Let me confess: I can read the Scriptures, particularly the ones about judgment, or ones about what we should be doing as followers of Christ, and I can get really discouraged.
The parables from Matthew 25 or the end of Mark 13 can leave me discouraged, particularly if I read them through a traditional lens. The parable of the ten virgins, where half of them, the foolish ones, end up out of the wedding banquet, or the parable of the talents, where the third servant, the one who hid his master’s money, gets thrown outside into the darkness, can leave me wondering how the point of these stories apply to me, and can make me discouraged at what they seem to teach us about God.
Maybe Jesus is talking about the end of the age – these parables come as part of His answer to the disciples regarding their question about the end of the age – maybe He is saying that those who are shut out or thrown out, those who fail to keep watch, will end up being separated from the kingdom of God forever in a place that includes darkness and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Maybe we need to be constantly on our toes, motivated by the possibility that we may be among the ones shut out.
In all of this, it seems Jesus’s point, one He reiterates a few times, is that we need to “keep watch.”
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:42)
“So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him. (Matthew 24:44)
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone, ‘Watch!” (Mark 13:35-37)
Be at the ready. Be on the alert. Keep at it. Keep working. Use your talents. Don’t let the master find you sleeping. Don’t be shut out of the wedding banquet. Don’t be the one thrown out into the darkness. Keep watch!
I find it hard to read these parables and not be discouraged. Even if I do my best to be vigilant, even if I am on my toes all the time, even if I’m constantly working to do God’s business, undoubtedly there are moments when I’m not, and maybe in one of those moments the master will return and I will be shut out.
Through a traditional lens, you think the interpretation of these passages would be downright scary. Why are we not the among the ones who will be shut out? However, those who hold to a traditional lens interpret the point of these parables in light of other verses that speak of peace and assurance. There are other verses that speak not of what we need to do but of what Jesus has already done for us. There are verses that give us reason to think the admonition in these parables do not need to be interpreted such that we should fear the possibility of exclusion from the kingdom in a place of endless punishment. Maybe, whatever the warning we should heed from this verses, it doesn’t mean that God will give up on anyone.
After all, these parables come within Jesus’s response to the disciples’ question about the end of the age. Jesus is talking to His disciples. He is telling those people closest to Him to “keep watch.” Is Jesus suggesting His disciples could be among the people shut out of the kingdom? Is it possible they could be among the “foolish virgins,” or they could end up being the third servant who is thrown out? Didn’t He promise them already that they would be with Him in his kingdom?
Jesus is telling His disciples to keep watch, telling them to not let Him find them sleeping. And yet, in the very next chapter, both in Matthew and in Mark, we find this story of Jesus and the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane:
38“Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed . . . 40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter. 41‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.’ 42He went away a second time . . . 43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more . . . 45Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Matthew 26:38-46)
I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope. Not that we don’t need to take seriously the point of Jesus’s parables; not that we don’t need to heed the warning. But maybe Jesus, when He was sitting with His disciples on the Mount of Olives, telling them to keep watch, maybe He knew they wouldn’t do it. Maybe He knew He would soon catch them sleeping. I guess of course He knew.
Not that He didn’t want them to keep watch. Not that He doesn’t want us to keep watch. There’s encouragement and admonishment to be found in those parables. But Jesus also knows what it’s like to be us. He also knows what it’s like for our eyes to be heavy.
Be at the ready. Be on the alert. Keep at it. Keep working. Watch and pray so that you won’t fall into temptation. But don’t live in fear that you’re going to mess it up. Don’t be anxious that you may be shut out. God knows. He’s been there. And our unfaithfulness is not going to affect His faithfulness.
And that is really good news, really.