This is my interpretation of several parables referenced in my overview of Matthew 21.1-25.46. It’s a bit lengthy, so here is a PDF of The Blessedness of Being Left Behind if you would prefer to print and read it rather than trying to read it all online.
This essay is an analysis of several difficult sections of the Matthean gospel narrative, which takes place while Jesus is conversing with the religious leadership in the Temple complex (21.23-25.46). The following texts will be discussed and analyzed: the parable of the wicked tenants (21.33-46), the parable of the wedding banquet (22.1-14), the necessity for watchfulness (24.36-44), the parable of the ten bridesmaids (25.1-13), the parable of the talents (25.14-30) and the judgment of the nations (25.31-46). My thesis is that these parables have been misinterpreted as images of God’s judgment, when in fact they are about humanity’s judgment upon those who reveal God’s kingdom. Thus, I will attempt to argue that the one’s who are excluded, who are cast out, who are left behind, are the blessed ones who embody the kingdom of heaven. I recognize that the burden of proof is clearly mine, since this suggestion goes against a long tradition of interpretation. As such, the argument will be somewhat lengthy, as I will seek to interpret these parables in dialogue with the entire Matthean narrative. The logic of my assertions makes sense to me, so, ultimately, the success or failure of this essay will be the reader’s decision.
Let’s begin with a few preliminary notes before we discuss the specific texts. First, we need to consider the frequent Matthean refrain about bearing good fruit and assessing people by the fruit their lives produce (i.e. by how they live). JBap called his followers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (3.7-10), which necessitated a repentance (turning) from one ethic to another (3.2). At 4.17, Jesus takes up JBap’s proclamation, and his concept of bearing good fruit and assessing people by the good or bad fruit they produce is repeated throughout the rest of the narrative (cf. 7.15-23; 12.33-37; 21.12-22; 24.32-35). In my reading of Matthew, the foundational exposition of what the good fruit of the kingdom looks like is found in the Sermon on the Mount, which should be the basis for assessing the characters presented in Jesus’ parables.
Second, as mentioned, the first discourse in Matthew (the “Sermon on the Mount” of chaps. 5-7) is the central revelation regarding Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom or reign of heaven or God. The other discourses reveal how this ethic is to be lived out in the world and/or what happens when a person chooses to shape their lives according to these teachings. Thus, the ethic of mercy, compassion and neighbor-love set forth in the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) is shared with Israel in hopes that they will remember Abram’s calling in Gen 12.1-3 (10), is revealed as a “grassroots” endeavor that takes time, patience and profligate seed-sowing (13), is applied within the community that embraces this ethic (17.24-18.35), is shown to be the cause of conflict, division, persecution and rejection (24.3-26.1) and will ultimately be shared with the entire world (28.19-20). In sum, the first discourse reveals the concepts at the heart of Jesus’ message and ministry. The good fruit of the kingdom is produced by the lowly/broken in spirit, those who grieve over life being less than what God desires, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for living in the way of Jesus. It seeks reconciliation of broken relationships, speaks the truth, rejects violence, practices piety for the right reasons, is generous to those in need, judges others by a standard of mercy and “does unto others as it would be done unto them.” This is what the kingdom looks like, according to Jesus. This is the good fruit worthy of repentance.
Third, we must consider the parables in question in light of the earlier parables in the narrative. These are: the sermon in parables (the sower: 13.1-9; the weeds and wheat: 13.24-30; the mustard seed and yeast: 13.31-33; and the treasure of the kingdom: 13.44-53), the parable of the lost sheep (18.10-14), the parable of the unforgiving servant (18.23-35) and the parable of the vineyard laborers (20.1-16).
