Jesus' parables on being ready for his coming do not begin in Matthew's Gospel only at 25:1. Already in 24:43-51 two short parables have underlined the call to be ready for the coming of the Lord at a time when he is not expected. In 24:43 the simple analogy of a burglar, whose success depends on the element of surprise, provides the basis for the call in 24:44 to "be ready." Then in 24:45-51 a rather more elaborate parable underlines the same point: A man goes away, leaving his slave in charge of his household, and everything depends on what the houseowner finds when he returns; if the house is in good order, the slave will be rewarded, but if he has taken advantage of his master's absence he will be caught out and severely punished.
The focus in these two mini-parables is on the unexpectedness of Jesus' future coming — that is, the burglar's surprise appearance and the master's unannounced return. The time of the Lord's coming is unknown (24:36). It can be prepared for not by attempting to calculate the date, but by behaving in such a way that one is ready whenever it may occur. It is this theme that is taken up and developed in the first parable of chapter 25, that of the bridesmaids in 25:1-13. The parable of the talents that follows in 25:14-30 takes up the theme again in depicting a master going away and leaving his slaves with responsibilities during his absence, and the different ways in which they acquit themselves until the time of his return. There can be little doubt, therefore, of the intended application of these parables at the point where they occur in Matthew's Gospel. For Jesus — having "gone away" in his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven — will one day come back. But no one knows when that will be. His disciples must therefore be ready at all times. If they are not, there is the prospect of judgment.
But the call to be ready raises the important question regarding what that readiness consists of. Just how is one supposed to prepare for the unexpected coming of the Lord? As we work our way through chapter 25, this question becomes more urgent. Throughout the chapter, in fact, it begins to receive an answer — though, admittedly, by the end of the chapter the answer may not be as specific as we might wish.
It has long been fashionable to assume that Jesus' parables have mostly been adapted by the first-century church to address their own concerns, which may have been quite different from the thoughts of Jesus himself or the reactions of his disciples at the time when the story was first told. Paul's letters leave us in no doubt that the return of Jesus was a prominent concern of Christian congregations in the middle of the first century, and that many believed it would be soon. The relevance of these parables to that concern is obvious. As years went by, however, such a feeling of urgency may well have faded, with the result that "parousia delay" came to loom larger in their consciousness than imminence. Features having to do with the delay of Jesus' parousia are prominent in these parables (cf. 24:48; 25:5; 25:19, "after a long time"). This may reflect a concern of church leaders that people should not become complacent, since in each story the delay is followed by a sudden arrival.
But the relevance of these stories to the concerns of the middle and latter part of the first century does not necessarily mean that they were coined then, even if they were later modified by the church to speak to issues regarding the delay of Christ's parousia. The question is: Can the focus of these stories on a future "coming" be also understood as appropriate to the setting in which Matthew has placed them — that is, immediately before the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Our answer to this question depends largely on whether we accept that Jesus did, in fact, teach his disciples, while he was still with them, that after his death and resurrection he would one day return. This belief is so firmly established in what is perhaps the earliest of Paul's letters, that is, in his letters to his Thessalonian converts (cf. esp. 1 Thess 4:13-5:11; 2 Thess 2:1-12), that it is hard to explain where else it could have come from so quickly.
In the Gospels we have sayings of Jesus that speak of such a future event — not only in the discourse of Matthew 24-25, but also in Luke 12:35-48; 17:20-37; and 18:8. On the basis of such teaching, therefore, it is not difficult to believe that the disciples had already grasped this parousia concept sufficiently to need to ask the question that Matthew attributes to them in 24:3: "Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" And if they were already concerned to know the time of Jesus' future coming, it is no surprise that, having told them that they could not know the time of it (24:36), he went on to warn them about the need to be always ready for it. Moreover, a prospect of judgment and themes regarding rewards and punishments occur frequently throughout the recorded sayings of Jesus. So these stories of Matthew 25 deal with matters with which the disciples would not have been unfamiliar.
Richard T. France,
"On Being Ready (Matthew 25:1-46)"
["Περί του Γρηγορείτε (Ματθαίος 25:1-46)"],
Richard N. Longenecker (ed.),
The Challenge of Jesus' Parables (McMaster New Testament Studies),
Wm. Β. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000,