Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Sunday School Lesson #22

Posted by Jim F. on June 15, 2007

Lesson 22: Matthew 25

Verses 1-13: The Parable of the Ten Virgins

We know little about marriage ceremonies in Palestine during Jesus’ day. Most of what we say about such things is really a description of customs 200 years or so later. Perhaps those later customs reflect what happened in Jesus’ day, but we cannot know that they did, and the tremendous social upheaval resulting from the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. may well have interrupted the continuity of traditions. Nevertheless, we can infer some things from this parable itself: Wedding feasts seem to have been held at night, otherwise there would be no reason for the bridal attendants to bring their lamps. It seems that the bride’s attendants went out to escort the groom to the wedding feast, presumably held at the bride’s house. It may be that the groom did not arrive at a particular time, but the tarrying of the groom in this parable might be for the story rather than because it was a custom.

How do the scriptures use the symbols “bride” and “groom” in other places? (See, for example, Matthew 9:15 and 22:1-14, as well as John 3:29. For another example, see the first several chapters of Hosea.) What do they stand for? Given that symbolism, who might the ten virgins, the bridal attendants, stand for? Do the lamps and oil represent anything in particular? If so, what? Does the parable criticize those who slept while they waited? Is their sleep symbolic? Whom does the parable criticize and for what? Why do the wise virgins refuse to share their oil with the foolish ones (verse 9)? Why might it be such a big deal that the door is shut (verse 11)? In other words, might there be a practical reason that guests could not expect to be admitted after the door was shut and barred? Why would this parable have been particularly important to the disciples at this point in Jesus’ life? What would verse 13 have meant to them? What does it mean to us?

Verses 14-30: The Parable of the Talents

A talent is a weight, supposedly the weight you could expect a laborer to carry. It represented a large sum of money, about 90 pounds of silver, and since silver was relatively more scarce in biblical times than our own, it was probably also more valuable. The Word Biblical Commentary says that a talent was worth about 6,000 days work for a common laborer! If the WBC is accurate, that is easily $10,000,000 in today’s terms.

To understand the story better, remember what it is about: A very wealthy man is taking a long trip. Before he leaves, he takes his property and divides it among each of three stewards (who were his slaves), commanding them to take care of that property until he returns. Since the property is his to begin with and the servants are his slaves, when he returns everything that he gave them will still be his, as will any profit they have made on his money. (This circumstance, giving money to slave-stewards and expecting them to make a profit, was covered in Roman law.) Given Jewish law, perhaps the profit was not interest, but profit from land or commodity speculation. Only verse 27 mentions interest. However that reference suggests that the fictional lord whom Jesus has in mind is a Gentile, which would make interest a possibility.

What kind of return does each servant but the third get on the money that the Lord gives him? Is the return low, normal, or high? What does each servant receive from his Lord? Why does the Lord take from the slothful servant what he has been given? It seems unfair to take from those who have not and to give to those who already have (verse 29). Is that what is going on? How are we to understand this? What is it that those who receive already have? What is it that the others do not have and is taken away?

To understand the parable better, also think about its context: To whom does Jesus teach this parable? Given that audience and the fact that the parable is sandwiched between two parables about the Second Coming, what would you say is its point? To the disciples as they listened to this parable, what would the talents have represented? If the point of the parable of the 10 virgins is that the disciples must be prepared for the Second Coming, what does this parable teach them about the Second Coming? What does it teach us?

Verses 31-46: The Last Judgment

Is this a parable about the last judgment or is it about the criteria for entering God’s kingdom? How are those related? In what sense was the kingdom prepared before the world was founded or created? What kinds of works does Jesus mention in verses 35-37? Are they obligations or duties? Why are those speaking in verses 38-39 surprised? How do you account for the fact that they don’t know when they did the things for which they are rewarded? What does that teach us about our own works? Those who are condemned are equally surprised. Why? What might have given them the confidence that they did minister to the Lord when they should have? Who are “the least of these” (verses 4- and 46) to whom Jesus was referring at the time he gave this parable? (“Least” is a good translation, but “smallest” would also be a good one.) Who might “the least of these” be to us? Is it easy for us to recognize “the least”? Why or why not?

19 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson #22”

  1. Karl D. said

    Jim F. or Robert, I think you want the title to be, “Sunday School Lesson #22” instead of #21.

