Charles Haslewood Shannon, 'The Wise and Foolish Virgins' (1919-1920)
Charles Haslewood Shannon, 'The Wise and Foolish Virgins' (1919-1920), oil on canvas, 111x178 cm, National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery.

A number of parables are included in Jesus' teaching about his return. Rather than provide a comprehensive study of Jesus' teaching about his Second Coming, I will try to restrict myself to the teaching in and adjacent to his parables on the subject.

Here are the analogies and parables we'll consider.

5.1 Signs of Impending Return

5.2 Watchfulness and Obedience Needed

5.3 Faithful Service in the Master's Absence

5.1 Signs of Impending Return

Jesus uses a number of brief parables to point to signs of his Second Coming. We won't spend long on any of them, but we need to explore them briefly. We begin with two parables about being observant of nature's signs that portend future events.

Parable of the Weather Signs (Luke 12:54-56, §160)

First, a parable about amateur weather forecasting:

"He said to the crowd: 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, "It's going to rain," and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, "It's going to be hot," and it is.'" Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?" (Luke 12:54-56)

Palestine has fairly predictable weather patterns, with prevailing winds blowing from the Mediterranean east across Palestine. Thus, a rain cloud in the west will blow east and bring rain. The Israelites were used to this pattern. But when the winds shifted and a south wind began, they knew it would be hot, blowing across the sweltering sands of the Negev desert bringing intense heat to Judea and Galilee, called a "simoon."

You can understand signs of change in the weather, Jesus says, but you are dull when it comes to understanding signs of change in spiritual things. The Messiah, the Son of God, is present in their midst. A huge sea change in salvation history is occurring before their eyes, and they are too blind to see it!

Parable of the Budding Fig Tree (Matthew 24:32-33; Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-31; §220)

Next, Jesus told a similar parable about observing the signs.

"He told them this parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near." (Luke 21:29-31)

Some commentators have made a lot out of the fig tree as being representative of Israel (as it is in the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, Lesson 2.1). I don't see any reference to Israel here, since Jesus adds in Luke, "and all the trees" (verse 29). The spring budding happens to all deciduous trees as an indicator of summer coming.

Both Matthew and Mark end the saying with great clarity: The kingdom "is near, right at the door." The word "near" is common to the parables in all three Gospels, close in point of time, as an experience or event.1

Previous to this in Luke, Jesus has given a number of signs that do not indicate Christ's imminent coming -- wars, rumors of wars, etc.2 The final signs, however, will be signs in the heavens (vs. 25a), signs on the earth (vs. 25b), and heavenly bodies shaken (vs. 26a). Only then will they "see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" and begin to rejoice (vs. 27).

This parable is a simple "this-is-similar-to-that" kind of expression. When you see the new leaves beginning to come out in the spring, it is a sign that summer is near. Just so, when you see these last signs taking place (Luke 21:25-28), you know that the final breaking through of the Kingdom of God at hand, followed by the Last Judgment.

Both the Parable of the Weather Signs and the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree basically are saying the same thing: stay alert to the signs you are seeing.

Analogy of Lightning (Luke 17:24, §184; Matthew 24:27, §218)

Now we move to two similar analogies that tell us about the suddenness and wide visibility of Christ's coming. First, the Analogy of Lightning.

"For as lightning that comes from the east is visible3 even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Matthew 24:27)

"For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other."4 (Luke 17:24)

Lightning can be seen at great distance and lights up a huge area, a radius of 150 to 200 miles or more. Since lightning often starts tens of thousands of feet above the earth, the normal horizon caused by the earth's curvature doesn't limit its view nearly as much as if it took place at ground level. It "lights up the sky from one end to the other" (Luke 17:24b). When Jesus comes, he won't appear to just a few or in secret. He will be visible to all. "Every eye will see him" (Revelation 1:7), believer and unbeliever alike.

Analogy of the Vultures Gathering (Luke 17:37, §184; Matthew 24:38, §218)

(Also known as the Parable of the Vultures and the Carcass)

Jesus uses another analogy in his teaching of his Second Coming. While this analogy may seem grizzly and gross to some, it sounds to me like a popular saying in Jesus' culture -- a maxim like our proverb: "Where there's smoke, there's fire."

Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the suddenness of Christ's coming like lightning, like the days of Noah and Sodom, the danger of Lot's wife looking back, one will be taken and another left (Luke 17:22-36). Now, in Luke, the disciples ask a question.

"'Where, Lord?' they asked.
He replied, 'Where there is a dead body,5 there the vultures will gather.'" (Luke 17:37)

Matthew gives the saying without the disciple's question.

"Wherever there is a carcass,6 there the vultures will gather." (Matthew 24:28)

The KJV rendering of "eagles" seems somehow grander: Eagles seem more glorious than vultures. But "eagle" here probably refers to the vulture.

