A note on this sermon: I owe a debt of gratitude to this sermon here by David R Henson because I shamelessly used portions of it in the beginning of my sermon to put into words my struggle with this text. His is probably far superior to mine anyway and it is worth more of your time, so go read it. Unlike Henson, I do not care for this text and have dreaded its appearance in the lectionary and have spent the week wrestling it to the ground, only to find that as usual, God wins in the end.
Pentecost 22A Matthew 25:1-13
This is not a scripture upon which I have ever wanted to preach. In fact, I have never preached on it before. It seems only reasonable to say at the outset here that I find it confusing and contradictory to the rest of Jesus’ teachings in a way that is tempting to reject the thing outright. However, as a pastor, I do not have that luxury; I cannot ignore it forever.
Frankly, I take issue with nearly every single line.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
— “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” 1 Corinthians 3:18
When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.
— In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” – Matthew 26
But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
— A dimly burning wick he will not quench — Matthew 12, Isaiah 42:3
But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us;
— Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you —Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:30
you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’
– Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” –Matthew 19, Luke 18, Mark 10
And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came
– And the city [of God] has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. – Revelation 21:23 and 22:5
and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet
– But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. – Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30
and the door was shut.
– “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. –Matthew 23
Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’
– If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. —Proverbs 21:13 – Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Matthew 7:7-8
In addition to this little scripture dialog going on inside my head, the whole wedding scene is wrong. What is the groom doing showing up so late to his own wedding? It must be the middle of the night if everyone is in need of lit lamps. And why is he just now coming to get his bride? This isn’t just a breach of etiquette like eating with the wrong fork, it seems all mixed up. According to historical accounts of weddings during this time, the bride AND groom should be returning together. Plus, these girls are the bride’s friends, so why is he coming back alone?
And where on earth are those girls going to find oil for their lamps in the middle of the night? There is no such thing as a Holy Land Walmart down the road. Merchants were not open late at night. Yet, the so called wise girls (which I’m beginning to wonder if they aren’t ‘wise guys’) tell them to go out and buy more oil because they can’t or won’t share. And there they go, rushing out to buy more oil from….where? The 7-11? That might be the most foolish part of the story! The whole thing looks like a bad movie with mean girls who go to the prom and the ‘others’ aren’t cool enough to make it.
Perhaps that is exactly why I struggle with this text so much. It would appear that the point of the parable is that we should be wise like these five bridesmaids that brought extra oil and would not share, but they behave very badly. That’s not in our estimation of what looks bad to us in the 21st century, they do not act in the way Jesus repeatedly teaches us to act. All of those rebuttal scriptures we heard before aren’t just randomly selected proof texts that sound like they’re saying something against the line in today’s parable, they are all taken from sections that address the same sort of issue that is happening in the story. Most of them are the words of Jesus or words describing Jesus. In contrast however, by our modern day standards they are indeed quite wise and very faithful to wise living by our culture’s measure. And that is exactly what troubles me the most.
We live in a world where hoarding extra is the common practice and lauded as the pentacle of success. Think about that. The mark of success is how much excess you have. And, though it may pain us to admit it, we sometimes have a smug self-satisfaction at ‘getting in’ or having something special or exclusive that everyone else doesn’t have access to. Humorously I said to some friends this week, “if your interpretation of a parable is beginning to sound like a fear based commercial for an oil company, is it possible your heading down the wrong path?” But the fear of not having enough is exactly what sells things these days. People who want to manipulate us know that deep human fear of not having enough and they use it against us to sell every thing from food to toys to clothes to medications. There is a built in natural survival fear for all humans, and while it certainly serves a purpose, that is not the place from which we are to function all the time. In fact, over and over again Jesus calls us to move out from that fear, trust God, and step beyond the idea that sharing with you might mean I don’t have enough and into the idea that the needs are not met until everyone’s needs are met.
At the end of the text for today, Jesus says, “keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Ummm, I don’t know if you noticed this or not because I’m not certain I did until studying the text for this sermon, but all of them fell asleep. The wise and the foolish fell asleep. None of the active characters in the story do what Jesus just said they should do. Is it possible that neither the wise bridesmaids nor the foolish bridesmaids are ones to emulate?
Perhaps this parable, like each parable of Jesus and in fact each piece of scripture we study, is not meant to be read isolated from the rest of the word of God. And perhaps it is not wisdom or foolishness we are to be concerned with so much as it is faithfulness. Whenever Jesus says ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is like…’ we can remember that he has also said ‘the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’ The Kingdom of Heaven is standing right in front of you–Jesus himself.
There are three parables in this chapter of Matthew. This one, the parable of the talents which we will read next week, and the story of the sorting of sheep and goats. At the end, the sheep and goats are the two groups who did or did not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and outcast. Those who did are welcomed into the kingdom and those who did not are not. Perhaps the bridesmaids were welcomed into that party that night, but were they welcomed into the kingdom? Perhaps they are like those whom Jesus scolds earlier in this gospel who give a great show of their faithfulness in order to receive the admiration of others rather than for the sake of doing God’s work. They have received their reward in the form of earthly approval, not heavenly.
It is likely that this parable is far less complicated than all of that. Many people believe that it is basically saying that we should be ready for Jesus to come back at any moment. But the truth is that Jesus doesn’t show up only at the end of time. He shows up all the time. At the baptismal font, in Holy Communion, in the Peace of Christ that we pass to each other, in the compassion, generosity and kindness we give to others and we ourselves receive. I guess, from a certain point of view, the parable could mean that sometimes we’re ready to see the Kingdom of Heaven and be a part of it, and sometimes we’re not.
However, I cannot help but feel that this is less of a “here’s how you do it” story and more of a cautionary tale. Not so much “don’t run out of oil” or even “don’t bother trying to shop for oil in the middle of the night in a town with no Walmart” as it is a reflection of what we do when we think we’re being wise or foolish. Wise and foolish are always trumped by faithful. Remember at the end of the story, Jesus does not say be like the wise bridesmaids or the foolish bridesmaids. He says Keep Awake. Pay attention, keep your eyes open, keep the faith, be on the lookout because Jesus could show up at any moment. In any moment. And he does. The Kingdom of Heaven could be standing right in front of you.
I’m not so sure I’ve given a lot of insight into this parable and I’m not certain that I have a lot to share in the first place. I feel quite a bit like a foolish bridesmaid, even though it has been a long study and not at the last minute, but still desperately seeking a way to shed light for the arrival of the bridegroom. But here’s a thought. Maybe the Kingdom of Heaven is like a faithful people wrestling with what we don’t understand. Sometimes we don’t get it and we feel foolish and in that foolishness, looking at what we think we should have done, should have understood, should have gotten that others did and we did not, we feel separate from God, left out in the cold. Sometimes, we get it and we feel wise and in that faithful understanding, deep inside, we feel like we get a glimpse of what life with God is really like. But in the end Jesus does not say be wise or be foolish. Jesus says Keep Awake. Keep the faith, be on the lookout because Jesus could show up at any moment. And he does. For the Kingdom of Heaven is standing right in front of you.