Yr A ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Matthew 25:1-13
The parable of the bridesmaids comes on the heels of several other versions of Jesus teaching his followers to be ready, to be awake. He keeps saying variations of “if you knew something was about to happen you’d prepare for it, so be prepared, because you never know.”
This is a kingdom parable. Jesus is offering the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. Calling it the kingdom of heaven can sound to our ears like he’s talking about what happens when you die, but that is absolutely not the case. He’s talking about living abundantly in the here and now. He’s talking about making our lives indescribably awesome, today.
So, what is this kingdom like? Well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but apparently it’s like a big party! A wedding, even! Wedding festivities in Jesus’ time typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the joyous event. The deal was that the bridegroom would make a journey from his house to the bride’s house and then take her back to his house for a big party.
The parable we heard today uses this backdrop to teach us about God’s kingdom. The beauty of parables is that they often seem to say one thing but they are actually saying something deeper. Parables always have what I like to call “thought bombs” in them. The thought bombs are there to shake us up, but they’re not the point. They just catch our attention with a rhetorical slap upside the head.
Jesus begins this parable with a “once upon a time” kind of line. He says, “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” (Mt 25:1-2)
Saying five were foolish and five were wise instantly told the Jewish audience that they were about to hear a wisdom teaching, and that the foolish would be really dumb and the wise would be, well, wise.
We can start to read the parable as an allegory, where each character directly represents something. Here the church is the bride, we are the wise and foolish maidens, and God is the bridegroom. So “we” go out to meet the bridegroom but he’s delayed (25:5). The original audience would know that this happened all the time. All sorts of things delayed grooms from coming to claim their brides (including last minute negotiations for dowries).
They all fall asleep waiting, which has no judgment attached to it. Both the wise and foolish have to sleep. The difference is when the groom showed up the effects of the delay became clear: the wise had enough oil to account for the delay and the foolish ran out.
Here the first bomb goes off: the wise wouldn’t share (25:8)! Boom! That sounds mean!
Then the wise tell the foolish to go buy their own. Boom! Another thought bomb goes off.
On one level it’s comedy. You don’t go oil shopping in the middle of the night. It’s ridiculous.
But on another level is Jesus saying you can buy your faith?
The next bomb is not pleasant. The door gets shut on the foolish bridesmaids in verse 10. Really? God shuts doors on people? Does that sound right to you?
And then in verses 11 and 12 we get the killer. “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’”
I don’t know you? God doesn’t know them? The same God who supposedly knows how many hairs are on our heads and knows every thought before we think it doesn’t know these girls because they forgot to stock up on oil? Surely there must be more to this?!
Of course there is. It’s a parable. It’s supposed to tick you off. And it’s supposed to teach you something big.
Of course good people who have resources should readily share with those who don’t have them.
Of course you can’t just go out and buy your way into the kingdom.
Of course it’s never too late and the door to God’s presence is never closed.
Of course God knows you.
Those are just the thought bombs going off.
Ok, here’s how I understand the parable.
There’s a party going on right now! It’s called the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. You’re invited! But there’s a price for admission to this party. The price is having enough “oil” in your lamp. But that’s just a metaphor.
The oil is the fuel that makes the lamp go. The lamp is the light in your life. So…what lights your lamp? God does! Are you with me?
Your lamp light runs on the oil of God’s presence, and the only way to replenish your “oil” is to get more God in your life – to be present to Presence more and more.
What that means is that the price of admission to God’s party, God’s kingdom, is your open hand, your open heart, the things that open you to an ongoing communion with the Holy Mystery we call God.
The price isn’t a set of words or beliefs;
it isn’t attendance at a certain church;
it isn’t how much dough you stuff the offering plate with;
and it certainly isn’t something like oil that you can buy.
The price of entrance to God’s kingdom is your time, your commitment, your intentionality, your walk.
A good metaphor would be fitness. If fitness was the thing that was required and I had it and you asked me for some I couldn’t just give it to you. All I could do is tell you where to go and get some for yourself – and not off a shelf, you’d need to invest the time.
Ok, now that we’ve done the price of admission, what’s the point of the party anyway? Why do you want to be in this party, in this kingdom? – it’s to be with the bridegroom, to celebrate union with the bridegroom, to enjoy the glow of your shared affection and depth of relationship. God’s kingdom is a celebration of your intimate relationship with God.
This is the hard part: Relationships are built with presence, and openness, and time.
God can’t really know you until you let yourself be known!
We’ve been focusing on love for the last few weeks. Where’s the love here?
Umm, did you forget where the parable is set – what kind of party it is? It’s a wedding feast. It’s a celebration of…love! Everyone there is there to share in the love. A wedding is a love-fest!
And if you’ve ever loved anyone – a partner, a friend – you absolutely know that you can’t fake it, you can’t buy it, and you can’t just make it appear out of nothing. The only way to get love is to invest your time and openness and grow it.
What I’m saying is this: The oil in the lamps of the wise is love. Want more oil? Then love, love, love!
Now that we have that we can get to the big message of the parable. The big message is ‘always be prepared.’ Prepared for what? Judgment day? The second coming? No, it’s always be prepared to keep your lamp shining, always be prepared with lots of oil – which we just said is love – because you never know when you’re going to need to love someone.
The wise were prepared because they had a deep reservoir, an endless supply of oil, of love, that they grew over time as their relationship with the bridegroom grew deeper and deeper – and when the time came to shine their lamp they were ready.
If you’re a movie buff then I can say four words to you and pretty much sum up this parable and this sermon.
Are you ready? Wax on, wax off!
For those who don’t know, the movie is “The Karate Kid.”
A boy wants to learn how to do karate so he goes to Mr. Myagi’s house and Myagi hands him a cloth and some wax, points to his car and says, “wax on, wax off” making specific motions.
The next week it’s “paint the fence” up and down. This goes on and on and the kid finally gets mad and says “when am I going to learn how to fight?”
So Myagi starts throwing punches and the kid instinctively blocks them all with his wax-on-wax-off-paint-the-fence moves.
He was thoroughly prepared.
He had karate-oil in his lamp!
Today’s Remembrance Sunday. The same metaphor applies to a soldier’s basic training. They drill and drill and drill, over and over and over, so that in the heat of battle when it would be perfectly understandable to be scared and confused they don’t even need to really think about things they just do them. They’re prepared for whatever comes. Their training takes over. There is oil in their lamp.
So what’s your basic training routine? What’s your wax on, wax off? What are you doing to fill your lamp with oil? How are you letting God know you more? How are you spending time investing in your relationship with God and being present to Presence so that when the time comes to love you just instinctively love?
Well, probably the biggest and most obvious thing is that you’re here today. You’re hanging out in a church with other lamps working on your oil. We wax on hymns and wax off prayers. Our basic training is in communion, compassion, and connection – love, love, love!
And one of the best things about being here is that it helps us to remember.
We remember that this love that lights us up needs constant attention and practice.
We remember that Jesus, the one who lights us up with his teaching and his Way, needs to live inside us constantly, not be someone we visit once a week.
And we remember that the party doesn’t just happen here in this building, it’s everywhere, because the kingdom of God is wherever God is, and we know that God is in every place, surely.
So, what have we learned from this parable?
Be wise, not foolish.
Keep your lamp filled with love oil.
Wax on, wax off.
It’s basic training!
And keep awake, for you neither know the day nor the hour when you will be called upon to love.