The Wise and Foolish Virgins: A Parable about Love
1. “Then shall the kingdom of the heavens be likened unto ten virgins, who taking their lamps, came out to meet the Bridegroom.
2. And five of them were prudent, and five foolish.
3. They that [were] foolish, taking their lamps, did not take oil with them.
4. And the prudent took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
5. And while the Bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
6. And in the middle of the night there was a cry made, ‘Behold, the Bridegroom comes; come ye out to meet Him.’
7. Then all those virgins arose, and adorned their lamps.
8. And the foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us of your oil, because our lamps are extinguished.’
9. And the prudent answered, saying, ‘[Not so], lest there be not sufficient for us and for you; but go ye rather to those that sell, and buy for yourselves.’
10. But when they were gone to buy, the Bridegroom came; and they that were prepared went in with Him to the wedding; and the door was shut.
11. And afterwards came also the rest of the virgins, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us.’
12. And He answering said, ‘Amen I say to you, I have not known you.’”
13. Watch therefore, because you know not the day, nor the hour, in which the Son of Man comes.”
There is a tendency in each of us to believe that God is not fully present. At such times it is difficult to imagine that He is aware of every detail of our life and leading us at every moment. In sacred scripture this tendency is signified in such words as, “The master has delayed his coming (24:48). The truth is, however, that the Lord is always inmostly present, ready to lead us into all the truth that we are willing to receive. It is we who delay — not the Lord. Therefore, we must be vigilant and ready, living according to the teachings of His Word, with love in our hearts.
The theme of being prepared for the coming of the Lord, introduced in the previous chapter, continues in this one. It begins with a parable which speaks of ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of the virgins are considered wise, because they take extra oil for their lamps. But the others are considered foolish because they take no additional oil. They are not prepared for the unexpected delay: “But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). At midnight there is a cry, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet Him!” (25:6).
In this parable, the bridegroom represents the Lord. The five virgins with plenty of oil in their lamps signify those who have an abundant love for God in their hearts. “Oil,” because of its golden glow, its soft, smooth feel, and its many uses — to give light, to produce heat, to reduce friction, and to heal wounds — is a beautiful symbol of love. If we have “oil” in our hearts, we are ready and prepared to understand truth when it comes into our lives — to receive the bridegroom.
But if we are foolish, we do not have enough love in our hearts. We are like the five virgins who run out of oil in their lamps. They indeed had lamps — but their lamps ran out of oil. No lamp, no matter how well built, or beautifully ornamented, can produce light unless it is filled with oil. Similarly, no doctrine, no matter how accurate or complex, can help us live happier, brighter lives, unless it is filled with the oil of love.
If we think that we can do without love, believing that our understanding of truth can sustain us, we are greatly mistaken. The warning given in the previous episode — be ready, for no one knows the day or hour when the Son of Man will come — applies here as well. Truth without love will not sustain us. We are therefore perpetually called to the heavenly marriage of truth and goodness, wisdom and love, represented in this parable by the importance of always having oil in our lamps. We need both to make a marriage.
The importance of this most basic truth is now demonstrated as the parable continues. When the bridegroom comes at midnight, the five foolish virgins realize that they do not have enough oil. Turning to the wise virgins for help, they say, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out” (25:8). Surprisingly, the five wise virgins refuse, saying, “No, lest there should not be enough for us” (25:9). Instead, they encourage the five foolish virgins to go buy their own oil: “Go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves” (25:9).
The response of the wise virgins is surprising because we would expect them to be compassionate and generous, willing to share what they have with others, and not to think of themselves. After all, Jesus could have said that the wise virgins were so filled with love that they gave all of their oil to the foolish virgins, and then, miraculously their own lamps filled up again with fresh oil. But this is not the parable that Jesus tells.
Why not? Because Jesus is teaching an important lesson about the nature of love. We cannot get it from others, nor can it be acquired at the last minute. It is built up in us gradually through a lifetime of withdrawing from evil and doing good. If we think we can hurry off to buy this love at the last minute, we are quite mistaken: “And while they went off to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding and the door was shut” (25:10).
