This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 12, 2017, the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, by the Rev. Nancy Vogele. The gospel reading was Matthew 25:1-13.
Jesus said, “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. 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. 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.’ 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.’ 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:1-13)
Just a quick preliminary remark: Did you know that in the Gospel of Matthew alone there are a collection of 104 parables and sayings of Jesus – only three of which include women? [Nicola Slee, “Parables and Women’s Experience,” as quoted here.]
I don’t like that. And I don’t really like that this morning’s parable – one of those three instances – portrays half of the women as foolish.
This parable faults five of the women for not bringing extra oil with them for their lamps. But whose fault is this crisis? I blame the bridegroom who was late – really late. If he had arrived on time, there would have been no crisis – no one would have run out of oil for their lamps. On top of that, he wouldn’t let the 5 women back in the house when they come back with their newly bought oil. Reason? He doesn’t know them. But his new bride does. He should have let them in.
It makes me think of the Parable of the friend at midnight in Luke’s Gospel. A man goes to his friend’s house at midnight and asks him to lend him three loaves of bread because another friend unexpectedly showed up at that late hour and he has nothing to offer him to eat. The awakened friend says, “Leave me alone. The doors are locked and my children are asleep in bed with me. I cannot get up.” Nonetheless he gets up and gives him what he needs – not because he is his friend but because of the man’s persistence. (Luke 11:5-8).
So were the five foolish bridesmaids just not persistent enough in knocking? Sort of feels like we’re blaming the victim.
For every objection I have about the details of this parable, I can find other words of Jesus that contradict them. One commentary I read on this parable demonstrates this brilliantly:
The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence commented:
Sometimes, when I’m working on a sermon, I try to imagine what it would be like to read other passages of scripture through the lens of the particular text I’m working on. For example, what would happen if we placed Matthew 25 next to other portions of Matthew’s gospel, and read them together? What would this parable have to say to those passages? Well, I tried that here, starting with the Sermon on the Mount back in Matthew 6 and 7, but I didn’t get very far, because the wise and foolish bridesmaids were making mincemeat out of the Beatitudes. I was coming up with rewrites like this:
(Matthew 6:19ff) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven. Or (Matthew 6:25ff) Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem. Or (Matthew 7:7ff) Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it. Or (Matthew 7:12ff) In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you. In everything, that is, except oil, which changes all the rules.
Like I said, I didn’t get very far, because it was tough, a rather deflating experience. This parable challenges most of the things I believe about God. It flies in the face of pivotal stories. If taking care of yourself were the main message of the gospels, the miracle of the loaves and fishes would never have happened. Jesus wouldn’t have lifted a finger for that hungry crowd, not if they hadn’t packed their own picnic supper. Instead of “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” we would have “The Moral of the Very Few Who Came Prepared,” and that is not what I want to teach my children about God. I want better for them. I want better for my country. I want better for Jesus, and I get tired of defending him when he tells stories like this; I want to say, “Okay, buddy, you get yourself out of this one.” (Day One, “Filling Stations,” November 4, 2007)
I have a problem with it for several more reasons. First of all, so many details are left out that I want to know about. I want to know why some of the women brought extra oil with them and why the others didn’t. Perhaps the so-called “Foolish 5” didn’t have any more. Perhaps they were poor and giving their last bit in order to celebrate with the bride. Or perhaps they had a lot at home and were just too lazy or stingy to bring some along. Perhaps the so-called wise group had generously brought all that they had but truly would have run out if they had shared and knew that at least some of them had to have enough oil to keep their lamps burning for the sake of their friend, the bride.
Plus, this parable bugs me precisely because I am a planner. Now, I’m not a “worst case” scenario planner. No, I’m very realistic and I think it has served me well over the years. So sometimes I get irritated with people who don’t plan and then their lack of planning negatively affects me. So I can relate to the co-called wise women.
Sometimes, however, even my best-laid plans aren’t good enough and I see, in retrospect, that I should have planned differently. I should have taken into effect some things and not others. So I empathize with the co-called foolish women.
So is this parable, in the end, nothing more than a story that any Boy Scout could have told us? Be prepared?
Why did Jesus tell this parable and why did Matthew include it in his gospel in Jesus’ important final discourse?
Matthew was dealing with the discouragement of his flock. Jesus said he would come again soon and he hadn’t. Now, they needed to deal with that delay. This last section of Matthew’s Gospel includes three parables that deal with two major questions: “When will Christ return?” (Answer: no one knows, but there will be signs) and, “What shall we do while we wait?”
And no one likes to wait. We hate to wait in lines at a store or in traffic. We get impatient when something we want to buy is on back order and we’ll have to wait a few weeks to get it. We get anxious waiting for our teenager to get home when he or she has borrowed the car and its getting late and the driving conditions aren’t great. We get anxious waiting for test results.
Waiting is hard. How might God be inviting us to wait? Can we keep the faith while we wait or will we let the delays in life upend us?
And for us Christians today, Jesus’ coming again isn’t even a real focus of our faith. We talk about his coming as an infant and we celebrate that at Christmas. And we play lip service to his coming at the end of time. But I dare say most of us don’t give that latter one much thought.
And that shapes how we live. The early Christians believed that Jesus would return and they wanted to be ready to greet him. They believed that they were in the “end times.” Time was short so how did they need to spend it? What did they need to be focusing on? What did they need to let go of in order to focus on the things that would help them be ready?
We may not think about the “End Times” and how we are to be ready, but I can tell you that anyone who has faced a life-threatening illness or situation knows existentially that time is short and therefore precious. And we don’t have to have lived that long to know that things end and once they do there is no going back to redo them. “What has been done has been done and what has been left undone has been left undone.” And that truth can have painful, even dire, consequences.
But remember, this parable was told to encourage its hearers not shame them. To motivate not overwhelm…so that – in the words of next Sunday’s psalm – God may “teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
We do not have all the time in the world. It may seem like it. And there are probably times we want to just rush through and get over with. But time is precious – stay awake to it. Make the most of it. Plan well because – unless you believe in reincarnation, there are no “do overs.” God will help us through. God will help us mend and rebuild when our lack of purposeful living causes difficult results. I can testify to that. But God cannot go and undo what we have done or do what we have left undone.
We don’t have to always be planning for “worst case” scenarios. And it’s not about all work and no play. It’s about knowing that life is precious and even if we get to live to a healthy 90 years old, it’s still so brief when you think of it.
I close with a poem by Mary Oliver entitled, “The Summer Day.”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?