Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
Once upon a time, there was a wedding.
The bride got dressed up in her fanciest dress and had her makeup meticulously done and her hair beautifully styled. The richest food and the most expensive wine her family could afford was bought and a feast was prepared. The best musicians were hired to play joyful songs that the guests would dance to all night long, and the whole community gathered, eager for a celebration.
As the community gathered, ten bridesmaids put on the matching dresses that they would never wear again, did their own makeup, styled their own hair, and waited to join the wedding procession as the groom came to take his bride from her parents’ house to his own for the banquet.
Well, the truth is we don’t know a lot about first-century Palestinian weddings, and the details of how this one worked aren’t exactly clear. But it is clear, in this story, that the bridesmaids waited for the groom to show up for the celebration to get underway – and they waited. And they waited.
Our fairy tale wedding is beginning to look like the kind of sitcom or movie we are all well familiar with. Where is the groom? The violinist continues to play Pachelbel’s Canon while the guests begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats and look around. Maybe a friend gets up to stall things with an awkward speech. Where is he? Is he late? Is he stuck in Vegas after a wild bachelor party? Did he get cold feet? Is he coming at all?
Pachelbel keeps playing, and our bridesmaids keep waiting. And waiting.
As they waited, each bridesmaid in her matching dress held onto a small oil lamp that she would carry in the procession once the groom arrived. Each lamp was lit, and they were ready. As they waited, though, the oil began to dwindle, and the flames began to die. Soon it grew dark and the ten bridesmaids fell asleep.
The clock had just struck midnight when all of a sudden they were awakened by music and the clanging of noisemakers and shouting: “The groom is coming!”
Jolted awake, the ten bridesmaids jumped up and grabbed their oil lamps. But as they looked down they saw that the oil was almost gone and their flames were barely a flicker.
“No problem,” thought five bridesmaids, reaching for the extra oil they had brought with them. But the other five bridesmaids just stared at their lamps with a sinking feeling. How could they have forgotten? How could they have been so ill-prepared? What now?
The shout came again: “The groom is coming!”
“Quick!” begged the five oil-less bridesmaids to their five well-prepared friends. “Give us some of your oil!”
But the five wise bridesmaids shook their heads sadly, for they only had just enough for themselves. It seems harsh, I know – but as I’ve learned from those candles on the altar, you need a certain amount of oil just to make them light at all, and perhaps if the wise bridesmaids shared their oil none of the ten lamps would stay lit for long. Besides, in the end, other people can’t really be ready for you, can they? “You’ll have to go buy some,” the wise bridesmaids said, and they re-lit their lamps and headed for the door. The five foolish bridesmaids scrambled to put their shoes and coats on and ran out to find some shop that was by some chance still open. But it was no use. When they came back with their oil, the procession was gone, and when they ran to site of the wedding feast, the door was locked, and no one would let them in.
So far in retelling this parable I’ve cast it as a fairy tale and a lighthearted rom-com, and so I kind of want to add something at the end there to give it a feel-good ending. But this is not the kind of story that ends with a happily ever after.
“Keep awake, therefore,” says Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In Matthew’s gospel, he’s just been talking about the apocalypse and his own second coming, so when he tells us to keep awake, we have a pretty good idea for what. We might point out to Jesus that even the five wise bridesmaids technically fell asleep, but we take his point. Those who wait for the bridegroom had best not let their lamps go out.
As I’ve preached on Jesus’ parables over the past couple weeks I’ve generally made sure to emphasize that they aren’t just allegories where every one thing represents another thing and there is one true crystal clear meaning. But it certainly seems to be the case in this story that some things stand for some other things: this is a story about the coming of the Kingdom of God, starring Jesus Christ as the bridegroom, and us, who purport to follow him, as the bridesmaids—some presumably wise, some foolish.
So here is the question, then: what is the oil?
Some, like Martin Luther, say the oil is faith. Strong, unwavering faith is what will make us ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Some say it is the Holy Spirit. Some say it is good works, which Jesus hopes we won’t get tired of. Tell me, which one of these things does Jesus want to see that we are not running out of when he comes back? Or maybe the oil is what it takes to keep that lamp lit and our light shining – things like prayer, study, Sabbath, worship, good Christian community.
Or could it be that – again – the story is not so easily allegorized, and that the oil could be any or all of these things? That Jesus’ point is when he comes back, and ushers in the Kingdom of God – is he going to find us ready and waiting, trusting in him despite his delay, doing our best to put our faith into action, letting the Holy Spirit work through us by loving and serving and welcoming and forgiving? Basically – is Jesus going to find us in a state we want him to find us in?
I am not sure how Jesus’ original audience heard and understood this story, but I have an idea how Matthew’s audience did. The Gospel of Matthew, which was written almost 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was written for Christians who were already looking around awkwardly to the strains of Pachelbel’s canon wondering what was taking so long and if the groom was, in fact, coming at all. They had expected him to be a little more punctual. So they needed a reminder once in a while – that even though the groom might be running late, according to their own timetables, their job was to remain watchful, and vigilant, and to keep their lamps lit.