This is not to say that God shuts the door on us; rather we shut the door on God by refusing to fill our hearts with love by living according to His will at every step of our life. No last minute repentance can save us: “Afterward, the other virgins came, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!” But the Lord answers, “Assuredly I say to you, I do not know you” (25:11-12). 1
As Jesus concludes this parable, He returns to the theme He has been developing in preceding episodes — be watchful, for you do not know what hour the Son of Man is coming (24:39); be ready, for you do not know when the Master is coming (24:50). And here He says, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (25:13).
The Silver Talents: a Parable about Truth
14. “For [He is] as a man going abroad, [who] called his own servants, and delivered up to them his belongings.
15. And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one; to everyone according to his own ability; and straightway went abroad.
16. And going, he that had received the five talents, worked with them, and made another five talents.
17. And likewise he that [had received] the two, he also gained another two.
18. But he that received one, departing, dug in the earth, and hid the silver of his lord.
19. And after much time the lord of those servants comes, and reckons with them.
20. And when he came that had received the five talents, he brought to [him] another five talents, saying, ‘Lord, thou didst deliver up to me five talents; behold, I have gained another five talents besides them.’
21. And his lord declared to him, ‘Well [done], good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful in a few [things]; I will appoint thee over many. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.’
22. And also when he came who had received the two talents, he said, ‘Lord, thou hast delivered up to me two talents; behold, I have gained another two talents besides them.’
23. His lord declared to him, ‘Well [done], good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful in a few [things]; I will appoint thee over many. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.’
24. And also he receiving the one talent coming, said, ‘Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sowed, and gathering whence thou hast not scattered;
25. And being afraid, going away I hid thy talent in the earth; behold, thou hast thine own.’
26. And his lord answering said to him, ‘[Thou] wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I have not sown, and gather whence I have not scattered;
27. Thou shouldest therefore have cast my silver to the bankers, and when I came I should have received my own with interest.
28. Take therefore from him the talent, and give [it] to him that has ten talents.
29. For to everyone that has shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that has not, even what he has shall be taken away from him.
30. And cast out the useless servant into the outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
After concluding the parable about the ten virgins, Jesus immediately tells a second parable. This time it’s about a man traveling to a far country who calls his servants together and distributes his talents to them. Before leaving, the man gives to one of his servants five talents, to another he gives two talents, and to another he gives one talent, “each according to his own ability” (25:15). Then, after giving talents to each of the three servants ,the master immediately begins his journey.
While the master is away, the servants do various things with the talents the master they received. The first servant, who had received five talents, doubles what he was given and gains five more talents. Similarly, the second servant, who received two talents, doubles what he received and gains two more talents. But the third servant responds differently. As it is written, “he dug in the earth and hid the silver of his lord” (25:18).
When the master returns to see what has been done, he congratulates both the first and second servants who have doubled what they had been given. However, when the master finds out what the third servant has done with his one talent, the master is not pleased. The third servant, trying to justify his action, says, “I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the earth” (25:25). The master’s response seems unnecessarily severe. “You wicked and lazy servant,” he says, “you could have at least invested my silver with the bankers” (25:27). And then the master says, “take the talent from him … and cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:26-30).
Traditionally, the parable of the talents has been used to explain how important it is to use the natural talents the Lord has blessed us with. These talents, however many we have been given, are not just for ourselves. They should be used to bless others. If we simply bury them, or use them only for selfish purposes, we misuse the gifts that God has given us. While this is solid practical advice, there is a more interior lesson as well. It involves the spiritual meaning of the word “silver.” Because talents are a substantial weight of silver, they signify the tremendous amount of truth we receive from the Lord’s Word. 2
Whenever we live according to the truth we have received, our understanding of that truth increases. This is represented by the doubling of the talents. But there is a tendency in human nature to store up knowledge without using it for anything meaningful, or to merely use it for selfish, earthly purposes. This is represented by the servant who dug in the earth and buried his silver. The consequences for not putting knowledge to use seem harsh. The one and only talent of the unprofitable servant is taken away from him, and he is cast “into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The strong language of sacred scripture is given to provide a striking picture of the hell we cast ourselves into by merely storing up truth in the memory without putting it into life. If we do not use the truth we have been given, we lose it. Knowledge that remains merely in the mind (buried on the earth) without being brought forth into use will not remain with us, nor will it be a part of us in the next life.