The “sermon in parables” (13.1-53) has three movements: the varied responses to the kingdom and the profligate farmer who keeps broadcasting good seed (vv 1-23); the presence of the kingdom in the midst of other kingdoms (vv 24-43); and the priceless nature of the kingdom that is worth any cost to be a part of it (vv 44-53). Verses 1-23 reveal that the seed (proclamation) of the kingdom is sown any and everywhere, regardless of the consequences. No soil is neglected or left out, and there is no reason to conclude that if the soil doesn’t produce the good fruit the first time it is forever excluded. The farmer is profligate—always going around throwing seeds into every nook and cranny in the hopes that it will produce good fruit. Verses 24-43 reveal the intermixing of the reign of God with the reign of entities other than God. The profligate farmer of verses 1-23 doesn’t allow the servants to pull up the weeds because of the possibility that the wheat will be destroyed in the process. We should also note who does the sifting when it is time for harvest—not the servants who wanted to pull up the “weeds” right away, but the son of man and the angels of God. This tells us that we must reserve our judgment about who is weed and who is wheat, and perhaps in the delay there is the hope that what appeared to us to be weeds will turn out to be wheat in the end. Perhaps there is a more daring hope that some of the weeds will be transformed into wheat by some great grace—so we better not pull up them up just yet. This is likely the meaning of the next two parables as well—the parables of mustard seed and the yeast (vv 31-33)—both of which reveal that the appearance of the kingdom is small (like a tiny seed and like a pinch of yeast), but effective (large plants emerge and all the dough is leavened). In short, the kingdom of heaven gets all mixed up with the rest of the world, the weeds, the tares, the violence, the destruction, and the evil, so much so that it is assumed it will be ineffective—too small to make any difference—but the small and seemingly insignificant kingdom of heaven comes out on top in the end. The kingdom, Jesus says, is a force for transformation, not destruction, for life, not death; and it is worth any amount of devotion and cost to bear the fruit of this kingdom (vv 44-53).
The parable of the lost sheep (18.10-14) and the parable of the unforgiving servant (18.23-35) fit together quite nicely and emphasize the same point as the “seed parables” of chapter 13—the kingdom is based upon a profligate, never-ending grace. Both of these parables take place in the “sermon on the church” (17.24-18.35), which details what the good fruit of the kingdom looks like in the community that embraces the kingdom life. True greatness, Jesus says, is found in humility (18.4), which requires disciples to set aside their rights and privileges (17.24-27), avoid causing offense whenever possible (18.6-9), seek out those who stray (18.10-14), lovingly correct those in error (18.15-20) and offer limitless forgiveness (18.21-35). Again, the “sermon on the church” puts the “sermon on the mount” into practice in the context of the community of Jesus’ disciples, and this practice looks like humble, self-giving love aimed at reconciliation and unity. It is a ministry of healing and redemption—putting back together what is broken.
Finally, we come to the “laborers in the vineyard” parable of Matthew 20.1-16. This is perhaps the most crucial parable for understanding my interpretation of the parables in question, because it reveals a landowner who embodies the good fruit of the kingdom we’ve been describing and whose actions contrast sharply with the kings and landowners in the latter parables. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a landowner who hired laborers to work at different times throughout the day. At the end of the day everyone receives the same pay. When the workers who worked from dawn to dusk get angry, the landowner asks a hauntingly profound question: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Are you envious, in other words, because God’s mercy is too vast? Such profligate grace, extravagant generosity is the good fruit of the kingdom that disciples of Jesus are called to embody. It causes offense (scandal) because it is profoundly generous–perhaps this question reveals the difficulty of JBap to understand Jesus’ ministry (see 11.2-6) given John’s earlier proclamation of an immediate, decisive judgment (see 3.1-10). It also seems to reflect the struggle of the religious leadership (and “this generation”–11.16) to understand Jesus’ ministry, seen in their concern, critique and offense over the kinds of people with whom Jesus shares meals (e.g. 9.9-14; 11.16-19).