  2. Jim F. said

    Oops. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Mariliyn said

    Thanks for getting this up before Sunday. Until we had stake conference last month, you were a week behind me. I appreciate your thought-provoking questions. Only wish there were more comments to also learn from, before I teach the lesson. I didn’t skip any lessons this year, but I seem to be ahead of everybody. Hmmmm. I guess that means we’ll have all the time we need for Revelations at the end of the year. I hope you are there on time to help me when that time comes. I’ll need it.


  4. Jim F. said

    Marilyn, I wish you’d said something earlier. I have tried to stay at least one week ahead of where people are. Had I known that I was behind you, I would have sped up. Since it seems that I’m still ahead of most people, I didn’t worry about it.

    Glad to hear that these are useful to you.

  5. Plover said

    Many thanks for your work on these lessons. I look forward to them each week and find them most helpful.

    I, too, am giving this lesson this week, so I very much appreciate having it up early this week.

  6. mjberkey said

    Jim, I read your book on scripture study and I do love your method of asking questions. Why do you not try to answer them though?

    In regards to the second parable, if a talent was worth so much, why does the master then say “thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things”? Was the master so rich that the equivalent of $50 million was meaningless to him?

  7. Jim F. said

    mjberkey: I try to produce study questions, not answers to study questions. If I answered the questions, then I would be doing the studying for someone else, which I think is impossible. So I’m trying to produce something that might help others study.

    It appears that many are using these questions to help them prepare to teach Sunday School lessons. I don’t have any objection at all to that use, but I hope that there are also people who are using them in their scripture study as they prepare for Sunday School.

  8. mjberkey said

    Oops, I guess I didn’t understand the nature of this post. I thought it was supposed to be a commentary on the lesson, rather than an aid to teachers.

  9. Robert C. said

    mjberkey, I don’t think Jim’s trying to write “an aid to teachers,” but rather “an aid to studying the scriptures” which is different than a commentary. We might think of a commentary as something that discusses possible answers to questions (or, if more bold or arrogant, might try to give definitive answers…). My sense is that Jim does not think that definitive answers exist and, more importantly, that even if such answers exist, giving an “answer key” would sort of be like giving a math student an answer key before each homework assignment is assigned—the temptation would be to always just look at the answers and to never really learn the math concepts yourself. At least that’s my sense of what Jim’s getting at….

  10. Jim F. said

    mjberkey, Robert C is right. My materials aren’t supposed to be either a commentary on the scriptures or an aid to teaches. I would like them it to be an aid to scripture study, though if people find what I’ve produced helpful as they prepare Sunday School lessons, I certainly don’t object.

    I think there are definitive answers to some of the questions I ask, though as Robert points out I try to ask questions that mostly don’t have definitive answers. I hope that doing so will help other people think about the scriptures more.

  11. RuthS said

    JimF Thank you far clarifying your purpose in posing the questions you do. I personally find the discussion of the issues more relevant to my own needs. Sometimes it is helpful in clarifying my own thoughts. Generally though I am not looking for commentary as much as a means to getting the juices flowing. If these questions encourage people to actually read rather use them as a subtitute for reading the actual text then it has accomplished something very good.

  12. Tana said

    Amen to all that. Thank you for your thoughty questions. They get MY stagnant brain juices flowing! I’m in the “enviable” position of teaching the GD lessons every other week; I use Jim’s questions for lesson preparation and also for personal/family scripture reading. Thank you so much.

  13. Bob said

    In verse 26 is wicked and slothful two faults or is it repetition for emphasis?

  14. nhilton said

    In thinking about the term “talent” and how it began as a measurement of weight, evolved to coinage and then our modern concept of “talent” meaning “abilities” having derived from this verse…I’m considering how these talents are indeed a weight, or a burden and responsibility to be borne. The “where much is given, much is expected” phrase comes to mind. In v. 24 when the 3rd servant tells the lord he expects a return on what he himself did NOT invest, but rather a return on his servant’s investment (note that the initial investment was actually the lord’s) I see that it is the servant’s investment that is expected…”sweat equity,” so to speak.

    In the past I’ve always thought of the first servant as being really lucky or blessed to be given so much! & the other guys simply not as “gifted.” But with further consideration, perhaps it was actually a heavy stewardship to be given so much weight (responsibility) and the 1st & 2nd servants proved faithful in dealing with it vs. the 3rd servant who found the weight too burdensome to bear & actually burried it in an effort NOT to shoulder it.