So, although the punishment does not appear to fit the crime, as told in the literal narrative, the parable provides a wonderful container for more interior truth. It not only warns us about the dangers of storing up truth without using it, or using it selfishly, it also contains a great promise: the more we put what we know from the Lord’s Word into our life, using it to bless others, the more we will receive. We will not only receive a greater understanding of truth, but also a fuller experience of the Lord’s joy. As Jesus said to those who put their silver to use, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (25:21).
The Sheep and the Goats: a Parable about Useful Service
An introduction to the final parable in Matthew...
In the parable of the ten virgins Jesus teaches about the importance of having love in our hearts (having oil in our lamps); in the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches that truth (silver talents) can be multiplied when put to use.
We come now to the third parable in the series — a lesson about useful service. Love, wisdom, and useful service are the three essential aspects of spiritual life. Love without truth lacks direction and can become mere sentimentality. Truth without love lacks compassion and can be rigid and inflexible. But when love and wisdom work together in useful service, a person becomes a living being. Without useful service, however, love and wisdom are nothing more than airy concepts in the mind without reality. 3
Therefore, it is fitting that the final parable in the series is about useful service. But before we enter into the parable, we need to briefly review what has preceded it. Two chapters earlier, Jesus spoke scathingly about the religious leaders, decrying their hypocrisy and deceit, calling them “serpents” and a “brood of vipers.” He then prophesied the destruction of the temple, and the terrible things that would follow: war, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, and the abomination of desolation. But He also promised that the Son of Man would be coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. Now, as He begins the next parable, Jesus again mentions His promise about the coming of the Son of Man. He says, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory” (25:31).
The promise that the Son of Man is about to sit on His “throne of glory” must have been thrilling for the disciples. It was not long ago that Jesus said to them, “When the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). Surely, they must have thought their time had come; they were about to sit on thrones. This time, however, Jesus does not mention that they will be sitting on thrones. In this parable, the only one sitting on a throne is the “Son of Man.” Practically speaking, the twelve disciples were simple men who didn’t even know what the kingdom of heaven was. Therefore, it would have been impossible for them to judge the states of anyone. 4
Only the Lord can judge the inner states of people. When He comes into our lives as the “Son of Man” sitting on a throne, it means that God is giving us the ability to use His truth to judge the inner states of our lives. In the light of the Lord’s Word, then, we can discern between the good and the evil inclinations in ourselves, we can distinguish between true thoughts and the false thoughts, and we can separate noble intentions from self-serving ones. In the light of divine truth, we can ask ourselves, Is this feeling, thought, or intended action in agreement with the Lord’s commandments?” If it is, we can welcome it; if not, we can banish it. This alone is what is meant by “sitting on thrones.” It is the God-given ability to rule over the thoughts and emotions that arise within us, welcoming some and banishing others. In this way, we each become “rulers” of our inner kingdom.
Normally, good feelings and evil feelings, true thoughts and false thoughts, noble intentions and corrupt intentions are mixed within us, like good and bad people living together. This mixture of scattered thoughts and feelings are now described as “the nations” within us that are to be judged. We read, “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (25:32). 5
It is noteworthy that the “king” on a throne is also described as a “shepherd.” In His role as the Divine Lawgiver, teaching us the truth, the Lord is a king. But in His role as Divine shepherd, He gently leads us to apply that truth to our lives. Therefore, in this last parable Jesus combines both images — the king and the shepherd — into one. As a king, the Lord teaches us by means of truth; as a shepherd, He leads us by means of good. Together, truth and goodness combine in a life of useful service to others. In useful service, good and truth, love and wisdom, charity and faith unite as one. 6
As Jesus continues the parable, He says that the king will set “the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (25:33). In sacred scripture, “sheep,” because of their willingness to follow and be led, represent people who love to live according to the Lord’s commandments, and to follow Him. “Goats,” however, because of their independent nature, represent people who may know the truth, but are unwilling to be led by it. It is that part in each of us that may know many things from the Word but has no love for truth or any desire to live according to it. 7
In religious terms, the “goats” represent the tendency in each of us to think that we can be saved by believing rightly apart from living rightly. This idea is sometimes referred to as “salvation by faith alone.” In this context, the apostle Paul is often quoted as saying, “We are justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). When Paul speaks about “the deeds of the law,” however, he is not referring to the Ten Commandments. Rather, he is referring to the many rituals and sacrifices in the Hebrew scriptures.
