Most of us have heard the old preacher story that is told to remind us that from generation to generation (both in family and organizational life) we pass along process better than purpose. A little girl was helping her mom prepare the Christmas meal. When mom cut the ham in two and placed it in the pan, she asked her, “Mom, why do you cut the ham?” Her mom’s response was, “Because that’s what my mom did.” Grandma was in the next room, so the little girl ran and asked her, “Grandma, why did you cut the ham in two before you put it in the pan?” And grandma said, “Because that’s what my mom did.” As luck would have it great-grandma was also there, so out came the question again. “Great-grandma, why did you cut the ham in two?” The reply this time was different, “I didn’t have a pan big enough to hold a whole ham, so I had to cut it in two and put it into two pans.”
As an astute observer of the American culture, I would suggest that as a whole, we have failed to retain the purpose, basic understanding and balance behind three critical Biblical principles in our culture: responsibility, authority, and accountability. These principles are found in the trilogy of parables in Matthew 25. I would suggest that these three fit together as much as the three parables in Luke 15: lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons.
In what we call the Olivet Discourse as recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus bridges a discussion of the destruction of the temple and the end times and the ensuing parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25 by stating in 24:45-51:
Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods. But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Much like Jesus does moments before the ascension recorded in Acts 1:4-11, He again redirects the disciples questions, concerns, and focuses on the end times to the purpose God has for them.
And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
I would suggest that the parables of Matthew 25 provide clarity and specifics for what “a faithful and wise servant” will be doing as they await the return of their Lord and Master. We too should take heed to what the parables say and more importantly strive to do what they say because, “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing” (Matt. 24:45-46).
I will come back in subsequent weeks and speak in depth to each of the parables, but for today, let me lay out the big picture—a 30,000-foot view. The three parables speak to various responsibilities that we individually and culturally have been given. The Parable of the Ten Virgins (25:1-13) clearly tells us that we have the primary responsibility to provide for our own needs. The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) speaks to the responsibility we have to steward wisely all that God gives us. And the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations (31-46) addresses the responsibility we have to care for those in our “culture” who cannot care for themselves. A quick clarification, the Greek word translated as “nations” in most English translations is better translated as “ethnic group,” “culture,” or “people group.” It does not refer to a geopolitical ethnically diverse nation, but to how each specific ethnic group or cultural group cares for its own.
When I speak of the principle of “authority” I am referring to the resources, abilities, and decision-making power we have been given to meet our responsibilities. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, we see five who knew what would be happening and made the appropriate preparations using their knowledge and resources. We also see five who chose not to prepare to meet their responsibilities in the given situation in a timely manner—they were called foolish. We see a similar picture in the Parable of the Talents as two of the servants acted responsibly with the resources they were given while one did not. And in the Parable of the Judgment of Nations (ethnic groups) we see two primary responses. One group had wisely stewarded their resources and were not only able but accepted the responsibility to care for those in need. And one group either didn’t have the resources because of poor stewardship or were not willing to accept the responsibility to care for those who had genuine needs.
The principle of personal responsibility is one that our culture too often ignores. You can’t read the three parables in Matthew 25 and not see a stark contrast between what happens to those who accept responsibility and steward wisely their authority and those who don’t. Not only were the five virgins who failed to prepare called foolish, but when they showed up to the wedding feast late saying “Lord, Lord, open to us!” they heard, “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you” (25:11-12). The servant who didn’t accept his responsibility nor steward wisely the talent given him was called “wicked and lazy,” and his one talent was taken from him and given to the servant who now had ten talents. But even worse, the master said, “Cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the Parable of the Judgment of Ethnic Groups, the self-focused group heard, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.”
Maybe you have never looked at the parables of Matthew 25 in this manner. Maybe the way I am defining and describing the principles of responsibility, authority, and accountability are new to you. Let me encourage you to read Matthew 24 and 25 and keep in mind that God is more interested in how well we are fulfilling our purpose than He is about how well we know the signs of the end times.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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