November 12, 2017 Matthew 25: 1-13
Prayer: Dear Lord, We pray for wisdom and discernment as we approach one of
your parables. Help us to be lights in the world as we await your return. We pray in
the name of the one who spoke these words, Amen.
The Late Bridegroom
When you officiate at a wedding, it’s important to make sure that the bridal couple has a marriage license. You have to get the papers signed properly and filed at the courthouse.
I am a little obsessive about that.
I threaten the couple that I won’t perform the ceremony if they don’t have the license.
I email them the week before to make sure they have it.
I ask for it at the rehearsal and offer to transport it to the wedding myself.
And then I do everything but interrupt their first dance to make sure that license is signed at the reception.
I do all this because I have heard horror stories of people having to re-do a ceremony because the officiant didn’t do something properly or wasn’t licensed in a certain locale. So I’d rather err on the side of making everyone crazy.
I performed two weddings in October. One groom was 52 and wasn’t scared of me. But the 27-year-old I had terrified appropriately, and he gave me the license 24 hours in advance.
That night I went ahead and filled out my part. I was a little hesitant, wondering, What if he doesn’t show up tomorrow? The bride I wasn’t worried about because she’d put so much work into the darned thing.
But then I realized if the ceremony didn’t take place, I could simply tear up the license. But what happens if the groom doesn’t show up?
That’s the question Matthew poses in our Scripture passage today.
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 25: 1-13. This is Jesus speaking.
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 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 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.
What are we to do with these foolish bridesmaids, dressed in their lavender taffeta that the bride swore they’d be able to wear again?
What are we to make of this parable? Well, it might not mean what it looks like at first blush.
Because what it looks like is Aesop’s fable about The Ant and the Grasshopper. Aesop was a slave and a storyteller who lived in ancient Greece in the fifth century BCE. His fables have been told and written and translated and illustrated for 2,500 years. You probably had a book of them as children.
In The Ant and the Grasshopper, a fun-loving grasshopper was hopping around, chirping and singing on a beautiful summer day. An industrious ant walked by, grunting as he struggled to carry a kernel of corn.
"Where are you going with that?" asked the grasshopper.
Without stopping, the ant replied, "To my ant hill. This is the third kernel I've delivered today."
“But why?” asked the grasshopper. “Come and sing and play with me.”
“No,” said the ant. “I am working to store food for the winter. You should do the same.”
But the grasshopper, unable to imagine winter on this glorious summer day, continued to play.
Of course, the weather soon turned cold. All the food lying in the field was covered with a deep snow that even the grasshopper could not dig through. Soon the grasshopper was starving to death.
He staggered to the ant hill and saw the ant handing out corn from the stores collected in the summer. He begged the ant for something to eat.
But the ant said No, you had your chance to store food and you didn’t. And he turned his back on the grasshopper.
The moral of this fable can be expressed quite easily: There is a time for work and a time for play! Prepare for the future!
Now I gotta tell you: I am a big fan of this fable. I’m all about saving and preparing and budgeting. That’s why we teach a Faith and Finance class here.
And I’m not the only one. This fable speaks to the hard work and frugality of our forefathers. Benjamin Franklin probably loved this fable.
So when we read today’s parable, it’s easy to read it in a similar fashion. It sounds like Jesus and Matthew are lining up with Aesop and Ben and me. There’s a time for work and a time for play! Prepare for the future!
But are they? Is this what Jesus is really saying with this parable?
This is a case in which we need to read a parable in light of the rest of Scripture. Jesus didn’t preach on getting ahead and laying up for the future. He didn’t preach I’ve got mine. Too bad for you. He didn’t preach individualism and meritocracy.
In fact, he preached quite the opposite.
So how do we read this odd little parable about the bridesmaids?
First, by looking at history. We know that the earliest Christians assumed that Jesus was coming right back. We know that through Paul’s letters to congregations such as the Thessalonians, as he answers their concerns about the end time, and what would happen to the believers who’d already died.
By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, more Christians were growing old and dying. Matthew realized that this new Christianity, this new way of living, couldn’t rise and fall on the arrival of Judgment Day in the first century.
So he was addressing readers who were confused and waiting.
Second, we look at the placement of this parable in Matthew’s gospel. Chapters 24 and 25 deal with the possibility there will be a delay in Jesus’s return. How should we live not knowing when Jesus will return? What does the very act of unknowing mean for our faith?
Matthew answers these questions with back-to-back parables. Remember: The original gospel had no chapter divisions. All of this was squished together.