That’s how Matthew’s audience would have heard it, but things have changed a little bit since then, haven’t they? Or maybe it’s better to say that things haven’t changed, and two thousand years later, the groom seems to still be taking his time. I’m sure that some of us come from traditions – since we come from a lot of different traditions, here – that talk easily about the second coming of Christ and expect it imminently. But for a lot of us, if we think about it at all, it is in very future sense. I include myself in that group. Though I can recite the words of the Apostles’ Creed which says “From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead,” though we proclaim the mystery of faith every time we have communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, the “come again” part seems at the very least very far off, probably after my lifetime, maybe like when the sun explodes or something.
But when you think of something as very, very far off, it’s hard to feel like you really need to stay ready, isn’t it? So while Jesus’ second coming seems to me like something that is very far off, it’s a pretty good challenge to my faith to once in a while remind myself that it could in fact not be. I might not have time to restock my oil in the morning – so if Jesus came back tonight, would he find my lamp lit?
Sometimes I think our faith could use that kind of urgency again.
If you knew Jesus was coming back tonight – or tomorrow, or the next day – is there anything you would do differently? (Anyone brave enough to answer that?) What about us as a church – is there anything we would do differently?
I wonder. Would I give away all my money and possessions? Open my doors to anyone who needed a place to go? Would I be out at more protests, or spending more time alone in prayer? What would change if we felt a little more of that urgency?
On the other hand, I don’t believe that you can truly live every day like it’s your last, and we as Christians probably can’t live every day as if we truly believed Jesus was coming back tomorrow – we’d use up all our oil, and our lamps would burn out. This is a story that acknowledges that it might still be a while, and what we need is faith that has that urgent quality to it but that is also in it for the long haul. We need to look ahead and keep that oil stocked. As one commentary put it – “Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again. Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant. Being merciful for a lifetime…requires preparedness.”  (NIB) Our lives of faith are not usually meant to be a blaze of glory, but a constant flame that may, of course, wax and wane over the course of the night, but doesn’t go out.
I read this week about Dylann Roof, the guy who killed nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston two summers ago, being sentenced to death recently, and the reaction of the black community in Charleston. It is complex, of course. Some people think he’ll be getting what he deserves, and some are ready to forgive him. It is in fact many of the family members of the nine people killed who have led the way in expressing forgiveness for the young man who did this terrible thing. And some, as we can imagine, are somewhere in between, as the article put it, “mulling over the question of whether compassion can, in fact, lead to grace and perhaps to meaningful change.”
But as one shop owner caught in this struggle said, “At the very least, the families of the Emmanuel Nine lit a lamp for us to follow.”
I’d say you need a certain urgency to your faith to keep that lamp lit at the very moment it is tested, so that it becomes a light that others can see and follow. And you also need a certain preparedness, a good stock of oil, that probably comes from a lifetime of prayer, thankfulness, being part of an accountable community, and practice forgiving the small things so you are able to forgive the big ones.
But I did tell you that there is rarely just one way to read a parable. And as I was reading this one, I thought about the oil and I thought about being ready and I thought about the groom showing up, and I thought about how Jesus doesn’t just show up once, at the end of time, but every day, in lots of different ways, and how we have to keep our lamps lit for those appearances, too.
Jesus does talk about the Kingdom of God as an apocalyptic kind of future thing but he also says the Kingdom of God is among us. And I think we have to be ready to see that, too. I think we have to have our lamps lit for that, too.
Jon and I are in a Facebook group for our neighborhood civic association and we often have a good laugh at the rants that people post and about how everything devolves into an argument, usually about how the neighborhood has gone downhill or who is racist. But there was a post not long ago that caught my eye. It was from a woman I had never met who apparently lives several streets down from us, but according to her post she is a widow with several kids, disabled, trying to make ends meet. It seemed she had a number of tools and other things outside in her yard and someone called the police, presumably because it looked dangerous. She was clearly angry as she wrote that she had asked for help before but her neighbors would rather call and report her than ask her if everything was OK and how they could help. Then I read on as several neighbors responded to her post, and they said things like “I’m sorry you don’t feel like you’ve been welcomed. If you tell me where you live, I’d love to bring you dinner or cookies sometime.”
I thought about how easy the Kingdom of God can be to miss – whether it is in a neighbor we write off and put our guard up against instead of taking the risk of getting to know them, or witnessing the simple kind actions of someone who wants to make a small difference.
Sometimes, of course, the bridegroom might make himself known to us with music and shouting and noisemakers, but probably more often he is there in the unassuming faces of the refugee, the undocumented immigrant, the homeless person on the street, the ex-con looking for a job, the opioid addict, the neighbor whose yard is bringing down the property values, or the person with whom we most vehemently disagree. And the truth is that’s easy to say – we all know the verses that say that – but it’s a little harder to see in complex reality, so we need to keep our oil stocked and our lamps lit, or we might miss it.
Keep awake, says Jesus. I’m still coming, and you don’t know when.
And, in fact, I’m already here.
Either way, you don’t want to miss it.