Matthew 25: 1-13
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a] took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids[c] got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids[d] came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.[e]
May God bless to our understanding the Words that we hear today.
Today’s sermon is not about lamps or oil or bridesmaids for that matter; it is in part about the end of the world. If you have been looking in the book of Revelation or in the magazines in grocery store checkout lanes for signs of the end times, you have been looking in the wrong place, all you need to know is right here in Matthew’s gospel. Our reading today is part of what is call “The Little Apocalypse” and it’s not an easy read.
The parable of the lamps and the Bridesmaids is in response to some questions the disciples had been asking. Jesus had been dropping hints again about his upcoming death and along with that happy subject; he has also been speaking at length about the end of the world. Understandably, the disciples were starting to get nervous, they started asking some questions, looking for some insider information…When are the things you are talking about going to happen, and how will we know they’re about to happen? They are looking for some reassurance, which Jesus did not give them, but he does give them and us something to think about.
Will you pray with me please? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
I know history lessons are not much fun, but please indulge me in a quick recap on what the heck is going on in the world of the early church in 70 CE. At the time that the first gospels began to appear in writing it had been at least 70 years since Jesus had been preaching and teaching among the faithful. Arrested, crucified and, if they were to believe those in the inner circle, resurrected only to leave again 40 days later, returning to “The father” with the promise that he would come back for them.
We need to keep in mind that the early believers were at a crossroads. At the time, people had changed everything about their lives based on the promise of Jesus’s return; many folks stopped working and sold all their belongings, so they would be unencumbered when Jesus came for them. Others changed their faith, turning their back on the beliefs and the laws of their ancestors only to be shunned by their family and friends and in some instances even killed.
When you think about the things that were going on then you realize that the early leaders and keepers of the faith might have been feeling a little hard pressed to keep their flocks in line. It helps me to remember all of this because there are times when I read these gospels today it helps me to understand why Jesus in the hands of Matthew comes across as being very judgmental and full of retribution, much weeping and gnashing of teeth and enough end of the world language to rival anything you think you may find in the Book of Revelation. Is it any wonder that Matthews Gospel has been the cause of Christian distress through the centuries?
I don’t know about you, but in my kid-hood…this particular parable WAS often used to make us think about the end of time consequences for our behavior…none of us wanted to be the foolish bridesmaids, all of us wanted to be prepared and desperately accepted Jesus as our Bridegroom, our Lord and Savior in order to avoid not being recognized on that day of final reckoning when Jesus will reward the persistent faithful and expel all the imposters to the far-reaches of hell…although please note…there is no hell mentioned in this scripture…only the threat of not being know by Jesus’ ….
I don’t know…it may be an utter failing on my part as a pastor, but I have never been able to write a fire and brimstone be good or be forever damned kind of sermon, and I don’t see myself starting that now…but those sermons from my past are pretty deeply embedded sometimes, so I admit to approaching this parable today with some trepidation and was so delighted to find that other writers and scholars and theologians going down the same path that I was…understanding perhaps Matthews frustration with his community of believers who were making noises about not believing any more and to focus instead on the positive message of the Bridesmaids. This is less a parable of retribution and judgment and more about faithful readiness. It allows us to ask the question of what it means to live faithfully as we wait for God’s intentions to be brought to fulfillment through the beloved community of believers.
Here are some things to think about in the parable. The first thing is that everyone was invited to the party and everyone went to meet the bridegroom and they all had to wait and all of them both the foolish and the wise fell asleep…the only thing that separated them is that five of the bridesmaids, or half of the group didn’t think far enough ahead to have extra oil and the other half of the group did so that at the big moment half of them came up empty and they got disinvited and locked out. Why?
To get a handle on that we need to go back to our mini-history lesson and remember that Matthew is all about keeping his community of believers in a state of active readiness. He was reminding the believer then, and we can hear the same thing today that when everything around us seems harsh and difficult, despite any circumstance that conspires to rob us of wakefulness and hope that as Christians we express expectation, we anticipate.
What does that look like? Expectant anticipation? How do we wait? How do we keep ourselves awake, and alert and prepared?
What do we do? We pass along our faith to our children, we rely on each other and the best of our traditions to sustain us when doubt and fatigue set in and appear overwhelming. We forgive one another, we study scripture together, we baptize, confirm and welcome people into a new identity in Christ and we share a fabulous and fulfilling meal to recognize the sustenance that God provides. We have oil in our lamps to keep burning because we understand that the things that we do are more than just rituals or ways to fill our time, they sustain us in Jesus’ absence when the dark of night, fatigue and resignation stare us down…we can stare back because everything we do promotes our readiness.
And that is all well and good and that is all great but darn these troublesome gospels because there is another side of this waiting game and today’s parable reminds us that we cannot neglect that side either. Waiting sometimes means that we are living with deferred hope which should in turn prompt us to consider others who experience unfulfillment or absence in their own lives, especially an absence of opportunity, of justice of hope and so our faithfulness must also consist of serving those who are poor, oppressed and outside, it involves working for reconciliation, that same reconciliation we pray for every week…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…on earth…as it is in heaven…
To be faithfully ready implies action. We understand in the parable that the bridegroom is Jesus and bridesmaids are the people who wait for his return. And we hear the good news that everyone has equal opportunity and the necessary things to be prepared for his return.
Faithful readiness is not easy. It is something that we need to work on every day and it is hard work, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Jesus told us time and again how to live according to the values and the vision of the reign of God and loving God and our neighbor pretty much sums it up in a nutshell…that’s not a new thought, you have heard it from me time and again too. Love God, love your neighbor. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul; love God so that it is so much easier to worship God than idolize all the stuff that surrounds us in our modern culture. Loving our neighbor will bring us to a sense of greater compassion and a firm commitment to justice, to making this a different and better world for ALL of God’s children.
In order to live this way, we need to be prepared, we cannot just sit around and wait and we certainly cannot expect this kind of living to take place during one or two hours on a Sunday morning. To keep the oil in our lamps, to be ready to shine at a moment’s notice we must be active, we have to be fully engaged, we can’t depend on others in the church or in the world to take care of the hungry and the sick, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed. We cannot depend on others to treat people with respect, to share a kind word to visit the homebound or write a letter to someone in jail. We cannot depend on others to do the work that Christ has called us to and we cannot assume that they will do our work for us. We are responsible for our own lamps and our own oil. In the end, no one else can prepare you; you must be ready to shine all on your own.