    I’ve always thought, “Who would bury a talent?! Silly servant! Why not go & double it?! What’s stopping you?” However, with this new concept in my mind, I look back on the stewardships & responsibilities I’ve been given…those I’ve resented & wanted to be rid of! and seen these in a new light: as talents, or gifts bestowed by my Lord. In this way I more easily relate to the 3rd servant & worry about my tendency to burry these weights when I really should be rising to the challenge and “magnifying my calling” or making my talents multiply.

    This definition of “talent” better helps me understand v. 28 when the lord takes the talents (stewardships/responsibilities/burdens) away from the wicked servant & gives it to the faithful servant; these talents actually NEEDED tending. This definition also helps me understand why FAITH is required on the part of the servants to multiply their talents. I certainly need faith whenever I endeavor to fulfill a stewardship, especially a weighty one.

    I also like v. 19 where we learn that the servants had a “long time” in which to multiply their talents. This gives me hope that I might go back & dig up those talents (stewardships) I’ve burried in the past & put new effort into multiplying them! There’s still time!

  15. RuthS said

    The problem I have with our modern interpretation of the talents in this parable is that it is paired with gifts. So I like the idea of responsibilities and stewardships a lot better. A gift is not something one must give an accounting for. A gift once given is out of the purview of the giver and the receiver is free to do with it according to personal desire. Had the last steward who burried his talent and did nothing to increase it only put it in the bank where it would receive only minimal interest his master would have been satisfied. It is not as important how much we accomplish, but that we are striving and doing something.”They also serve who only stant and wait.”

  16. BrianJ said

    Nhilton, 14; RuthS, 15: Thank you! In my lesson handout that I gave my class last week in advance of teaching this lesson, I asked the question, “Talents in this parable are often interpreted by us as gifts from God, but what are some other ways to see this symbol? How does that change the meaning?” I knew there was a good response to my question, but not even I could articulate it (I was thinking along the lines of talent=gospel message, but that didn’t feel quite right). I think your descriptions are perfect!

  17. Marilyn said

    This past week I started looking at talents given as a stewardship. Learning that the value of a talent was way beyond my previous understanding, I began to think of my children as my special talent or stewardship (the worth of souls being great). Then I suddenly understood the severe punishment handed out to the slothful servant. If I were to return my children to the Lord after many years in the same condition that I received them, I truly should be cast into outer darkness. This can also apply to any person(s) that come under our stewardship for a time, if their lives are not made better for having known us.

  18. nhilton said

    Marilyn #17, Great connection here! However, if I actually COULD return my children to the Lord in the condition in which I received them, how happy would I be…innocent, clean, pure, I mean. This not being possible, in most cases, we see The Fall enacted on a personal level in the life of each human being. Who are WE then, based on this archetypal role-play, in the lives of each of our children? Moses 1:39 echos in my mind here.

  19. cherylem said

    Jim and everyone,
    I’ve been thinking about the various stories and parables we’ve read so far in the NT and what this says about what was important to the people of the time, to the disciples, etc. Especially the marriage imagery, throughout scripture, is becoming more fascinating to me (not that i wasn’t interested already). But marriage must have been a very big deal for the marriage ceremony, the wedding feast, the bride/bridegroom to be such a consistent theme.

    For instance, while circumcision was important, it is not used very often and not in the same way. Death rituals are hardly mentioned at all. Are there any other rites of passage mentioned? Like the equivalent of the bar mitzvah, for instance? (I know Jesus teaching in the temple when his parents lost him for 3 days is sometimes related to this, but the symbolism is not pervasive).

    But there seems to be no other rite of passage/important event that EVERYONE could relate to like the wedding.

    There are other stories/metaphors/parables that also come through strongly, perhaps through repetition or alternatively, through the vividness of the imagery:

    1. the symbol of the vineyard/olive tree/olive press/servants in the vineyard, etc.

    2. the shepherd/sheep symbols.

    3. the father/son stories, including the parable of the two sons

    But the marriage imagery seems to me to top them all. So why is this? Why would this image resonate with those people?

    as for us, I think that the fact that these stories are foundational to our belief system, even our western culture, makes it hard for us to read/listen with first century eyes/ears. The stories preceded us.

    Even in the first century, the stories preceded Jesus (that is, there are signfiicant, foundational references to fighting brothers, marriage, vineyard, shepherds/sheep in the OT.

    But why the marriage ceremony? Is this obvious? It is becoming less obvious to me, actually.

    Does it go all the way back to Genesis – a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife??

    And then again, what does this kind of understanding have to do with the relationship between God the father and God the son, and God the son (Jesus) to the church, and indeed, to all of humanity?

    It is interesting for me to think about. Again.

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