Yr A ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Matthew 25:1-13
The parable of the bridesmaids 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 in a grand procession, accompanied by all the bridesmaids, 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 – and if you just react to the surface of it you’ll get it all wrong. 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.” (Matthew 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 foolish and the wise would be, well, wise.
We can loosely 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, or maybe Jesus, 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: Matthew 25:8 – the wise wouldn’t share!
That sounds mean!
Then the wise tell the foolish to go buy their own.
Another thought bomb goes off.
I mean, 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 decidedly unpleasant – and doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.
The door gets shut on the foolish bridesmaids in verse 10.
Really? God shuts doors on people?
Does that sound right to you?
Here’s a hint – If, when you read scripture, it doesn’t sound like Jesus – well, it isn’t! We’re reading it wrong! (Or the writer’s agenda is emerging!) Either way, we have to dig deeper.
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.
But they got your attention, didn’t they?!
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?
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 of the kingdom of God 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.
Christianity is not a commodity – it’s a relationship!
The price of entrance to God’s kingdom is your time, your commitment, your intentionality, your walk – all the things that grow and strengthen your relationship with the Divine, your communion with the Holy.
A good metaphor would be physical fitness.
If fitness was the thing that was required for something, 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.
Or music – as much as I’d like to be able to buy a fancy guitar pedal that will make me play better the only thing that actually works is spending the hours in the practice room – doing the work, building the foundation.
I can’t buy great guitar fingers – I can only grow them.
This is a hard lesson in our instant gratification society.
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!
Back to the parable.
The 5 foolish bridesmaids had no oil – they had no relationship with God – “I don’t know you!” – not because God didn’t want to know them but because they wouldn’t let themselves be known.
No relationship means no admittance to the party.
That’s not mean – it’s just logic.
The kingdom is not a commodity you can buy, it’s a relationship you have to grow.
No relationship; no kingdom. It sounds harsh, but it isn’t.
You can’t be a wedding crasher in the kingdom of God! It doesn’t make any sense.
Wedding crashers show up without knowing anyone there and try to cheat their way into a good time.
Wedding guests are there because they have a relationship with the bride and groom. They’re there to celebrate shared love.
We’ve been focusing on love for the last few weeks. Where’s the love here?
Umm, what kind of party is it again?
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!
(So is God’s kingdom!)
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 (with God, with Jesus) 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.
How about you?
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, and selflessly love?
Well, probably the biggest and most obvious thing is that you’re ‘here’ today. You’re hanging out in a church service with other lamps working on your oil. We wax on hymns and wax off prayers. We’re immersing ourselves in God’s Presence and committing ourselves to love, love, love!
And one of the best things about coming together as a church community 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.
We spend our time and energy in these ways because we know that being a wedding crasher isn’t going to cut it.
Be wise, not foolish.
Keep your lamp filled with love oil.
Wax on, wax off.
Rejoice, because you know and are known by Love.
And keep awake, for you neither know the day nor the hour when you will be called upon to love.
In the meantime, enjoy the party!