Nevertheless, over time, people came to believe that God’s grace came to those who had “faith,” and that God’s grace had done away with the need to be living under the commandments. People said, “I am now living under grace, and not under the law.” Any effort to keep the commandments, or any attempt to do good, was considered “works” — the “rags of righteousness.” It is surprising that this view became so widespread, especially because Jesus had consistently taught that a life of useful service in accordance with the commandments is the center of true faith. 8
At first glance, however, it’s difficult to see how the Ten Commandments teach anything about useful service. For the most part, the commandments teach us what not to do, not what to do. They teach us that shall not have other gods, not take the Lord’s name in vain, not work on the sabbath, not murder, not commit adultery, not, steal, not lie, and not covet. Eight of the ten commandments tell us what not to do — not what to do. So how are the commandments connected with useful service? Here’s how: by keeping the commandments, we clear out the evils that would prevent the Lord from working through us. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Cease to do evil; learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16). 9
As an example, consider the difference between doing good to advance one’s self and doing good to glorify God. In the language of sacred scripture, doing good to glorify God is represented as being at the “right hand” of the King. As it is written, “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (25:34). These are the people who first focused on cleaning the inside — ridding themselves of self-love and the desire for reward — so that their works could truly be done in God and for God.
Being at the Lord’s “right hand” means that the Lord is working through us, giving us strength and power for useful service. Even in everyday language, a trustworthy, reliable person who carries out the directions of a superior is called a “right-hand man.” That’s because, for most people, the “right hand” is the hand of the greatest strength and power. So, in this parable, the phrase “to those on His right hand” refers to the power one receives from the Lord, to do good. When we recognize that all power to do good is from the Lord alone, we give the glory to God and take no credit for ourselves. We acknowledge that we are simply acting as God’s “right hand.” 10
But if we have not kept the commandments, if we have not used the commandments to rid ourselves of selfish thoughts and desires, we will tend to believe that we are the source of the good that we do. To the extent that we do this we are will not be at God’s right hand. Instead, we will be among the goats who are sent to the left side of the throne.
In this culminating parable, then, Jesus is asking each us, “Have you cleared a place for Me? Are you ready to do My work?” With these questions in mind, we can now consider both the literal and spiritual meaning of the parable of the sheep and the goats — a parable which reveals the essentials of Christian charity. 11
The Six Acts of Useful Service
31. “And when the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit on the throne of His glory;
32. And before Him shall be gathered together all the nations; and He shall separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33. And He shall stand the sheep indeed on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
34. Then shall the King say to those on His right hand, ‘Come ye, the blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world;
35. For I was an hungered, and ye gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me to drink: I was a sojourner and ye gathered Me:
36. Naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came to Me.’
37. Then shall the just answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we Thee hungry, and fed [Thee]? Or thirsty, and gave [Thee] drink?
38. When saw we Thee a sojourner, and gathered [Thee]? Or naked, and clothed Thee?
39. Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison, and came to Thee?’
40. And the King answering shall say to them, ‘Verily I say to you, So much as ye have done to one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done to Me.’
41. But then shall He say to them on the left hand,’ Depart ye from Me, the cursed into the everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me not to eat: I was thirsty and ye gave Me not to drink.
43. I was a sojourner and ye did not gather Me: naked, and ye did not clothe Me: sick and in prison, and ye did not visit Me.’
44. Then shall they also answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we Thee an hungered, or thirsty, or a sojourner, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee?’
45. Then shall He answer them saying, ‘Verily I say to you, so much as ye did not to one of these the least, neither have ye done to Me.’
46. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the just into everlasting life.”
The parable of the sheep and the goats begins with the Son of Man as a King sitting on His throne of glory, and all the holy angels are with Him. His main task is to separate the sheep from the goats. The King tells those on his right hand, who are compared to sheep, that they will inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world. This is because they have followed six basic laws of charity. These include, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (25:35-36).
These then, summarize the essential duties of charity. Most deeply, though, true charity is not what we do, but rather it is what the Lord does through us. In the two parables that preceded this one, the wise virgins had oil in their lamps (love), and the diligent servants were given an abundance of silver talents (truth); but love and truth must come together in a spiritual marriage which produces useful service. Both the love that the virgins received and the truth that the servants received were from the Lord — not from themselves. Moreover, no amount of “love” or “truth” becomes such until it is manifested in the works of charity.