Now that we have established what the Matthean narrative understands the good fruit of the kingdom of heaven to be, we are able to begin our exposition of the dark and difficult parables found in 21.33-25.46. The loving, forgiving, compassionate, merciful, non-violent, peace-making, redemptive, healing nature of the kingdom of heaven revealed thus far is absolutely pivotal to my interpretation, because it challenges the common interpretation of these later parables, which most often assumes that the violence we find in them is divine in origin. When read in light of the whole gospel, I believe it is incorrect to interpret the “king” as a metaphor for God and the “outer darkness” as a metaphor for God’s judgment in the parables in question. So, let us begin our exposition of these parables in light of the kingdom of heaven revealed thus far.
The first parable in question is the so-called parable of the wicked tenants in 21.33-44. A landowner plants a vineyard and leases it out. While the landowner is away he sends servants to collect a portion of the crop from the tenants, but they beat one, kill one and stone one. More servants are sent and they receive the same treatment. Finally, the landowner’s son is sent and they kill him in order to gain his inheritance. After the story is over, Jesus turns and asks the religious leaders a question: “What will happen when the landowner returns”? They respond by saying: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Most often it is assumed that this is the judgment of God that is coming upon those who mistreat God’s messengers. However, this quid pro quo, lex talionis mindset conflicts greatly with the kingdom of heaven proclaimed thus far by Jesus (cf. 5.38-48; 18.21-35). To rightly interpret this parable, it is vital that we recognize that verse 41 is the chief priests’ answer (not Jesus’ answer). Moreover, the fact that Jesus responds to their answer by saying that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the religious leaders] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” reveals that their answer was not correct by the standards of the kingdom of heaven. Not being able to be a part of the kingdom of heaven/God is the divine judgment, according to Jesus, not putting the offenders to “a miserable death,” as the religious leadership suggested. This recognition helps make sense of Jesus’ initial response—the rejected stone (i.e. the kingdom of heaven, the way of life Jesus has proclaimed and embodied) is the foundation of the new genesis of humanity. It is the cornerstone of the kingdom of heaven/God. Jesus says that the chief priests cannot grasp that the kingdom of God is a peaceable kingdom of profligate grace and that violence cannot make up for or bring an end to violence. Those who cannot recognize this cannot be part of the kingdom of heaven, but their exclusion is self-chosen and a chance for future conversion (repentance) is left open–the weeds and the wheat remain intermixed for a time. In short, Jesus rejects the chief priests’ answer to his question, and reveals that the right answer is to refuse to respond to the tenant’s injustice and violence with more violence. The answer, according to Jesus, is to embrace the stone (the kingdom of heaven proclaimed by Jesus) that is rejected because it is too generous, too compassionate, too forgiving, too humble, too slow, too grassroots. Since the chief priests cannot accept this stone, they cannot bear good fruit and cannot enter the kingdom of profligate grace. They remain enslaved by violence (“put those wretches to a miserable death”) and thus are broken to pieces by a grace that turns the other cheek, walks the extra mile, gives abundantly to thieves and lets itself be strung up and killed rather than embracing violence of any kind. This rejected stone breaks to pieces and crushes those who reject it (21.44), because it is a way of life, a way of grace so profligate, generous and wasteful that is offends those who live according to another kingdom, another ethic (20.15). One finds a similar image in Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12.20-21. A proper understanding of this parable is essential to our understanding of the other parables that reflect a similar rejection of Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven.
In the next parable in 22.1-14 a king plans a celebration following his son’s wedding. Servants are sent to summon the guests, but none are able to attend. Some give excuses, while others (strangely, needlessly) murder the servants. The king becomes enraged and responds by killing the guests who killed his servants (this is exactly what the chief priests suggested in the parable prior—a response Jesus rejected as compatible with the kingdom of heaven). Then the king has his servants gather anyone they can find so that he can celebrate his son’s wedding day. They “went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” This intermixing of the good and the bad (21.10) recalls the parable of the weeds and wheat in 13.24-30 (and it’s call to withhold judgment until the proper time). When the king arrives at the party he notices one man who isn’t wearing the right clothes, and asks, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (22.12). The man without the proper clothing is speechless (a statement that is perhaps an allusion to Jesus’ silence before the high priest in 26.63, as well as to the suffering servant text of Isaiah 53, as well as the Isaiah 42 text referenced in 12.18ff). In anger, the king has the man bound and thrown out into the darkness (a thinly veiled reference to a collective, mob murder).
The question we must ask is this: does the king in this parable act according to the ethics of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus has proclaimed up to now? No, of course not. So, why are commentators so quick to assume that the king is God, despite our misgiving about the violence and injustice of this whole story? I would submit to you that it is because our society is founded on violence to a degree that we are unaware (see René Girard’s mimetic theory–summary by James Alison here). We are enslaved to the logic of “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” (5.38-48) to such an extent that we are more likely to accept the logic of the chief priests (revealed in 21.41 and exemplified by the king in this parable) rather than the logic of Jesus (revealed in 21.42-44 and exemplified in his death). We are, in other words, much more likely to join the crowd in throwing out anyone who doesn’t wear the right “clothing” (an obvious metaphor for actions or ethics—in this case the inappropriate clothing is the way of life that refuses to accept the injustice and violence of the king who hosts the party) than we are to be the one who wears different clothing and gets persecuted for it. To use Jesus’ metaphor, we are more likely to reject the stone (the kingdom of heaven) than we are to see this stone as the foundation of a new humanity. Earlier (Mt 7.15), Jesus warned his disciples to be on the look out for wolves in sheep’s clothing, reminding them that you can know the difference by the fruit their lives produce. Here, we find a sheep who refuses to wear the wolves clothing, and is cast out (killed) for it. That the outcast is a sheep is seen by the clothing (conduct) that is rejected by the master who kills people on a whim. That the rest of the party are wolves is seen by the clothing (conduct) that is accepted by the same violent master. Thus, the kingdom of heaven is present in this parable in the one lonely figure who refuses to wear the clothing (conduct) of a violent, unjust, life-destroying ruler who will kill others, even the friends he had invited to a party, on a whim.
Next, we come to the parable of bridesmaids in 25.1-13. We have ten women who are waiting for a bridegroom. They all fall asleep and, when the bridegroom returns, they awaken to find that only five have oil left in their lamps. The five “wise” bridesmaids refuse to share their oil with the five “foolish” ones, because they fear that there won’t be enough to go around (this recalls the scarcity mentality of the disciples at the feeding narratives in 14.13-21 and 15.32-39, which Jesus overcomes by revealing that if we are willing to share what little we have that there is actually enough to go around). So, the five “foolish” bridesmaids are forced to run to the store to buy more, but while they are gone the bridegroom arrives. The five “wise” bridesmaids enter the house and either neglect to tell the bridegroom to wait for the other five or they tell him and he refuses to wait. Most have interpreted this as a warning to be prepared (after all, the text calls the five who ran out of oil foolish” and the five who had plenty of oil “wise”). However, the thoughtful reader should be uneasy about this reading because it seems to suggest that we should be unkind to our neighbors in need. If we are suppose to emulate the “wise” ones who had enough oil (which, the parable hints, is nothing but luck since all fell asleep), this would imply that the “haves” shouldn’t share resources with the “have nots.” This conflicts sharply with Jesus’ teachings earlier in Matthew’s narrative, as well as with the culminating judgment scene in 25.31-46 where it is those who cared for the least of these that have borne the good fruit of the kingdom. So, perhaps we’ve misunderstood which five we’re supposed to emulate. Again, this story is usually interpreted as a warning to be ready otherwise we might get “left behind,” based on the “wise” and “foolish” labels, as well as Jesus’ statements just prior in 24.36-45. If we don’t “keep awake” and make sure we have enough oil for our lamps, we may miss the bridegroom and get locked out of the kingdom. However, if we look more closely at the text in 24.36-45, we find that the one who is not swept away, who is not taken is the fortunate and blessed one, and this should influence our interpretation of the parables in 25.1-30. After all, in the