by Matthew W. Bassford
Through the years, God has managed to hammer a few insights about the Bible into my thick head. One of them is that in the gospels, the order of stories matters. It’s common for the Evangelist to arrange material so that a text offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.
Reading the gospels in this way widens our focus. Rather than merely considering what a passage says, it’s important for us to ask what its context says about it too. Often, the writers do not spell out these connections (just as Jesus did not spell out the meaning of the parables for the multitudes), but when we make them ourselves, they give us a deeper insight into the Scriptures.
This process is particularly fruitful in Matthew 25. Even though Matthew presents all this material as part of one long discourse, we often don’t study it that way (except maybe at the end of a book study on Matthew when the teacher is desperately trying to reach Matthew 28 by the end of the quarter). We know the parable of the virgins, the parable of the talents, and the throne scene, but rarely do we tie all three of them together.
However, when we do, an important message emerges. The parable of the virgins is about perseverance. We are supposed to be like the wise virgins who kept their lamps lit until the bridegroom arrived, rather than like the foolish virgins who ran out of oil.
The parable of the talents is about productivity. We are to imitate the five-talent and two-talent servants, who did something with what they had been given, rather than the one-talent servant, who accomplished nothing.
The throne scene is about compassion. Jesus wants us to see that caring for His brothers and sisters is so important that He makes it equivalent to caring for Him. Our eternal destiny depends on the way we treat one another.
When we consider these three messages together, it answers questions that each individual message leaves unanswered. If we want to be like the wise virgins, in what should we persevere? Contextually, the answer is that we should persevere in taking advantage of opportunities to care for one another. If we want to be productive like the faithful servants, what does that look like? Contextually, it looks like caring for one another until the end of our time on earth. If we want to minister to one another’s needs, how should we do that? We should do it by continually taking advantage of opportunities for service.
Interestingly, this combined analysis leads to different applications than the ones we usually make. For instance, we generally read the parable of the talents as being about staying faithful (continuing to show up for services, not falling away) rather than serving faithfully. It’s a lot less demanding that way! However, when we pay attention to the full message of the Lord, we better understand the path that He would have us walk.