In other words, every form of useful service must be inspired by divine love and directed by divine truth. Otherwise, it cannot be considered true charity. No matter how “good” a good work seems to be in outward form, and no matter how many people benefit by its performance, it cannot be considered a good work unless it is filled with God’s love and directed by God’s wisdom. If, instead, it is inspired by self-love, motivated by self-interest, and driven by the desire for reward and recognition, it is not a good work. For most of us, our motives are mixed. In genuine charity, however, self-interest must be in the last place, not in the first place. If not, it is the glorification of self rather than the glorification of God. 12
We, therefore, need to examine our motives whenever we are confronted with an opportunity to be of service. In whatever situation we find ourselves, we must ask ourselves in what way we can do the greatest good by following the Lord’s will, as sheep follow their shepherd. When self-will and self-advantage are put to the side, we can operate from the Lord’s love by means of His divine wisdom.
What follows, then, are the six categories of useful service. We will consider each category: first, as it might relate to useful service in the external world of our lives, and then, as it might relate to useful service in the internal world of our lives.
Hungry: “I really want to do good” 13
The first category of useful service deals with the most fundamental human need: hunger. Jesus says, I was hungry, and you gave Me food. offering and sharing food — breaking bread — is a universal gesture of warmth and friendship. All the more so when we support efforts to end world hunger. Feeding the hungry and providing for those who are dying of starvation is one of the highest forms of natural charity.
On a more internal level, each of us is born with a divinely given hunger to do good — to be of service to others. This is our first and most basic spiritual hunger. Whenever we reach out with love and compassion in genuine acts of service, or whenever we encourage the goodness in others, supporting their efforts to do good, we are “feeding the hungry.” Whenever we make a contribution to human spiritual welfare, or providing opportunities for others to be of service, we feed this God-given hunger. Therefore, doing good in the name of God, and inspiring others to do the same is the most nourishing food for the soul. As Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you gave Me food.”
Thirsty: “I really want to know what is true” 14
The second category of useful service deals with another fundamental human need: thirst. Jesus says, I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink. Water is essential for sustaining all physical life. It is extremely difficult to survive for more than a few days without water. Without sufficient water, toxins build up and cannot be flushed out. This can lead to headaches, mental confusion, fainting, and even death. Worldwide, there is a desperate need for safe, uncontaminated drinking water. Making clean water accessible, so that our thirst may be quenched, and our lives supported, is a fundamental act of natural charity.
On a more internal level, each of us is born with a divinely given thirst for truth. What clean water does for the body pure truth does for the soul. It nourishes, revives, and refreshes. Truth, clear and uncontaminated with falsity, uplifts and invigorates the soul, giving it purpose and direction. Just as a parched traveler thirsts for water, the soul thirsts for truth. Any desire to learn the truth so that we might better serve others, is a God-given thirst. As Jesus says, “I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink.”
Stranger: “I really want to be instructed” 15
The third category of useful service deals with caring for the strangers in our midst. Jesus says, I was a stranger and you took Me in. At the time that Jesus spoke these words, it was considered an act of charity to treat the stranger well — to take in the stranger, and provide food, drink, and shelter. As it is written, “The stranger who dwells among shall be to you as one born among you. You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Jesus, then, is simply reminding His listeners of a basic law of charity — to take in the stranger — to welcome people into our lives.
On a more internal level, we are strangers to one another if we do not understand each other’s desires, hopes, and dreams. In order to be of service to others, we must know the needs of those whom we serve. The willingness to learn about the needs of others, gives us insight and direction in how to most usefully serve them. Therefore, we must be willing to learn about them; we must be willing to be instructed.
In the same way that we would learn about the needs of strangers so that we can serve them better we need to learn about the Lord and His true nature so that we can better serve Him. This speaks of the desire to be instructed about God’s desires, hopes, and dreams. In brief, it is a desire to receive instruction from Him so that we can serve Him more fully. If we are willing to be instructed in this way, sincerely desiring to know God’s will, He will no longer be a stranger to us. As Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you took Me in.”
Naked: “Without the Lord, there is no goodness or truth within me.” 16
The fourth category of useful service deals with the human need for protective clothing. Jesus says, I was naked, and you clothed Me. It is a basic act of charity to provide a coat, sweater, or blanket to someone who would otherwise shiver in the cold; and according to some calculations there are millions of people around the world who cannot afford shoes. Thinning out overstuffed closets, giving away those extra pairs of shoes, or perhaps making a financial donation to a homeless shelter are simple ways of providing clothing for those who are in need.