Eight species of eagles and four species of vultures appear in Palestine, most probably described by the same words (Hebrew neser, Greek aetos). In the Near East, both eagles and vultures ate carrion, hunted prey, and were considered unclean animals.7 The Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), for example, found in Israel and the Negev, has a wingspan of 7.5 to 9 feet (2.3 to 2.8 meters), and has been recorded as circling on thermals as high as 2,250 feet (690 meters) above the earth.

This brief analogy may be difficult to understand for urban dwellers, for Jesus is referring to a rural phenomenon -- the common behavior of vultures to circle high above a carcass.

Where I live in the dry foothills of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, the sight of circling turkey vultures is exceedingly common, as it must have been above the hills and deserts of Palestine. These vultures are majestic in their effortless soaring flight. First, one vulture will spot a dead or dying animal. Soon, from far off, others will see the lone vulture circling and join it in its vigil. When the animal is dead, the vultures descend for a meal.

Jesus' analogy refers to the gathering and circling of vultures where a carcass is found, marking its location and making it obvious from miles around. The carcass does not represent Jesus' body -- that is pushing the parable beyond its intent. The point is that high circling of the vultures makes the location obvious from afar.

Jesus is saying that there is no need to pinpoint a location now; when Jesus comes it will not be secret, but obvious to all, in the same way that lightning and circling vultures are visible to all.8

Q19. (Luke 17:24, 37) The Analogies of the Lightning and the Vultures Gathering both teach the same simple point. What is it?

5.2 Watchfulness and Obedience Needed

Jesus talks about signs of the approaching End Times. Now he gives several parables on how we disciples need to behave so that we are prepared for his coming. Though the order and context vary a bit from one Gospel to another, they revolve around a common injunction:

"You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:40; cf. Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:33)

Jesus uses the title of Son of Man during his earthly ministry, but will come as the glorious Son of Man prophesied by Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14) to set up his kingdom. His disciples must be watchful so they will be ready when he appears. These parables illustrate why watchfulness is needed and what it should look like.

Servant Parables

Eugene Burnand, detail of 'Watchful Servants,' in The Parables (France, 1909)
Eugene Burnand, detail of 'Watchful Servants,' in The Parables (France, 1909), Conte crayon and charcoal.

Jesus uses servants (usually, literal slaves) in a number of parables. In a large household with several slaves, a head servant will be in charge with others under him. (For more, see Appendix 6. Slavery in Jesus' Day.)

We're going to consider several parables that seem quite similar. But there are important differences we need to look for. Here are the servant parables we need to distinguish from one another:

  1. Parables of the Watching Servants emphasize staying awake and alert during the master's absence (below)
  2. Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward emphasizes the leader not abusing his authority during the master's absence (below)
  3. Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Minas or Pounds both emphasize continued faithful labor about the master's business during his absence (Lesson 11.2).

Parables of the Watching Servants (Mark 13:34-37, §222; Luke 12:35-38; §158)

The Parables of the Watching Servants are found with some variations in both Mark and Luke. As I study them, I believe we are seeing two distinct versions of the same parable, a parable Jesus must have told on numerous occasions. Some might consider them different parables. Nevertheless, I'll refer to them as the Parables of the Watching Servants and we'll consider them together.

We'll start with Mark's account, and then look at a special surprise in Luke's version.

"32 No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come." (Mark 13:32-33; cf. Matthew 24:36)

This is one of the main points of this series of parables. You don't know when Christ will come, so be continually alert. It is fascinating that when Jesus was in the flesh, even he didn't know the "day or hour." This limiting of his omniscience was part of him "emptying himself" to become a man (Philippians 2:6-7). I expect that in his present state at the right hand of the Father, he now knows the time of his coming.

Here is Mark's version of the parable.

"It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task,9 and tells the one at the door10 to keep watch."11 (Mark 13:34)

Notice that Mark's version talks about each servant having an assigned task -- which we see spelled out in the Parables of the Pounds and Minas (Lesson 11.2).

Mark's version doesn't tell us where the master went; Luke's version tells us that he was at a wedding feast (Luke 12:36). It seems to be nearby, but the wedding party may extend into the wee hours of the morning. The servants don't know what time he'll return.12

Luke's version has the master commanding the servants not to go to bed and turn off the lights. He wants them ready instantly when he knocks.

"35 Be dressed ready for service13 and keep your lamps burning, 36 like men waiting for their master14 to return from a wedding banquet,15 so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him." (Luke 12:35-36)

The house lamps are to remain ablaze for the momentary return of the master. These could be a hanging lamp with multiple wicks, or the small clay hand lamps with a single wick. To keep them burning requires an expenditure of both effort and resources. Lamps must be refilled periodically with olive oil, the wicks must be trimmed occasionally, and they must be checked lest a breeze were to blow one out. The servants are instructed to keep tending them throughout the night so they are lit when the master returns from the party. The alternative is a very unhappy master when he comes home to find a dismal dark house and has to bang on the barred door for a long time while his servants hurry to dress and come to the door.

In both accounts, when the master arrives, the servants are to be ready. His coming is their most important priority; their own weariness and self-indulgence must not be allowed to take over. They are servants commanded to stay awake and alert.

