Friday, August 23, 2013

Parables of the Final Judgment

Today is the final day in our 33rd week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures* today are Micah 5-7; Matthew 25.

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives three parables about the final judgment.  The Parable of the Ten Virgins highlights our need to keep watch and be ready for Jesus the Bridegroom when He comes.  The Parable of the Talents reminds us to use wisely the gifts that God has given to us--that we are only stewards of our possessions, and not the true owners.  The Parable of the Sheep and Goats warns us that we will be judged by what we have done--whether or not we have acted with compassion toward others.  In each of these parables, the faithful receive God's blessing, and the unfaithful are cast into outer darkness or punishment.  

Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
If we're not careful, we might misunderstand these parables and from them get the idea that salvation is based on your works.  You might think that the wise virgins were admitted to the wedding because they took the time or spent the money to bring extra oil.  Or, you might think that the worthless servant was cast out because he didn't invest wisely, while the other servants were better with money.  Or, you might think that the "sheep" earned their salvation by engaging in right behavior, whereas the "goats" deserved their punishment because they weren't good enough.  Such ideas are dangerous, and leave us fearful for our salvation, wondering in the end if we will measure up to God's standard of what's "good enough."

In Ephesians 2:8-9, we read:  "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."  This means we're saved, not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.  Grace means we can't earn our salvation.  

But you may ask, "Why, then, does Jesus tell stories that make it seem like our salvation is based on our good works?"  Jesus' half-brother James answers that question when he says:

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Parable of the Talents
So then, our good works become an evidence of the reality of our claims to faith.  Our evil works testify to the hypocrisy of any faith that we say we have.  Those who have been truly transformed into the image of Christ will live as Christ lived.  We aren't saved by our works, or condemned because of our works.  Rather, we're saved because we know Jesus so intimately that we're becoming more and more like Him every day.  We're condemned, even if we claim to be religious, if that religion never truly transforms us from the inside, out.

So then, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins isn't about oil at all.  The oil represents the Holy Spirit.  Those who are left outside were invited to the wedding, yet they were never transformed into true followers of Christ, who naturally would be filled with the Spirit.  It's not because of their lack of good works (purchasing enough oil), but because of lack of relationship with God.  When their oils lack the Holy Spirit, their inner fire cannot burn.  Thus, without that glow, the Bridegroom can't even identify them as invited guests.  How horrible to hear our Bridegroom say, "I never knew you!"  

The Parable of the Talents isn't about whether you shrewdly invest God's money, or whether you wisely use the talents God has given you.  It's about whether or not you have enough of a relationship with God to know His heart.  Matthew 25:24b-25a reveal that the wicked servant didn't even know his Master.  "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground."  This shows such a misunderstanding of the heart of God!  And it is from this fundamental misunderstanding that the wicked servant operated, in his relationship to the treasure that his Master gave him.  He isn't rejected because of his financial stupidity.  He's rejected because he has no relationship with the Master--a relationship which might have guided him to better actions.

Parable of the Sheep and Goats
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats isn't really about how many charitable acts a person has done.  I mean really--how many charitable deeds must you do, in order to earn your salvation, and how many needy people must you pass over in order to lose your salvation?  No--it's not about that at all.  What's it really about?  Those who are blessed have a relationship with God that is so close that they see His eyes in the eyes of others.  They understand that the Creator is one with the creation, and that to love Him is to love others.  The accursed have no such relationship with the Creator, and live only for themselves.  They aren't damned because of what they didn't do--they're damned because of Who they didn't (or, rather, wouldn't) know.

One thing that's common in all these parables is that each of those that is rejected still had an opportunity to get to know the Master.  Nobody in a wedding party says, "I think I'll enjoy the hors d'oeuvvres, but I don't think I'll get to know the groom."  Yet apparently these girls made themselves strangers to the Bridegroom.  No servant is entrusted with funds by his master unless they've been around the master a fair bit.  But it looks like for all the time this servant spent with the Master, he just didn't understand the heart of God.  Sheep and goats that flock together have an equal opportunity to get to know the shepherd.  Yet in this parable, these goats weren't close enough to the Shepherd to hear His voice and know His will.  In John 10:27-28, Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand."  Only the ones who know His voice and follow Him are saved.  The goats who hear His voice yet don't know His voice won't follow, and won't be saved.

When you read these parables, you need to understand the relationship between faith and works.  It's faith (a relationship with God through Jesus Christ) that saves us.  Our works are simply an outgrowth of that relationship.  We're not saved because of what we do or don't do.  We're saved because of Who we know or don't know.  And even knowing Him, trusting Him, and following Him is a gift that we receive--not something that we earn or accomplish.  That's the meaning of grace.

*All scriptures taken from the ESV

No comments: