Yet the stories Matthew tells in his Gospel have led up to this point. At the beginning of the chapter, there is the parable Jesus told about the wise and foolish bridesmaids, about those who were prepared for the unexpected delay of the bridegroom and had extra oil with them and those who were unprepared and were ultimately shut out from the wedding feast. In that parable, Jesus taught his followers about his coming again and told them, subtly but clearly, that they were to expect his return at any time, but that they might have to wait a long time.
Coming next in the Gospel of Matthew is the story we read last week, of the rich man who went abroad, leaving his money with his servants to invest on his behalf. As we know, one servant was given five talents, the next one, two and the third one just the one, even though that was still a very considerable sum. When the master returned, he called his servants to account, and the first two had dared to invest the money with which they had been entrusted, and they were warmly commended by their master. The last, the servant to whom just the one talent had been entrusted, had been so afraid of the master that he had buried the money, lest he lose any of it. The master was angry because of his timidity, for his not daring to use the talent he had been given.
In this parable, Jesus was developing the theme started in the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. In both, there is a period when the person who is served is away. In both, the action takes place upon his arrival or return. In both, there is a reckoning with some being commended and some being found wanting. In both, the wise ones, the obedient ones, the ones who were ready to serve the bridegroom or the master are rewarded by entering into his joyful celebration and the others, the foolish bridesmaids and the timid servant are punished by exclusion.
What we have, therefore, are two stories which are leading us in a particular direction, two stories about serving Christ, about waiting for him and being ready for him. The first introduces the idea of readiness, the second begins to indicate what we should be doing while he is away. In the parable of the talents, the servants have nothing except what the master gives them. They have no power or resources except what comes from him, though, as we noted, these are very considerable. In using what he gives them, in effect they are carrying on his work in the master’s absence. The one who does not use what he is given is, in effect, preventing his master’s work. When it is put like that, it is easy to see why the master is so angry. It is not that the servant is lazy or incompetent. It is not that the master has missed out on making a profit; it is that the third servant’s inaction has positively worked against the master’s interests. Strip away all the elements of the story to get the raw meaning and this is what you get. Those who claim to follow Christ but do not do his work, actually work against Christ. One is reminded of the phrase, “For evil to flourish, it is only necessary for good people to do nothing.”
But these stories do not complete the picture. Be prepared, the first tells us, and we ask, what are we to do to be prepared? Do Christ’s work, the second tells us, that’s how to be prepared, but we ask, what is Christ’s work? We need a third story, and Jesus tells it, starting this time with the image of a shepherd, separating his sheep from his goats. In those days, it was common to herd both sheep and goats together but it was necessary from time to time to separate them, for shearing, for milking, for over-wintering, because the sheep were hardy and could stay outside but the goats could not live through cold winter nights without shelter. But there is a terrible urgency about Jesus by this time – we are reading today the last story he told, according to Matthew, before the whirlwind of the events of his arrest, trial and crucifixion was unleashed. Quickly he abandons the image of the shepherd to speak as directly as possible. Gone is the imagery of the previous stories, the bridegroom, the rich business man. Now Christ is saying, I am the king and this is what I will do when I return to judge. All the nations will be gathered before me, but I will not judge them as nations. This is not democracy. I will judge each person. This is about individual responsibility. This is about individual accountability. And these are the terms upon which I with judge.
At last, we find out what the work which has has to be done actually consists of, and it is not perhaps what one might expect, if one had no prior knowledge of the kind of king and master Jesus is. Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger into your home, clothing the naked, looking after the ill, caring for those who are oppressed. These aren’t great and mighty deeds, requiring strength or ingenuity or courage. They are deeds of compassion, exactly the kind of things which would carry on the work of the king who comforted the bereaved, who stood up for the persecuted, healed the sick, fed the hungry crowds, provided drink at a wedding. Let’s not forget, in the midst of our wonder at the miracles Jesus performed, that so many of them were compassionate responses to everyday needs, the needs we all experience, hunger, thirst, illness, the need for comfort when we grieve, the need for protection when we are being got at.
As people say, it’s not exactly rocket science. You don’t have to be brain of Britain to work out what the work is Jesus requires of us. It is clear from the story Jesus tells his disciples about the day of judgement.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”
They are genuinely surprised. They had not suspected. The good they had done had been done instinctively. The righteous are the people who see needs and do something about them. There’s the Good Samaritan. There’s Martha feeding all her guests. There are the men who dug through a roof and lowered their crippled friend down to Jesus. Here’s the person who takes a friend to hospital. Here are the volunteers in a homeless shelter or a charity shop. Here’s the person who takes a pot of soup round to an elderly neighbour. It’s not exactly rocket science. It is instinctive compassion.
But the others were just as surprised. They ask the same question as the righteous. ‘We never saw you,’ they say to Jesus. It would be tempting to think of this as a minor lapse – looking in the wrong place through no fault of their own. But remember the third servant. Those who do not do Christ’s work, even by doing nothing, are working against him.
This story brings us face to face with Christ our king, the king who will ultimately judge each one of us. It tells us how he wants to be served by the people he has called to him. It gives us a clear choice, to emulate the instinctive compassion of Christ or to ignore the needs of others, and it reminds us of the consequences of that choice, entering into the pleasure of Christ or enduring his anger. As we go forward from next week into the season of Advent and prepare ourselves for the celebration of our Saviour’s birth we would do well to hold in mind how Matthew’s Gospel proceeds from this point, through the story of the suffering, the death and the resurrection of Christ. It is in these days in Jerusalem that we see the true measure of Christ, who asks us to care for the suffering because he knows exactly what it is to suffer.