Mark ends the parable with the reminder that the master could come back any time of the night.

"35 Therefore keep watch (grēgoreō) 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. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch! (grēgoreō)'" (Mark 13:35-37)

Here is Luke:

"36 ... Like men waiting (prosdechomai) for their master to return ... 37 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching (grēgoreō) when he comes." (Luke 12:36a, 37a)

Notice the key directives:

  • Prosdechomai. "Waiting" (Luke 12:36) carries the idea of, "look forward to, wait for," with the connotation of "receive favorably."16 This is not just a dutiful waiting, but an anticipation of one who is hoped for, expected, and looked forward to, where an extravagant welcome is prepared and ready for a moment's notice.
  • Grēgoreō. "Watch/watching" (NIV, KJV), "(stay) awake" (ESV; NRSV, Mark), "alert" (NRSV, Luke) is "to stay awake, be watchful," then "to be in constant readiness, be on the alert."17 It comes from a word meaning, "to wake or rouse up someone."

Our attitude is to be joyfully expectant with constant alertness and situational awareness.

The Master Serving a Meal to the Servants (Luke 12:37b)

So far, the parable has taught Jesus' disciples to be ready and vigilant for Jesus' coming. But now, in Luke only, the parable takes an unexpected twist, a role reversal.

"I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them." (Luke 12:37b)

The master they have so eagerly prepared for tells them to be seated at the table. He girds up his own clothing and begins to serve them. This isn't what you'd expect from any master, Jewish or Roman. Far from it! It's almost like this part of the parable becomes allegorical.

Jesus is the Servant Leader, from whom all of us learn to serve and take on a servant mentality.

  • He is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who pours out his life unto death and is numbered with the transgressors (Isaiah 52:13 -- 53:12).
  • He is the Humble Servant who washes the dirty feet (and souls) of his disciples (John 13:4-17, Lesson 11.1).
  • He is the Son of Man who does not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

Jesus upends the world system by making the last first and the first last, the poor rich and the rich poor, the servants the ones served, the meek to inherit, and the mournful to leap for joy.

And so, in Jesus' remarkable twist to the parable, the servants who wait up to all hours to welcome their master with style are rewarded to a meal he serves to them himself -- a banquet! What a wonderful and unexpected blessing! I think it is intended to remind us of the feast at the End of the Age! (See Appendix 5. The Great Messianic Banquet). We also see this unexpected switch of the Lord serving the servants in Jesus' Acted Parable of Washing the Disciples' Feet (Lesson 11.1).

Even in the Wee Hours of the Morning (Luke 12:38; Mark 13:36-37)

In Luke, Jesus caps off this parable with a summary of the lessons to be learned from it. He repeats the phrase that began verse 37:

"It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready,18 even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night." (Luke 12:38)

The Romans divided the night into four watches, while the Jews divided it into three.19 Whichever system is referred to, this would represent the wee hours of the morning. Jesus says that even if the servants have to stay up into the wee hours of the morning they will be rewarded for their readiness.

The Parables of the Watchful Servants have two main themes:

  1. The master's return may be delayed, and
  2. The master's servants must nevertheless be ready.

Christ's return is delayed, but we must still be alert and ready for his return at any time. He doesn't give us a precise timetable. We have only the bare outlines, sign posts, event triggers that we know will precipitate other events, but we don't have a precise timeline (contrary to what some Bible teachers might tell you).

Q20. (Luke 12:35-39; Mark 13:34-37) What are the main themes of the Parables of the Watching Servants? What kinds of behaviors should the parable inspire in modern-day disciples?

Parable of the Burglar (Luke 12:39-40; Matthew 24:43-44; §158)

(Also known as the Parable of the Thief in the Night)

In Luke's Gospel, the Parable of Watching Servants is immediately followed by the Parable of the Burglar. In Matthew, the parable follows Jesus' Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Lesson 5.2), which we'll examine after this.

One reason for the servants to be alert at night would be to welcome the late-arriving master. The other reason, this parable suggests, would be to catch a burglar who would probably choose the early hours for a break-in when everyone is asleep.

"But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into."20 (Luke 12:39)

Homes in Palestine were typically barred at night. Thieves wouldn't try to storm the door -- not at night when it would surely wake the inhabitants. Rather, in the dead of night, they would dig through the mud-brick wall of the house. They would ever-so-silently remove a few bricks, slide through the opening, steal valuables, and then exit without waking the family. In a larger house with rooms that weren't used for sleeping, this might be possible and hard to detect until the next morning.

Even though the Parable of the Burglar consists of just two sentences, the saying about "a thief in the night" is almost proverbial in the New Testament to describe the unannounced and unexpected coming of Jesus:

"You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

"The day of the Lord will come like a thief." (2 Peter 3:10)

"I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." (Revelation 3:3)

"Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed." (Revelation 16:15)

The only way to defeat such a robber would be to stay up all night, alert and listening for any sound or sign of entry. In the same way, Jesus will come -- unanticipated, unexpected. The only way you can be ready for his Coming is to stay spiritually alert and awake. Otherwise, you will be caught unawares.