On a more internal level, whenever we are not “clothed” in the heavenly garments of God’s love and wisdom, we are truly naked. For example, there are times in our lives when we may be feeling angry, upset, or frustrated. If we are spiritually awake, this can be an opportunity to admit that without the Lord there is no goodness and truth in us; in other words, we see that we are spiritually “naked.” At moments like this, we can turn to the Lord, acknowledge our nakedness, and ask to be clothed in proper garments — qualities such as understanding, forgiveness, and wisdom. Every heavenly quality is a garment of God. Once we are properly clothed in these qualities, we can respond with love and understanding in situations that would have normally triggered our ego — the unprotected part of ourselves that is stripped of spiritual life.
Similarly, when we see others in a negative state, we can respond from the Lord’s compassion and understanding, clothing them in kindness. As Jesus says, “I was naked, and you clothed Me.”
Sick: “Without the Lord, there is nothing in me but evil” 17
The fifth category of useful service deals with the human need for help when sick. Jesus says, I was sick, and you visited Me. Few people, if any, make it through life without getting sick. Whether the sickness is relatively mild (a cold, a fever, a sore throat) or more serious (polio, hepatitis, cancer), we are comforted by those who visit us, sit by our side, and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We feel grateful to those who interrupt their own schedules and make time to care for us.
On a more internal level, to acknowledge that we are spiritually “sick” is to recognize that left to ourselves we are nothing but evil. Because we tend to be selfish and self-centered, we need the Lord in order to be made well. Fortunately, the Lord never turns away from anyone. Instead, He visits us when we are sick, looking into our souls. He sees beyond the symptoms to the fundamental causes of every spiritual sickness. These include, but are not limited to, contempt for others, clinging to resentments, refusing to forgive; plotting revenge, self-centeredness in all its forms, and, most deeply, resistance to being led by the Lord.
Although this diagnosis is unpleasant, the Divine Physician does not leave us without hope. He provides the medicine and shows us the way. The healing begins when we acknowledge that we have indeed been selfish and self-centered, choosing to be led by self-interest rather than by the Lord. However, as soon as we begin to follow the prescription (keep the commandments) our healing begins. As evil is gradually removed, the Lord fills us with His love, revives us with His truth, and gives us the power to be made well.
Similarly, when we come across others who are spiritually sick, we can remember what the Lord has done for us. We will not turn away. As Jesus said, “I was sick, and you visited Me.”
In prison: “Without the Lord, there is nothing in me but falsity” 18
The sixth category of useful service deals with the human need for help when imprisoned. Jesus says, I was in prison, and you came to Me. In biblical times, prisons were dark, windowless places — what we would call dungeons. often, people would be sent to prison because they were unable to pay their debts. There they would sit in the darkness, alone, unable to go anywhere, or do anything to free themselves. When we consider that prisoners lose almost all control of their external life, including the ability to go into the outside world, we can imagine how significant it is to have someone come to them while in prison. They know that they are not forgotten or abandoned.
On a more internal level, we become prisoners, sitting in darkness, whenever we are in bondage to false thinking. During these times of spiritual bondage, our thoughts become dark; we focus on our fears, our doubts, our resentments. Rather than focusing our attention on the Lord’s truth and gratitude for the abundance He provides, we focus on what we lack. Out of the inherent evil that lurks within, false imaginings arise. We believe that things will never change, that there is no hope, and that we are worthless human beings whose efforts are in vain.
These false beliefs can be devastating, leaving us without hope and without anything to look forward to. It is a spiritual prison, one from which we eventually lose all desire to escape. This is the prison of utter despair.
On the other hand, there is another kind of prison. It is the prison of pride. When bound in this prison, we imagine ourselves to be better than others, more important, more significant and more deserving. We demand respect and recognition. In these states of self-exaltation, we falsely believe that we can do anything. As a result, we overwork, overachieve, overextend, and have an inordinate need to be right. We manipulate others to fulfill our ambitions, blame others if we do not attain our goals, and if we do succeed, we take full credit for our accomplishments. In brief, we falsely believe everything depends on us. of course, in the prison of pride, there is no room for the Lord.