Right before this bridegroom story, Matthew places a parable about two slaves who oversee a household while their master is gone. The wise and faithful slave works hard the whole time, so that when the master returns, he finds him working.
But the wicked slave assumes the master will be gone a long time. So he gets drunk and beats his fellow slaves. And that’s how the master finds him upon his return. Predictably, the master cuts him into pieces and throws him into a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Mt. 24: 45-51)
According to the slave parable, there is danger in assuming the end won’t come soon – and playing the drunken fool, as the slave did.
And according to the bridesmaid parable, there is danger in assuming the end will come soon – and being foolishly unprepared to live and wait.
Matthew is pointing out there are dangers to both approaches, both assumptions. How then do we live in this between time – between Jesus’ first and second comings? Because that is where we in the 20th and 21st centuries have spent our entire lives.
Jesus assures us we know neither the day nor the hour.
So what to do in the meantime? How do we live in the meantime?
I think we concentrate … on the lamp oil. What does it mean to be a bridesmaid with no oil? Or more positively, how do we become the bridesmaid with plenty of oil to light the way when the bridegroom, our Lord Jesus, returns?
I think what this parable is saying is that we are to live, day in and day out, in ways that provide lamplight in the kingdom of God on earth. We don’t concern ourselves with the flash and fire of the apocalyptic return of our Lord. We do what he instructed us to do when he was here.
Appropriately enough, he spells out what that is later is this same chapter, when we get to the parable of the sheep and the goats. That’s the parable we read aloud to visitors to Triune. It’s the parable we quote on our brochure.
Jesus said what will separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous, the prepared from the unprepared, is this:
Who fed the hungry?
Who welcomed the stranger?
Who clothed the naked?
Who cared for the sick?
Who visited the prisoner?
These simple, concrete acts of love, these bedrock commands of Christian community, these old standbys of mission work, are the ways we fill our lamps with oil.
These simple acts of love are the ways we fill our lamps with oil.
You may remember that just a few weeks ago, we studied another parable about a wedding banquet. The invited guests didn’t come, so the king sent his servants to gather all manner of people, good and bad, to come into the great banquet. But once the king entered the banquet hall, he spied a man who was not dressed in wedding clothes. And the king had him thrown into outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Not dressing correctly for the messianic banquet, not filling our lamps with oil – these are metaphors for refusing to live as Christ taught. Saying we are Christians and living as Christians are two distinctly different things.
Matthew addressed self-deception earlier in his gospel when Jesus echoed the call of the foolish bridesmaids. When they came back, late, to the wedding, they cried, “Lord, lord, open to us.”
Back in chapter 7, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Mt. 7: 21-23)
Saying we are Christians and living as Christians are two distinctly different things.
For whatever reason, two millennia after Jesus lived, our bridegroom has not returned. And he realized that might be a problem, a question, for those of us with finite lifetimes.
So he told a story about preparedness and alertness, about bridesmaids who carried lamp oil in such abundance that it didn’t matter when exactly, their bridegroom, appeared.
That’s the point of the parable. We are to live in such a way that we provide oil, lamplight, to our world.
We are to live in such a way that we provide lamplight, to our world.
As I have mentioned before, I once interviewed a woman minister for The Greenville News. She had grown up without women pastors as role models. When she was in high school, a female pastor visited her church. And for the first time, the thought flashed through her mind: I can be a minister.
Her next thought was: Where did that come from? All through her college years, she struggled whether to go to seminary. But then she recalled the verse in Psalm 119: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Ps. 119: 105)
And she realized that God promises only a lamp to light the next step -- not a beacon to light the entire journey.
So she went to seminary, having no idea if she was called to ministry or not. And the minute she got there, she said, her question changed from, “Am I being called to ministry?” to “What will my ministry look like?”
That lamp illuminated one step. And when she took it, it illuminated the next step.
That day of the interview neither she nor I knew that eventually that next step would lead her to Triune. But her name is Tandy Taylor, and it did.
As Christians, we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know the paths our lives will take.
What we do know is that we are promised a bridegroom to escort us into the messianic banquet, a metaphor for the kingdom of God.
What we also know is that meantime -- in the between time -- we are to be lights in a dark world.
So it was with the wise bridesmaids.
Their lights were shining. Their lights were illuminating Jesus’s kingdom regardless of when he returned.
Lights that were translated a few verses later as feeding, welcoming, clothing, caring, visiting.
Those lights will always illuminate the kingdom -- right here on earth.