Jesus sums it up with an explicit command:

"You also must be ready,21 because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:40)

The tiny Parable of the Burglar makes two points:

  1. The Son of Man is coming unexpectedly, and
  2. You must be alert for his coming, even if your alertness must be long-maintained.

What Constitutes Readiness?

What does readiness for the Son of Man consist of? What is this alertness? This wakefulness? And how is it degraded? Here are some of the factors.

  1. Avoiding sin. Sin is not cost-free for the disciple, since it can dull our spiritual awareness. Yes, he will forgive, but self-indulgent moral compromise dulls us. It prevents us from walking closely with him and being spiritually alert, from being sensitive to his voice. When you sin, repent immediately!
  2. Prayer, time communing with Jesus, is necessary so that we remain spiritually alert, spiritually awake.
  3. The Word. Regular reading of the Scriptures keeps us alert. It is cleansing. Jesus said, "You are clean because of the word I have spoken to you" (John 15:3).
  4. Beliefs can affect our readiness. If our theological system tells us that Jesus can't come imminently, then we tend to relax. The text tells us, "the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect22 him" (Luke 12:40b). If you don't think that it is probable that Jesus will come in your lifetime, then you are extremely vulnerable to being taken by surprise, if he were to return contrary to your doctrinal timeline.

We'll consider Jesus' related Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward (Lesson 5.3) in a few moments, but first, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.

Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13, §227)

(Also known as the Parable of the Ten Maidens; Ten Virgins; Ten Bridesmaids)
William Blake, “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” (1826), watercolor, Tate Collections.
William Blake, "Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins" (1826), watercolor, Tate Collections.

In Matthew, Jesus tells a longer Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins about the importance of readiness for Christ's return, even though it is delayed longer than expected.

Marriage Practices in Jesus' Time

To understand this parable, we need to review marriage practices in the first century. Marriage began with a betrothal up to a year before the marriage celebration, usually arranged by parents. The man and woman would enter into a binding agreement to marry at this betrothal, more binding than our "engagement" in the West. The man would give the bride's father a bridal gift, a form of compensation to the father (some of which becomes a dowry the father gives to the daughter at the marriage to help provide economic stability to the marriage bond). The couple doesn't live together or consummate the marriage at their betrothal, though they are considered husband and wife by law and the bond cannot be broken without divorce.

The final marriage event in this culture is a celebration. Typically, the groom and his friends go to the bride's home. Perhaps there is a brief party there. But then -- usually early in the evening -- they escort the bride in a festive procession to the groom's home, where a grand celebration takes place. There is probably an exchange of vows and some kind of religious ceremony, though none of these details survive from the first century AD. The groom gives his bride gifts. After the marriage feast, the bride and groom enter the nuptial chamber and the marriage is consummated.

Ten Teenage Girls

With that explanation, let's look at the parable.

"1 At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise, however, took oil in jars23 along with their lamps." (Matthew 25:1-4)

The parable focuses on the period between the groom fetching the bride from her parent's home and bringing her in a grand procession to the marriage ceremony and celebration that will take place in his home.

To call them the "ten virgins" is a bit misleading, since it places the focus on their virginity. But the idea here is that these are a group of young, unmarried teenage girls. They might be junior-high or middle-school age in the American school system. In Jesus' time, girls typically married at age 14 or 15, or so.

This group of young teenage girls has decided not to go all the way to the bride's house. Rather, they have positioned themselves right on the road to the groom's house so they don't miss the procession. That is the plan.

Herodian Lamp that would have been common in the time of Jesus
Herodian Lamp that would have been common in the time of Jesus (larger image).

But everything doesn't work to plan. The procession doesn't come in the early evening as expected. It is now dark outside, and the only lights they have are small hand lamps made of pottery, probably Herodian lamps, burning a flax wick that is threaded into a hole at the end of the lamp where it can draw from a small reservoir of olive oil in the base of the lamp.

Staying together as a group would provide protection. By the time they were this old, of course, they knew about how long one of these small lamps would stay lit, probably four to five hours. Some of their mothers had told them, "Be sure to take extra oil. You'll need it for the trip home." "Sure, mom." It would be like your mother telling you to take extra batteries for your flashlight on a dark night. The more mature, wiser24 girls would take the appropriate precautions, even if only to placate their mothers. The flighty, foolish25 girls didn't bother.

The Bridegroom Comes (Matthew 25:5-7)

"5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight26 the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps." (Matthew 25:5-7)

It is midnight by the time the bridegroom's procession is spotted coming up the road. The teenage girls have fallen asleep by this time.

Suddenly they awake and look to their flickering oil hand lamps. You can turn a flashlight off to save batteries, but not an oil lamp, since you can't relight it without an ignition source. They trim the wicks, cutting off the burned end of the wick, and pulling up more wick so that it overhangs the lip of the lamp at the proper length.27 It is only then that they would have noticed how low the oil supply in the lamp was getting. Some of their lamps were about ready to go out. Panic sets in.

Running Out of Oil (Matthew 25:8-9)

"8 The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'

9 'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'" (Matthew 25:8-9)

At first thought, the wiser girls might seem stingy. But they are not; they are wise. They know that if they give away their supply, they won't have enough. So they tell their foolish friends to run off to the merchant who sells oil to buy some more.

No "oil vending stores" are open at this hour, but the oil merchant in their village would know them and probably sold his olive oil out of his own house anyway. So off go the foolish girls to get more oil as the wedding procession comes into view.

"I Don't Know You" (Matthew 25:10-13)

"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut." (Matthew 25:10)

The wise girls, lamps illuminating the way, join the procession that leads to the bridegroom's house. When everyone in the procession is inside the courtyard adjacent to the house, the door is shut. This isn't an open party where people can drift in and out. No more guests are expected.

"11 Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'

12 But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'" (Matthew 25:11-12)

The foolish girls finally arrive long after the party has gotten underway and the door has been shut. They knock and call out. They bang on the door. But the doorkeeper doesn't recognize them and refuses to open the door.

It sounds reminiscent of Jesus' prediction that on the final Day of Judgment, some would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven who supposed themselves to be disciples, who may even have done some religious things, but did not really follow Jesus.

"22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23 Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:21-23)

This sentence, "I do not know you!" is so final, so shocking. Sinners have heard for years that God will give them a second chance, but now the time for second chances is finally over. Only those who follow Jesus closely, who "keep watch" will be ready when he returns. Others will be excluded from his kingdom. The parable concludes with the words:

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." (Matthew 25:13)

Legitimate Allegories

I believe we are intended to see:

  1. Relationship between the kingdom of heaven and circumstances at a marriage feast.
  2. Relationship between wise preparedness and entering the kingdom.
  3. Exclusion from the kingdom for those who aren't prepared at Christ's coming.

Those vital touchpoints are clear. But what about other elements?

It is likely that the idea of the bridegroom representing the Messiah underlies the story, for Jesus refers to himself as the Bridegroom in the Parable of the Bridegroom's Guests (Lesson 7.2). And the idea of the celebration meal in the Kingdom of God is a theme throughout Jesus' teachings. (See Appendix 5. The Great Messianic Banquet.)

However, lights (in the sense of witness) that are shining rather than going out is not the point, but rather preparedness and watchfulness. The number of virgins (ten) has no significance to the parable, though among Jews it was the minimum number needed to form a synagogue. Virginity or purity is not the point; virginity is mentioned only to fix the age of the participants in the story. The oil doesn't represent the Holy Spirit or good works; it just illustrates the degree of preparedness. The story includes reference to olive oil -- a household staple. There is no need to make the oil into something in the story. Jesus doesn't.

Finally, falling asleep isn't the point of this parable, since both the wise and foolish girls fell asleep. The watchfulness shows itself in preparedness, not physical wakefulness at a late hour. The true intent of Jesus' parable is to be prepared even though Jesus' Coming is delayed.

Q21. (Matthew 25:1-13) What are the main points from the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins that Jesus wants his disciples to understand and internalize? What constitutes preparedness for Christ's coming for modern-day disciples?

5.3 Faithful Service in the Master's Absence

Jesus tells four parables about how faithful service in the master's absence is indicative of leadership potential. One is just a mention in Mark's version of the Parable of the Watching Servants that we saw above in Lesson 5.2: "It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task" (Mark 13:34a). But the other three parables are more developed, each designed to prepare disciples for a time when Jesus has returned to his Father and his return is delayed.

Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward (Matthew 24:45-51, §226; Luke 12:42-46; §§158-159)

(Also known as the Parable of the Door Keeper, and the Wise and Faithful Servant or Manager)

In Lesson 5.2 above, we've seen parables about watchfulness and readiness. Now Jesus tells a parable about the kind of faithfulness appropriate for leaders during this time of waiting for the coming of the Son of Man. The Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward is found in both Luke and Matthew.

In Luke's version, Peter asks a question about the Parable of the Burglar (Lesson 5.2). Jesus answers Peter's question with a question:

"Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time?" (Luke 12:42)

The chief protagonist is "the faithful and wise manager." The noun is Greek oikonomos, "manager of a household or estate, (house) steward, manager."28 This word is modified by two adjectives. The first adjective is Greek pistos, "pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust, trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust/faith."29 The second adjective is Greek phronimos, "pertaining to understanding associated with insight and wisdom, sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise."30

The steward isn't just any servant. Perhaps not even the oldest, most experienced servant. But he is one in whom the master sees qualities of trustworthiness and prudence -- wisdom. He appoints him to be in charge31 of the other servants -- especially in his absence. The main duty mentioned here is to give his fellow servants their food allowance at regular intervals.32

The steward is not doing something particularly flashy or creative. He is just continuing to do his duty, day after day, without fail, without forgetting, without unexplained lapses. His virtue is faithfulness. You can count on him.

Our generation shuns words like "duty" and "obligation." Jesus' message of faithfulness runs contrary to our somewhat selfish souls, but then, Jesus' teachings often grate on self-absorbed people. Jesus cares about faithfulness.

Faithful Service (Luke 12:43-44)

"It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions." (Luke 12:43-44)

When the master returns from a journey and finds that in his absence his steward has been taking care of things without slacking off, the servant will be rewarded with a promotion. The steward's responsibility moves from just being responsible for the servants' meals. He is appointed over all the master's possessions.33

I think of Joseph in the Old Testament, who through faithfulness rose rapidly from being a common slave to being in charge of both Potiphar's household as well as his entire estate: "Everything he owns he has entrusted to my care" (Genesis 39:8).

Presumptive and Undisciplined Service (Luke 12:45-46)

But even wise and faithful servants can succumb to temptation. So Jesus goes on:

"But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk." (Luke 12:45)

Jesus has pointed to the rewards of faithfulness. Now he shifts the parable to explore the dangers fruits of unfaithfulness. The second scenario is a head servant who knows he won't be held accountable and so begins to abuse his authority and position. In Matthew, Jesus calls him "that wicked34 servant" (Matthew 24:48). The evil servant begins to justify his actions:

"My master is taking a long time35 in coming." (Luke 12:45)

Note the element of delay in the master's return that was present in the Parable of the Waiting Servants (Lesson 5.2), the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Lesson 5.2), the Talents, the Minas or Pounds (Lesson 11.2), etc. Surely, Jesus is preparing his disciples for a delay in his own return.

In our parable, Jesus suggests that the head servant begins to beat36 his fellow servants. Instead of acting as a servant, he is acting as the master and taking upon himself a master's prerogatives to discipline harshly. He indulges his whims. He abandons the self-discipline that got him appointed head servant in the first place. He gorges himself with food and wine and goes about drunk. Drunkenness is the very antithesis of the qualities of being wakeful and watching that the initial parables stressed (Luke 12:36). The unfaithful servant now lives for himself and not his master.

Unfortunately, the history of the Christian church offers abundant examples of (especially) men who started out as sincere monks and priests, but became worldly and wealthy bishops, cardinals, and popes. It took a humble St. Frances of Assisi (1181-1286 AD) to rebuke this worldliness by his vivid example of poverty filled with joy and love. I've seen humble and faithful pastors become petty tyrants, demanding personal loyalty of each member, sometimes indulging themselves with expensive cars and houses to celebrate their power. It is repugnant!

Unexpected Return and Punishment (Luke 12:46)

Now Jesus tells of the judgment falling on this corrupt head-servant.

"The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers." (Luke 12:46)

The master's coming in Jesus' parable is sudden, but the unfaithful servant is clueless. He doesn't "expect"37 the master or anticipate his coming. Nor does the abusive servant "know" or anticipate this hour of returning.

The punishment seems horrible, far beyond what would seem appropriate. Luke uses the verb dikotomeō, "cut in two," of dismemberment of a condemned person. Some suggest that Jesus may have meant this figuratively with the meaning "punish with utmost severity," but there is no support for this interpretation.38

In addition to dismemberment, in Luke, the unfaithful steward is assigned the portion or reward of the unbeliever, the faithless. Matthew uses the word "hypocrites." In both Matthew 18:50 and Luke 12:46, the scene moves from punishment of the servant in the parable to the End Time application of this parable, where the unfaithful and unbelieving are cast out into outer darkness, far from the joys of table fellowship in the Kingdom of God.39 (See Appendix 5. The Great Messianic Banquet.)

Though the unfaithful steward had been a servant, since he refused to believe that his master would return to correct him, he is allotted a place with the gross unbelievers. He is stripped entirely of his relation to the master's household. How horrible!

Punishment in Proportion to Knowledge (Luke 12:47-48a, §159)

In Luke's version of the parable, Jesus adds an element of proportional punishment.

"47 That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows." (Luke 12:47-48a)

A servant will be beaten in proportion to his knowledge and understanding of what his master wanted.40 Beating slaves sounds harsh to twenty-first century ears, but in Jesus' day, beating one's slaves was common and believed to be necessary to train them to avoid dishonesty and do right.41 I'm sure there was often abuse, but in theory at least, discipline was not designed for cruelty, but for instruction.

Jesus tells us that the servant who knows what his master wants is held responsible to take action. If he doesn't believe his master, that doesn't alleviate his punishment. What the servant is expected to do is, in Jesus' words, to "get ready."42

We disciples are those servants. We are responsible for what we have been told, and we must use that knowledge to prepare ourselves for what is to come.

To Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded (Luke 12:48b, §159)

If verses Luke 12:47-48a explain the concept of relative responsibility for punishment, then verse 48b summarizes the concept into a principle.

"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b)

We see the same principle illustrated in Jesus' Parables of the Talents and Minas (Lesson 11.2).

