On Being Ready: Matthew 25:1-13
“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.
Did you know that there are two sermons on the mount? Well, there are. Most of the time when people say the "Sermon on the Mount," they are talking about the Beatitudes, the list of blessed people that we talked about last week. People really like that sermon on the Mount. It offers hope to the hopeless and assures people that God is present even in the most dire of situations. Today's scripture is a sermon on a mount, too, just a different sermon on a different mount. People are often a little less sure what to do with this sermon on this mountain. It is a different mountain, and the sermon has a very different tone. Where the Beatitudes have hope, the parable of the late-arriving groom has warning. Where the Beatitudes have compassion for the dispirited, this parable has stingy bridesmaids. It is a much darker section of scripture, one in which lay people and preachers alike stumble. For example, I listen to this preaching podcast every week as I prepare for Sunday, and this week, none of the scholars really was excited to talk about this sermon on the mount. And, these people are biblical scholars and preaching professors. What on earth am I supposed to do with it?
I can't say that I blame people for wanting to avoid this parable. It reminds me a lot of that other weird wedding party story that we heard a few weeks ago. That party was the story of the wedding banquet where none of the fancy people wanted to come, so the king killed all the ingrates, and invited all the street-people to the party. Then, the king got mad at the guy who wasn't dressed right and threw him out. Here, though, instead of an unstable king, in this story we have an unreasonable groom who was super late to his own wedding and then won't let in the bridesmaids who had to go get more oil because they used more than they thought they would need. Know why used more than they needed. Because he was late... to his own wedding. This guy is the worst. And, where is the bride in this whole thing? Wouldn't she want them to be let in? And, why didn't the other bridesmaids share with them? Isn't this parable supposed to be about the empire of heaven? Didn't Jesus consistently admonish his followers to share with those who do not have enough? These people are super stingy. How does this stinginess translate into the empire of heaven?
And, you know what else strikes me as strange? Jesus seems to tell the disciples that the meaning of this parable is to "Stay Awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour." The thing is, everybody in this story fell asleep. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. The five who have too much oil still get into the party even though they fell asleep. If I read this story, minus the Jesus explanation at the end, I would think he was telling people to prepare better... to store up more than you think you would need. And, don't share with the people who don't work as hard as you. I would read this parable like it was that old Aesop's fable, the one with the ant and the grasshopper. The ant works hard all summer to save up for the winter and the grasshopper merely plays. The grasshopper says that the ant is a party-pooper and a nerd and goes about with his frivolity. The ant goes about her work and come winter, the ant is cozy in her hill, knitting and eating sunflower seeds while the foolish grasshopper, filled with remorse, starves and/or freezes to death. And, the ant sure as heck doesn't offer to share. The grasshopper should have known better.
The moral of that fable is definitely "Be prepared." But, Jesus didn't tell his disciples to be prepared. He told them to "Keep Awake." Some might argue that preparedness and wakefulness are usually pretty closely linked. Usually the people who are most prepared for every contingency are the ones who are also paying the most attention to what is going ok. Jesus seemed to draw a distinction. He specifically called for wakefulness, not preparedness. Alertness, not hoarding of stuff. Now, both sets of bridesmaids do a terribly poor job at wakefulness. Everybody falls asleep. Why wouldn't they? The groom was taking forever. When he actually showed up, all of the women were startled awake. They seem to panic. The supposedly wise ones have such a scarcity mentality that they can't share with the supposedly foolish ones. And, the supposedly foolish ones are so distracted by the things they lack, that is oil, that they forget what their primary role is... that is to greet the bridegroom with great joy. So they go search for what they think they lack and ignore the greater task to which they are called.
What if they had managed to stay awake? How could the story have been different? So, the groom is later and later. Seriously, who is this guy. The bridesmaids are getting tired, but, they are here for the party and here to welcome the groom and don't want to miss him. So, they do everything they can to stay awake. Someone brews some coffee. Someone else suggests a game of charades. Other women start sharing stories about how they know the bride and groom. Maybe they bond over their ugly dresses and feeling put upon because the groom is so late. And, then, one of the bridesmaids, the groom's first cousin, tells one of the other bridesmaids, the bride's fourth cousin three times removed that she's not surprised the groom is late. He's always late. That's why she brought extra oil. She knew he couldn't be on time. Four other bridesmaids, all family of groom, nod their heads in agreement. This guy does this all the time. He'll probably be late for his own funeral. God bless the woman who's going to marry him.
The five bridesmaids from the bride's side are mortified. They will run out of oil. It is so late. There is no way hey can get to the store in time to buy more. Someone suggests, "Hey... why don't you just put out your lamps now? Save the oil for when he actually comes. Who knows when that will be." So they put out their lamps and continue with their coffee, kvetching, and charades. When they hear the shout, "Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!," all the bridesmaid help re-tie ribbons that have come undone during the games and check to make sure nobody has anything in their teeth. And, the bridesmaids who don't have very much oil find that they have just enough to greet the groom. The bridesmaid who brought more than they needed have made new friends with whom they are very happy to finally be able to celebrate. And, the groom... well, the groom still has the bride to deal with. We've yet to see how that turns out.
When the bridesmaids have the opportunity to stay awake together, they may have the opportunity to get to know one another, to build community. They learn to see one another as more than know-it-alls and ill-prepared flakes. They can teach and support one another. And, they have the opportunity to make the waiting more bearable for one another. One of the most difficult things about waiting is feeling like you are doing it alone. Had these women been able to stay awake, maybe they could have made the waiting easier for each other.
Several of the scholars I read this week pointed out that, in this story, one can see Jesus identifying what will become a central aspect of Christianity.... waiting. We are a people who so often live in a sense of expectation. We may dedicate our time to worship, prayer, and service. But, we are always waiting. From the time of the first followers of Christ, we have been waiting. We could spend our time preparing, storing up things to make sure that we get into the party. We could show up with just what we have and hope that we won't have to wait too long. The thing is, we're probably going to be waiting longer than we expected. We don't know how or when the fullness of the empire of heaven will arise. Even as we contribute to it, work to build it up with God, when do not know when it could be complete. And, we may grow weary as we wait. We're probably going to fall asleep. But, if we pay attention to the people around us, we may find some unsuspected partners who can help us to stay awake to new encounters with the Divine. We may find compatriots in our journey, others who are waiting, watching, and serving, too. We can find friends who will elbow us if we nod off. If we can stay awake, maybe we can learn to be less afraid of having enough and learn to keep focused on what is actually our true calling to begin with, to welcome with great joy the one who invited us to the party in the first place.
I don't think Jesus calls us to be stingy bridesmaids or hyper-vigilant ants. Jesus just wants us to stay awake. A celebration is happening all around us. We don't want to sleep through it or panic and exclude some people who want just as badly to be there as we do. So, stay awake. We don't want to miss the best part.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Pulpit Fiction Podcast, #88: P27A (Nov. 9) We Love Lamp: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/88-p27a-nov-9-we-love-lamp
Sermon Brainwave Podcast #383: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=556
Karoline Lewis, "How to Wait": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413
Greg Carey's Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2207
David Lose, "Pentecost 22 A: Hope and Help For Foolish Bridesmaids": http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.