Grace Presbyterian Church
November 12, 2017, Pentecost 23A
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. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. 1 Corinthians 3:18-19
When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise too flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” Matthew 26:40
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 bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench… 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
you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21
And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came.
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp nor sun, for the Lord God will be their light… Revelation 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 the door was shut.
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 23:13
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 21:3
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I don’t think I am unduly telling tales out of school to observe that some scripture passages are more challenging for preachers than others. Not to say that any scripture is ever all that easy to preach, mind you; even a favorite like Psalm 23 presents a challenge to the preacher if only because it is so well-known and beloved that it can be hard to find something to say about it at all.
But there are passages that are challenging for different reasons. Some passages are challenging because of what they have to say. Sometimes it’s puzzling, sometimes it’s a hard word to hear, and sometimes (especially if you wander over to Revelation) its just flat difficult to make any sense of it.
And then there are passages like this parable from Matthew 25. This presents a different kind of struggle; the struggle to create a sermon on a passage when you can’t shake the memory of scriptures like the ones you’ve just heard, even some from this very gospel, that point to some very different conclusions than the scripture at hand today.[i]
It just feels…off.
The point here is not to dismiss this parable. For one thing, the Revised Common Lectionary insists on bringing it around at least once every three years, and who knows how much Christian education curriculum will also include this story. Besides, it’s not our place to toss out scripture that disturbs us. There is something to be learned from this parable. It might also be, though, that after decades or even centuries of reading and hearing it, there might also be some things the church needs to unlearn as well.
It’s perfectly appropriate to come away from this parable having learned that we don’t want to end up like the foolish bridesmaids, lacking oil for their lamps and hunting for a 24-hour Quik-E-Mart in first-century Israel. On the other hand, the wise bridesmaids are not necessarily objects for our emulation either. Nowadays that extra oil might qualify them more for an episode of Hoarders or Doomsday Preppers or some other “reality” show and less as examples for our emulation. At minimum, it’s one thing to be “in,” but there is simply too much weight of scripture against them to celebrate figures that play a role in keeping others “out.” The parable cannot become an excuse to turn into hoarders of the gifts of God, whether physically or spiritually.
We might also want to re-think what it means to wait for the Lord. Somehow it seems to have snuck into the collective subconscious on this parable for many decades or even centuries that the foolish bridesmaids were somehow at fault for falling asleep, and therefore not being ready for the coming of the bridegroom. Of course, the problem with this is that the parable explicitly tells us “all of them became drowsy and slept.” (25:5). The so-called “wise” bridesmaids were just as conked out as the foolish bridesmaids. Yes, we need to “keep awake” as Jesus says at the end, but that can’t be what brought shame to the foolish bridesmaids if the wise bridesmaids did it too.
We need to steer clear of any interpretations of this parable that foster or encourage an “us against them” mentality. There is no “insider” vs. “outsider” contrast here; no “Christian” or “un-Christian,” no “saved” vs. “lost” in the way we church folk tend to define things. All of the bridesmaids are part of the same wedding party; they all are invited guests. Only the lack of lamp oil causes the foolish bridesmaids to be left out. Now this ought to chill us a little bit, but Matthew has already cited Jesus as saying this same thing much more clearly and explicitly in chapter 7; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21) There are many who talk the talk, to put it in modern slang, who will find themselves on the outside looking in because they didn’t walk the walk.
So what do we learn from this? No matter how difficult or challenging the story might be, is there something we should be taking from this parable as a positive instruction for our lives?
The Australian theologian William Loader puts it this way:
It is about sustaining the life of faith. … Having had lamps in hand which burned well once is no guarantee they will burn in future. Having the status of being Christian, even being a light bearer, means nothing if it is not a continuing part of our being. Many who were first will be last (20:1-16). Matthew is interested in enabling people to live in a relationship with God which has continuing significance and continuing life.[ii]
Light bulbs have to be replaced (even the fancy new energy-efficient kind, eventually). Flashlights need new batteries. The oil in our lamps needs to be replenished, and regularly.
That oil, that fuel for a life lived in Christ, is not replenished by spiritualized words and lofty-sounding pronouncements. It is not replenished by calling ourselves “Christians” over and over again (or denouncing those we disagree with as un-Christian). It certainly is not replenished by checking off lists of do’s and don’ts, carefully drawing lines to make sure “we” are “in,” and “they” are “out.”
We refuel our lamps by plunging into the work of God. We refuel by entering into worship, not as an accommodation to our whims and tastes, but as a desperately needed encounter with the God who drives us out into the world to do God’s work. We refuel not by brandishing the Bible as a club with which to beat “outsiders,” but by diving into the scriptures to understand God’s call upon us, to seek in Jesus’s life and work our own life and work. We refuel by opening ourselves to the unpredictable and unsettling movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls us in ways we cannot expect or predict.
In the end we do wait, but not passively. We act because we are called by a merciful and gracious God who wants no one left out. We serve, because we know what is to be the foolish bridesmaids, fumbling in the dark with empty lamps, but also because we know what it is to be the “wise” bridesmaids, fearfully refusing our treasure to those who need it so much more, hoarding the very Spirit we were meant to share.
We wait by feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting, but we also wait by questioning why there are so many who need feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting. We wait by offering our thoughts and prayers in times of tragedy, but we also wait by demanding action to prevent those preventable tragedies and taking action to prevent them from ever happening again. We wait by being the body of Christ, by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Anything less is a robbery of the God who calls out of darkness into light, who calls us to love God with all we have and to love neighbor as self.
With lamps trimmed and burning, with lives fueled by God’s love moving through us into the world in word and deed, we wait.
For faithful, active waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #611, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee; #362, Rejoice! Rejoice, Believers; #771, What Is the World Like; #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning
[i] These examples and more from David Henson, “The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection),” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2014/11/the-breaking-of-the-bridesmaids-how-scripture-undermines-a-parable/ (Accessed November 9, 2017).
[ii] William Loader, “First Thoughts On Passages From Matthew In the Lectionary: Pentecost 22,” http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPentecost22.htm