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

Perhaps you are of those people who is multi-gifted. You have risen to a place of leadership. You are blessed. While those gifts God has given you certainly enable you to enrich yourself and your family -- and caring for your family is important -- Jesus wants you to use those gifts to help your fellow servants in the household of God and bless their lives. Remember, you are not your own; you are a servant under orders from the Master, Jesus. He has given you much; he expects much of you. Don't disappoint him!

Q22. (Luke 12:42-46) The Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward is directed particularly at church leaders at various levels. Why are leaders sometimes tempted to take advantage of the perks of their position and to oppress those under their authority? What is the best antidote for these temptations? What does verse 48 teach disciples about responsibility?

For us, the struggles of this life may seem overwhelming. But there will come that day when we see his face, and the struggles of life lose their grip in the joy of his presence. In the meantime, my dear friends, remain watchful. Come soon, Lord Jesus!


Father, it is so easy for us to fall into routines of complacency, rather than maintain a constant alertness and readiness. Jar us. Do whatever it takes to change our lazy habits into a constant seeking of your face and listening to your voice. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


References and Abbreviations

[1] "Near" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "at hand" or "nigh" (KJV) is the adverb engus, pertaining to being in close in point of time, near," and then, by extension, "close as an experience or event, close" (BDAG 271, meanings 2a and 3).

[2] (1) False christs (Luke 21:8), (2) wars (vss. 9-10), (3) natural disasters (vs. 11a), (4) great signs (vs. 12b), (5) persecution and witness (vss. 12-15), (6) betrayal and hatred (vss. 16-17), Jerusalem trampled by Gentiles (vss. 20-24).

[3] "Is visible" (NIV), "shines" (ESV, KJV), "flashes" (NRSV) is phainō, "to shine," here, "appear, be or become visible, be revealed" (BDAG 1047, 2a).

[4] The word translated lightning is Greek astrapē, "lightning" and the word translated "flashes" is the verbal form of this root, astraptō, "to flash, gleam" (BDAG 146). A closely-related word astron means "star, constellation" which has found its way into the English language with such words as "astronomy." The third word translated "lights up" (NIV) or "shineth" (KJV) is Greek lampō, "to emit rays of light, shine, flash, gleam" (BDAG 585-586).

[5] "Dead body" (NIV), "corpse" (ESV, NRSV), "body" (KJV) is sōma, "body," here, "dead body, corpse" (BDAG 983, 1a).

[6] "Carcass" (NIV, KJV), "corpse" (ESV, NRSV) is ptōma, "primarily, 'that which has fallen,' "a dead body: animal or human, (dead) body, corpse," especially of one killed by violence" (BDAG 895).

[7] Leviticus 11:13; Deuteronomy 14:12. Harold van Broekhoven, Jr., "Eagle," ISBE 2:1-2; R.K. Harrison, "Vulture," ISBE 4:999.

[8] Dispensationalism (including a "secret rapture" theory) has been circulating in evangelical circles for nearly two centuries, beginning with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and the Plymouth Brethren in the 1830s. It was popularized in the US in the early 20th century through the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and the Bible School Movement. Later by Hal Lindsay's book, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and the Christian apocalyptic novel Left Behind (1995) by Tim LeHaye (1926-2016) and Jerry B. Jenkins (b. 1949), ultimately resulting in a series of 16 novels (1995-2007) and a series of films in the Left Behind series (2000, 2002, 2005, 2014). The theory is that Jesus will come secretly for believers, who will be raptured suddenly without notice before the tribulation (pre-trib). Then Christ will come publicly in his glory later on after the tribulation. In other words, two comings of Christ. The problem I have with it is that the Scripture doesn't teach a secret rapture or two comings. Both the Analogies of the Lightning and the Vultures Gathering point to a sudden, visible coming of Christ. For more on this see a popular-level discussion in Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (Nelson, 1990), my study, The Book of Revelation: Discipleship Lessons (JesusWalk Publications, 2004, 2011), Also see my Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel (JesusWalk Publications, 2010), Appendix 2G. Introduction to Eschatology.

[9] Literally, "each with his work" (ESV, NRSV). Notice that Mark's form of the parable includes the ideas of assigned tasks, perhaps a bit like the Parables of the Talents (Matthew) and Minas (Luke), Lesson 11.2).

[10] "The one at the door" (NIV), "doorkeeper" (ESV, NRSV), "porter" (KJV) is thurōros, "doorkeeper, gatekeeper" (BDAG 462).

[11] "Keep watch" (NIV), "stay awake" (ESV), "be on the watch" (NRSV), "watch" (KJV) is the present active subjunctive of grēgoreō, "to stay awake, be watchful" (BDAG 208, 1).

[12] We might be tempted here to see the wedding banquet the master is attending as an allegorical reference to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7). I think that's the wrong direction. Our passage contains the element of the wedding banquet to indicate that the master is relatively close by and can return at any time.

[13] The phrase translated, "Be dressed and ready for service" (NIV), "stay/be dressed for action" (ESV, NRSV) is more literally rendered by the KJV: "Let your loins be girded about." Leon Morris explains, "The long, flowing robes of the Easterner were picturesque, but apt to hinder serious labor, so when work was afoot they were tucked into a belt about the waist" (Luke, p. 217).