story of Noah (referenced in 24.37), Noah and his family are left behind—they do not get swept away by the flood (which I interpret as humanity’s violence overwhelming and destroying significant portions of the world due to its escalation from the time when Cain kills Able to the days of Lamech who responds to one act of violence with seventy-seven more). If Noah, the one left behind, is fortunate because he refused the violence of humanity, then we need to reconsider how we view the outcasts in the parables of 25.1-30. Perhaps it is the five so-called foolish, “left behind” bridesmaids who are blessed and fortunate. It seems that the parable is redefining what is foolish and what is wise. Do the so-called wise bridesmaids act with wisdom? Well, it depends on what wisdom you’re talking about. If you mean the wisdom of the world that tells us to hoard what we have and refuse to share with those in need, then yes. If you mean the wisdom of God as revealed in Jesus that calls people to love their neighbor as themselves and take care of the least of these, then no. I think Jesus’ is critiquing the so-called wisdom of the world here (we find a similar critique in I Cor 1-2). Thus, the purpose of the parable is to reveal that the so-called foolish bridesmaids who are left behind are fortunate because they cannot enter into a kingdom ruled by a master/lord that requires you to hoard your possessions, while the so-called wise bridesmaids are the unfortunate ones because they are swept away by (and into) a kingdom ruled by a master/lord that requires them to do violence to their neighbor by refusing to help them in their need. This reading finds further support from the judgment scene that ends this section, which is based on how we took care of the needy in our midst. If the one’s welcomed into the kingdom of God are the ones who help those in need, then the kingdom the five “wise” bridesmaids enter into is not the same kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, it is the kingdom of the devil, the satan, the accuser who invites people to enter into the realm of power and privilege and prestige at the expense of others.
Then we come to the parable of the talents in 25.14-30. In this parable, three servants receive different amounts of money from their master while he is on vacation. Two servants double their money and are rewarded—“well done, good and faithful servant” (25.21, 23). The third servant buries the money and gets punished—“take the talent from him…[and] throw him into the outer darkness” (25.28, 30). We’ve traditionally read this story as an exhortation to use our gifts and abilities or we will be judged/punished by God. However, I think this completely misses the point. First, the story is not about talents or abilities. It is about money. Second, the king or master in the parable acts nothing like the God or the kingdom of heaven that Jesus has revealed up to this point in the narrative. The parable itself makes this clear when the king/master affirms the assessment of the third servant—“you are a harsh, manipulative and unjust man, reaping where you didn’t sow and harvesting where you didn’t scatter seed (i.e. you steel from other people)” (25.24). Third, the “worthless slave” who refuses to go along with the master’s unjust business practices receives the same treatment as the rejected foundation stone (21.42-44) and the wedding guest with improper clothing (22.11-13). This should give us insight into the purpose of this parable. The third, “unfaithful servant” is cast out for refusing to go along with the ethics of violence and injustice by which the master conducts his business (25.24). Therefore, the servant that we are called to emulate is the servant who receives one talent, because he is the only one refuses to help the “harsh master” take what isn’t his from those he can manipulate, abuse and exploit for profit. The servant who is cast out refuses to play by the rules of “for all who have much more will be given until they have an abundance, while those who have little, even what they have will be taken away until they are left with nothing” (25.29). For refusing to go along with the evil master, he is thrown out into the darkness (i.e. murdered)—like the rejected stone and the wedding guest with improper clothing—and he is excluded from the celebration of those who refuse to help those in need—like the five “foolish” bridesmaids.
