Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 25:1-13 The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘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.
I have never been to a wedding that was a weeklong. Even my sister’s wedding, which I attended as a bridesmaid and therefore had extra bridesmaid things to do, didn’t take a whole week. Eric Jackson, in his commentary on this text, reminds us that the wedding we are reading about in today’s scripture was a wedding that was about a weeklong. In my experience, anything that lasts for a whole week involves some waiting. And, according to Jackson, the grooms were often late. Not only could the wedding itself not start if both parties weren’t there, but in these weddings, which had a bride and a groom, the bride and her party and family couldn’t even leave the house and go to the place where the service would be held until the groom and his party and family showed up to walk with them to the place with the ceremony would be. It turns out, that no one knew when anything was going to start and lots of people ended up waiting.
If a scholar 2000 years later knew that people had to wait a lot at these weddings, you’d think that the people who actually went to this kind of wedding all the time would have known to prepare for a late start. And, yet, about half of the bridesmaids are caught without enough oil. You see, given the likelihood of a late start to the wedding, everyone would have to have a lamp to light the way while they walked to the wedding venue. If you don’t have enough oil, you can’t see your way to the wedding venue. The oil is necessary because things start late! And, everyone knows that things will start late. So, why didn’t they bring more oil?
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. Greg Carey points that out in his commentary on this text. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. And yet, 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. Or maybe a bootstraps politician who doesn’t want to create social safety nets for people who “run out of oil.”
The moral of that Aesop’s 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 awake and paying attention to what is going on. 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. They end up going to buy more oil instead of actually doing the things they were supposed to do in the first place, greet the groom.
The first time I ever preached on this scripture, I wondered how the story might be different if everyone had stayed awake. Nine years later, I still wonder. What might have happened had the bridesmaids started to swap stories and share about their preparation? What if one of the ones who gets called wise says, “Oh, I knew he’d be late, so I brought extra oil.” The other four who get called wise note that they’ve done the same thing.
And, what if all the ones who get called foolish are inspired by their compatriots’ planning and realize they need more oil, too. They might have decided to put out their lamps until they hear that the groom is in sight. Or, maybe they send out one to go buy some more with others ready to run get her if he shows up. Or, maybe the wise tell them about the 24-hour market around the corner that always has oil and say they can get there quick if they hurry.
Staying awake would have given them the opportunity to talk with each other, to build community. Now, it’s possible they might not have had any of the conversations I imagine that they could have. Staying awake doesn’t automatically mean that they would have talked with each other or helped each other or even liked each other. But, they sure couldn’t do any community building while they were asleep. Maybe that’s why Jesus told them to stay awake. When you’re awake... paying attention... you can see the opportunities that are all around you to build relationships that reflect the Gospel. You can’t see them if you’re asleep.
Had these women been able to stay awake, maybe they could have made the waiting easier for each other. In his commentary on this text, David Lose points out that, in this story, we can see Jesus identifying what will become a central aspect of Christianity.... waiting and how to deal with it. 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, we do not know when reign of God will be complete. And, we will 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 make the waiting easier. We may find compatriots in our journey, others who are waiting, watching, and serving, too. If we can stay awake, our actions may shift from stingily hoarding the excess we have gathered or striking out in a panic, distracted from our first callings.
I don't think Jesus is calling us to be stingy bridesmaids. I do think Jesus is calling us to be partners for each other as we wait. If we stay awake, we might even see that there is a celebration happening all around us. There’s work to be done, to be sure. But there is also a new chapter of life happening, and we get to be a part of it. May we stay awake for each other. And, in our wakefulness, not miss out on our turn to welcome Christ, whenever and through whomever he walks up to our door.
Resources consulted while preparing this sermon:
Eric Jackson’s commentary “Involved Waiting” from the UCC “Because of You” stewardship materials
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/
Greg Carey: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2207
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.