[14] The word translated "master" is Greek kyrios, "one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner." The word is also used as a term of respect, something like our "sir" for someone who is in a position of authority, "lord, master" (BDAG 577, 1b).

[15] "Wedding banquet" (NIV, NRSV), "wedding feast" (ESV), "wedding" (KJV) is the plural of Greek gamos, the "public ceremony associated with entry into a marriage relationship, wedding celebration" (BDAG 188, 1b).

[16] Prosdechomai, BDAG 877, 2a.

[17] Grēgoreō, BDAG 208, 2.

[18] "Ready" (NIV), "awake" (ESV) is not in the actual text, which is literally "finds them so" (NRSV, KJV).

[19] Marshall (Luke, p. 537) cites Strack and Billerbeck I, 688-691 for the Jewish watches (Judges 7:19) and several verses for the Roman watch system (Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48; 13:35; Acts 12:4).

[20] The phrase "broken into/through" is dioryssō. In the New Testament it is used of a thief who "digs through" the (sun-dried brick) wall of a house and gains entrance, "break through, break in" (BDAG 251).

[21] "Be ready" is hetoimos, "ready," with the verb ginomai, "be ready, prepare oneself" (BDAG 401, b), from the verb hetoimazō, "to cause to be ready, put/keep in readiness, prepare."

[22] "Expect" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "think" (KJV) is dokeō, "to consider as probable, think, believe, suppose, consider" (BDAG 254, 1f).

[23] "Jars" (NIV), "flasks of oil" (ESV, NRSV), "vessels" (KJV) is Greek angeion, "vessel, flask, container," e.g., for oil. It didn't refer to a specific size or special-purpose pottery, for the same name could describe a container for fish or edible snails (BDAG 7).

[24] "Wise" in verses 2, 4, 7, and 9 is phronimos, "pertaining to understanding associated with insight and wisdom, sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise" (BDAG 1066).

[25] "Foolish" in verses 2, 3, and 8 is mōros (from which we get our word "moron"), "foolish, stupid" (BDAG 663, a).

[26] "Midnight" is literally, "middle of the night," mesos, "middle" + nux, nukktos, "night." By New Testament times it was more accurately determined (N. Green, "Midnight," ISBE 3:351).

[27] "Trimmed" is kosmeō (from which we get our "cosmetic"), to make neat or tidy" (BDAG 560, 1).

[28] Oikonomos, BDAG 698, 1.

[29] Pistos, BDAG 820.

[30] Phronimos, BDAG 1066.

[31] "Put in charge of" (NIV, NRSV), "set over" (ESV), "make ruler over" (KJV) is the preposition epi and the verb kathistēmi, "to assign someone a position of authority, appoint, put in charge" (BDAG 492, 2a).

[32] "Food allowance" (NIV), "portion of food" (ESV), "allowance of food" (NRSV), "portion of meat" (KJV) is sitometrion, "a measured allowance of grain/food, food allowance, ration" (BDAG 925).

[33] "Possessions" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "all he hath" (KJV) is hyparchō, "what belongs to someone, someone's property, possessions, means" (BDAG 1029).

[34] "Wicked" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "evil" (KJV) is kakos, "pertaining to being socially or morally reprehensible, bad, evil," or even so far as, "harmful or injurious, evil, injurious, dangerous, pernicious" (BDAG 501).

[35] "Taking a long time" (NIV), "delayed" (ESV, NRSV, cf. KJV) is the verb chronizō, "to extend a state or an activity beyond an expected time, delay, take a long time" in doing something (BDAG 1092).

[36] "Beat" is Greek typtō, "to inflict a blow, strike, beat, wound" (BDAG 1020).

[37] "Expect" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "aware" (KJV) is prosdokaō, "to give thought to something that is viewed as lying in the future, wait for, look for, expect" (BDAG 877).

[38] Dikotomeō, BDAG 253.

[39] In Bible days, using rods to punish was extremely common. Fathers would discipline their children with a rod; masters would discipline their servants with a rod. Punishment of criminals would sometimes be with a rod or whip (Matthew 5:29-30; 8:12; 13:50; 18:8-9; 22:13).

[40] "Beating/beaten" is derō, originally, "skin, flay," but in the New Testament only in imagery, "beat, whip" (BDAG 218-219). See Exodus 21:20; 2 Samuel 7:14; Job 9:34; 21:9; Psalm 89:32; Proverbs 10:13; 13:24; 14:3; 22:8, 15; 23:13-14; 26:3; 29:15; Isaiah 10:5; 30:32; Lamentations 3:1.

[41] For example, see Deuteronomy 25:2-3; Psalm 89:32; Proverbs 10:13; 13:24; 14:3; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15; and Hebrews 12:10-11.

[42] "Get ready" (NIV, ESV), "prepare" (NRSV, KJV) is hetoimazō, "to cause to be ready, put/keep in readiness, prepare" (BDAG 400a).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text