Whether our false thinking leads us into dungeons despair or prisons of pride, the problem is the same. Without the Lord in our life, and the truth of His Word in our minds, there is no escape from the false imaginings that would lead us on a downward path to misery. But escape we must. And that is why we need someone to come to us, someone who can bring the light of truth — the light that will dispel the darkness.
The first thing that the light of truth does, is to reveal the fact that we are in prison. If can admit that we are indeed imprisoned, and that we need the Lord’s truth to find our way out, we have made a beginning. Once we make this acknowledgment, the light begins to shine more brightly. In that light, we recognize the debilitating patterns of false thinking that have kept us imprisoned in states of despair or pride: the deadly duo. We come to believe that the Lord alone, through His divine truth, can set us free.
Similarly, there will be times when people in our lives will be temporarily imprisoned by wrong thinking and false imaginings. These are not the times to leave one another alone in prison. Instead, we can come to them; we can meet them where they are we can listen deeply; we can strive to understand. And then, as the Lord leads us, with His compassion, we can ask questions and make comments that might help them see their situation in greater light. As Jesus says, “I was in prison and you came to Me.”
“Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these …”
As Jesus finishes describing the six kinds of useful service, the righteous people, who are represented by the sheep, say, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” Jesus answers and says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (25:37-40).
The phrase “least of these My brethren” deserves special attention. Whenever we strive to see the goodness in another person, and strive to support and encourage that goodness, we are loving and serving the Lord in that person. It is that quality of God in others — even the least amount of goodness that we can find — that we are to feed, water, shelter,
protect, heal, and free. This is the greatest work of charity that we can ever accomplish. And that is why Jesus says to us whenever we are so engaged, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” 19
Jesus also offers a final warning. If we do not take His exhortation to live a life of charity seriously, we will forfeit the blessings of heaven, and live in the misery of hell. As Jesus puts it, “These will go away into everlasting punishment.”
The blessing of humility
This is the last parable that Jesus will tell His disciples. He has taught them many times, in many ways, that humility is the essence of religious life, and that whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
In this brief series of charitable acts, Jesus returns to the theme of humility. He teaches that we must hunger for goodness, thirst for truth, and be willing to be instructed; He teaches that we must acknowledge that without Him, we have no good or truth from ourselves, are nothing but evil, and dwell in darkness. Interiorly seen, every category of useful service describes another way that we can experience true humility. This is vitally important because humility opens us to the blessings of heaven. As Jesus says to those who humbly follow Him, “Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34). 20
1. Divine Providence 279:4: “It is an error of the present age to believe that the state of person’s life can be changed in a moment, so that from being wicked he can become good, and consequently can be brought out of hell and straightway transferred to heaven, and this by the immediate mercy of the Lord . . . Moreover, many suppose that this is effected instantaneously, and, if not before, about the last hour of a person's life. These cannot but believe that the state of person’s life can be changed in a moment, and that he can be saved by the exercise of immediate or direct mercy. The mercy of the Lord, however, is not immediate, and a person cannot from being wicked become good in a moment . . . This can only be effected step by step as a person withdraws from evil and its delight, and enters into good and its delight.”
2. Apocalypse Explained 1026: “A ‘talent ‘was the largest denomination in the computation of money … and ‘silver’ signifies truth.” Apocalypse Explained 193:10: “Unto him who hid his talent in the earth his lord said, ‘Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou ought to have given my silver to the bankers…. Here ‘talents,’ signify the knowledge of truth and good from the Word…. ‘Hiding these in the earth’ signifies in the memory of the natural person only….This takes place with all in the other life who have acquired for themselves knowledge from the Word, and have not committed it to life, but only to the memory…. Committing knowledges from the Word to life is thinking from them, when one is left to oneself, and thinking from one’s spirit; it is also loving them and doing them.
3. Conjugial Love 183:3-4: “Without use, love and wisdom are merely abstract ideas of thought, and after staying in the mind for a while, these pass away like the wind. But in use, the two [love and wisdom] are brought together and become a one which is called real…. Since these three, love, wisdom, and use, flow into the souls of people, it can be evident whence comes the saying that all good is from God; for every deed done from love by means of wisdom is called good…. What is love without wisdom but something silly and pointless? And, without use, what is love together with wisdom but an airy fantasy of the mind? But with use, love and wisdom not only make the person, they are the person.”
