreting this parable today. We think of talents as abilities or gifts. But a talent in Jesus’s time was a weight of money. A denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer. A talent was about six thousand denarii, depending on the type of metal it was made of. All three men were given huge sums of money. Undoubtedly the first two servants have greater skill and talent than the third, but Jesus gives a great sum to all, expecting all to return more than he gave.
And here we must understand something. We are not independent beings. We are slaves, bound to someone. And when we came to Christ, we did not come as an employee able to negotiate his salary and benefits nor as a union worker able to strike when we want. We came as slaves to sin looking for redemption. And when we came to Jesus, he brought us under a different kind of slavery—slavery to righteousness. As Paul says in Romans 6:16-18, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
Our slavery to Jesus means we don’t have the right not to work on his behalf. We don’t have the right to say no to him. Instead, we have the opportunity to work on his behalf. And even if that means suffering, we have an eternal weight of glory awaiting.
Do you see the implications? All who have been saved by Christ belong to Christ, not in that we are associates but in that we are slaves to him, our Master. If we follow the third servant and fail to do what he asks of us, we will show not only that we don’t care about his word but that we don’t love him at all. We will prove what our heart really believes—that God is not good, and we can’t trust him.
The third servant’s talent is taken from him and given to the first servant. Furthermore, the relationship between the master and servant is severed. The message is clear. As we await Jesus’s return, we should not be passive. We should be about our Master’s business, seeking to advance his cause. It will be hard. All life-giving things are. But it will be worth it because Jesus is worth it. If we listen to him, do what he asks, and follow, we will have a great life. It will be like receiving a bag of money and having to figure out what to do with it. It’ll be full of joy because the King has a glorious purpose for it all. As you work, you’re working on behalf of him, and joy fills your heart, even in times of suffering. But if you sit it out and play it safe, you’ll perhaps have an easier go of it here and now, but the “not yet” of the Kingdom is coming, and your life of ease will shame you on that day.
To our modern ears, this talk of slaves and masters sounds hard and worldly. But Jesus isn’t asking us to bring the world into the Kingdom. He’s asking us to take the Kingdom into the world. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is heaven coming down to earth. It is the greatest joy one could ever gain. It is the ultimate hope of all our longings. It is the presence of Jesus.
In his physical absence, Jesus is asking his followers to be heralds of his good news. He’s asking us to use all the resources he’s given to advance his kingdom. He’s asking us to raise our voice and shout to the watching world, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).