Finally, we come to the great reversal that Jesus says will take place when “the son of man comes in his glory”—a glimpse of the rejected stone becoming the foundation of the age to come when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven (cf. 6.10). To appreciate the significance of this scene that concludes the narrative prior to Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution (26.1-27.61), we should review the Matthean narrative to this point. We have been given Jesus’ vision of the kingdom in chaps. 5-7 (an ethic marked by compassion and love—treating your neighbor as you wish them to treat you), we have seen what this looks like in chaps. 8-12 (giving people new life, new sight, new speech by healing them of all forms of illness—physical, emotional, spiritual, relational), we have seen how the kingdom comes in chapter 13 (a grassroots effort by a profligate farmer who continuously sows seeds of grace), we have seen Jesus overcome boundaries erected to limit the kingdom ethic of sharing love and provision in chapter 14-15, we have seen how embracing Jesus’ way of life (choosing to live out the Sermon on the Mount) leads to suffering in chapters 16-17, we have seen how greatness in the kingdom of heaven means humbling yourself so that you put the interest of all above your own interests in chapter 18-19, we have seen that the profligate generosity of the kingdom of heaven causes offense and misunderstanding in chapter 20, and we have seen how enslaved humanity is to violence in the parables in chapters 21.1-25.30. At 25.31-46 we encounter the surprise of the narrative in the great reversal when “the son of man comes in glory” (25.31). Jesus has shared parables (Mt 21.33-44; 22.1-14; 25.1-13; 25.14-30) about how the kingdom is met with violence and rejection (this is also revealed through the “passion prediction”—16.21-26; 17.22-23; 20.17-19)–in other words, how the kingdom of heaven is the stone rejected by the builders that becomes the cornerstone, the foundation of the new creation, the new humanity, the new age that is dawning. “From the days of JBap until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent try to take hold of it by force” (Mt 11.12)—a reality clearly revealed in the parables we’re discussing—“but,” Jesus says in Mt 25.31 (a conjunction left out of many translations that is actually pivotal to correctly understanding how 25.31-46 reveals the proper interpretation of the earlier parables) “when the son of man comes in his glory, the true king (the true God) will say to those who helped the least of these (those who served the true God by embracing the ethics of Jesus), welcome to the kingdom of heaven; while the true God will say to those who refused to help the least of these (those who served the false god by rejecting the ethics of Jesus), depart from me.”
When we consider the entire Matthean narrative and the culminating judgment scene, we can see the parables in question for what they are—a call to resist all that is not merciful, all that is not generous, all that is not gracious, all that is not just, all that is not shalom-making, all that does not look out for the needs of the least of these. Those who refuse to wear the clothing of the kingdom of darkness and who put on the clothing of the kingdom of heaven will be subject to humanity’s violence (the outer darkness), but they will also share in the victory of the resurrection through which God’s great reversal is made manifest. By taking up the cross, the way of Jesus that accepts undue suffering for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, they too become the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone. Therefore, the blessed ones in the gospel narrative are those who get cast out and left behind for not wearing the “right” clothing (from humanity’s perspective) because they are wearing the right clothing (from God’s perspective); who get locked out of the kingdom of injustice and violence and death; who get “left behind” (not swept away by humanity’s violence) and who become the foundation for the “new world order.” Thus, Matthew’s resurrection narrative in which the saints–those killed for embracing the kingdom of heaven, those “left behind” and “cast out” (i.e. murdered) for resisting injustice–rise from the dead, provides further encouragement for the reader to embrace the way of Jesus (the kingdom of heaven), to embrace the stone that is the foundation for a new creation, even if it means death.
“Come, you that are blessed of God, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world—for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you visited me.” “Come, you that are blessed of God, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world—for you refused to wear the clothing of violence and injustice, the clothing of the false god, the satan, the accuser, and proudly wore the clothing of compassion and endless love, the clothing of the true God, the kingdom of heaven, because even though you lost your life for doing so (even though you were rejected, cast out and killed for refusing the clothing of any kingdom but the kingdom of heaven), you have found true life for the very first time.”
 My reading of this text is based on a brilliant interpretation by Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., shared at a CBF Church Works Conference in 2009.