4. Arcana Coelestia 4809: “‘When the Son of Man comes in His glory’ means when Divine Truth will be visible in its own light… ‘And all the holy angels with Him’ means … truths which come from the Lord’s Divine Good. See also SD 1463: “It does not make sense that the apostles would sit on thrones. They were simple people who did not even understand what the kingdom of God is. Therefore, they could not judge even one person or one soul.” Also, Arcana Coelestia 2129: “The apostles cannot judge even one person; all judgment is of the Lord alone.”
5. Arcana Coelestia 4809:4: “‘And before Him all nations will be gathered’ means that every good and every evil of everyone will be disclosed, for ‘nations’ in the internal sense of the Word means forms of good, and in the contrary sense forms of evil. Thus, every good and every evil is revealed in Divine light — that is, in light flowing from Divine Truth.”
6. New Jerusalem Its Heavenly Doctrine 315 “Priest ought to teach people the way to heaven, and also to lead them; they ought to teach them according to the doctrine of their church from the Word, and to lead them to live according to it. Priests who teach truths, and thereby lead to the good of life, and so to the Lord, are good shepherds of the sheep.” See also Conjugial Love 123: “When a person acquires truth from the Lord, the Lord joins good to that truth according as the truth is put to use.”
7. Apocalypse Explained 817:13 “Goats’ signify all who are in faith separated from charity both in doctrine and in life.”
8. True Christian Religion 510: “By the ‘deeds prescribed by the law,’ Paul did not mean the deeds prescribed by the law of the Ten Commandments, but rather those prescribed for the Israelites by the law of Moses [ritual observances, animal sacrifices, circumcision, etc.]” See also True Christian Religion 96: “To live according to order is to live according to God’s commandments; and the person who so lives and so does, acquires righteousness…. These are the ones the Lord refers to when He says, ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall not enter the kingdom of the heavens’…. In the Word by ‘the righteous’ those are meant who have lived in accordance with Divine order, since the Divine order is righteousness.”
9. True Christian Religion 329:1-3: “We are not commanded to do what is directly the work of love and charity, but only to avoid doing their opposites. This is because the more we abstain from evils because they are sins, the more we desire [to perform] the good actions of love and charity…. In order to love God and love our neighbor, the first step is not to do evil, and the second step is to do good.”
10. Arcana Coelestia 8033: “Charity is an inward affection, consisting in a desire which springs from a person’s heart to do good to the neighbor, which is the delight of one’s life. And that desire involves no thought of reward.”
11. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “Except from the internal sense no one can know that these words hold the essential ingredients of charity within them.”
12. Arcana Coelestia 8002:7: “They who do what is good for the sake of reward … desire well to themselves alone, and to others only so far as these desire well to them, and accordingly the love of self is in every detail, and not the love of the neighbor, therefore they have no genuine charity.”
13. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “By ‘the hungry’ the angels perceive those led by affection to desire good.”
14. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “By ‘the thirsty’ [the angels perceive] those led by affection to desire truth.”
15. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “By ‘the stranger’ [the angels perceive] those who are willing to be instructed.”
16. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “By ‘the naked’ [the angels perceive] those acknowledging that no goodness or truth at all is present within them.”
17. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “By ‘the sick’ [the angels perceive] those acknowledging that within themselves there is nothing but evil.”
18. Arcana Coelestia 4956: “By ‘the bound’ or ‘those in prison’ [the angels perceive] those acknowledging that within themselves there is nothing but falsity.”
19. New Jerusalem Its Heavenly Doctrine 89-90: “Everyone is a neighbor according to the good from the Lord which is in the person; consequently, good itself is the neighbor…. [Therefore] when good is loved, the Lord Himself is loved; for the Lord is He from whom good is, who is the source of good, and is goodness itself.”
20. New Jerusalem Its Heavenly Doctrine 129: “The Divine can only flow into a humble heart; because so far as people are in humility, so far are they removed from self (proprium), and thus from the love of self. From this it follows that the Lord does not desire humility for His sake, but for the sake of the sake of people, so that they may be in a state of receiving the Divine.” See also Arcana Coelestia 9377: “Humility is to acknowledge that left to oneself a person is nothing but evil…. When this is acknowledged from the heart, the person possesses true humility.”