— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 23rd Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Jesus tells a parable about life before the full coming of the Reign of God…
“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.
There are many parts of this story that encourage behavior that is inconsistent with Jesus’ other teachings. Here’s what I mean. In the story there is this back and forth –
The foolish (bridesmaids) 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…”
How does that square with these other sayings from Jesus in this same gospel, Matthew?
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth (Matt.6:19).
Give to everyone who begs from you
and do not refuse anyone who wants
to borrow from you (Matt. 5:42).
As you did it to one of the least of these
my family you did it unto me (Matt. 25:40).
And the end of the story is problematic and inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings in other places as well.
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.
How do we square this shutting out of the other bridesmaids with this event in the life of Jesus –
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said,
“This is a deserted place and the hour is now late;
send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages
and buy food for themselves.
Jesus said to them,
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.
And then over 5000 were fed
because Jesus did not shut them out.
So, what are we to do with these very apparent discrepancies with this story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and other teachings from Jesus?
Here’s an idea: Let’s ignore them! It is one of the time honored methods of biblical interpretation – ignoring. It is valuable to ignore certain details of a story or passage that get in the way of the larger point; so, and I mean this, let’s ignore these discrepancies and focus on the one point the story is driving home for the audience.
This parable is making one point, and it is a point that is consistent with other sayings from Jesus. This parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is consistent with the following teachings from Jesus –
And everyone who hears these words of mine
and does not act on them
will be like a foolish man
who built his house on sand (Matt. 7:26).
Everyone who hears these words
and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock (Matt. 7:24).
In other words – this story of the wise bridesmaids is an encouragement to “Be ready for a long journey.” Be prepared for a long obedience in the same direction. Build your house on rock, and keep your lamps trimmed and burning for the long night to come.
For many followers of Jesus in the early church there was a strong conviction that Jesus would return to earth in a short period of time following his crucifixion and resurrection. For those folks there was a palpable sense that time would be gathered up and God’s judgement and grace would descend. God, they believed, in a very short while would sort things out and peace and joy and singing and brotherhood and sisterhood would be firmly established in heaven and on earth. They could have sung – “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.” God’s reign was just over the horizon and it would come in the twinkling of an eye, like a thief in the night, like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats.
This conviction was strong, and the early church and the church throughout the ages has had to come to grips with the pitch hammer of historical time that continues to chip away at the expanse of tomorrow with no end in clear sight. How then to live if we are to be followers of Jesus … for a long time? This story is preparing the church for the bridegroom’s delay. This story reminds us to put enough oil in the lamp to keep us in the light well into the night.
Three years ago Shalane Flanagan won the New York City Marathon. She was 36 years old at the time and had already run in three Olympics, winning a bronze medal in 2008 that was converted into a silver because of doping on the part of the silver medalist. Shalane Flanagan was the first U.S. woman to win the marathon in 40 years!
I see her story related to the parable in two ways…
For one, she spent her life as a long-distance runner. She trained all her adult life as a long-distance runner – cross-country, 10,000 meters, marathons. This type of training allowed her many years to compete, finish, and finally win the New York City Marathon.
Now imagine if she had spent her life training for the 100 meter… always working on quick burst of energy followed by rest…then another burst… if this had been how she trained, she would not have had the endurance to finish the 26 mile run that is a marathon. She had to train for the long-run in order to be able to finish and win the race.
The story of the wise bridesmaids was a story to encourage the early church to build faith for a long journey. This story seems to be making the point to the early church that the Christian life is not a sprint; rather, the Christian life is a marathon.
There is another part of Shalane Flanagan’s story that relates to the point of this parable. Shalane is not only a professional athlete; she is a wife and a foster parent of two 16 year old twin girls. Earlier in the year she had a back injury that kept her from training. She went on vacation with her husband and their two foster children. Shalane said it was the best vacation ever. It brought her back to the balance she needed in life.
She did not put it this way, but she could have said the vacation with her family, the love from and to her foster children and husband put oil in her lamp for the next chapter in her life – winning the NYC Marathon.
So what is the oil that keeps the lamp burning?
Part of the answer is to worship, pray, sing, read the Bible, study. These spiritual practices are part, an important part, of the fuel for the lamp. This fuel, however, needs an additive, an additional mixture that leads to better, longer-lasting light.
So, what is the additive, the additional mixture to add to the spiritual practices of prayer, singing, worship, study of the Scripture?
In this same chapter of Matthew Jesus gives us a strong hint…
For I was hungry and gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35-36).
Acts of service and kindness are part of the oil in the lamp for the long journey of faith. As we act with kindness toward one another and toward those in need we are living to the glory of God and will find strength for the journey into the future. We will be doing the things of God and therefore will be in line with whatever comes – darkness or light.
A tale from the Fathers of the Desert:
A brother once put this question to one of the elders: “There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days a week, and practicing much austerity. The other spends all his time taking care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God?”
The elder replied, “If the brother who fasts and prays were to hang himself up by the nose, he would not equal even one act of kindness of the one who takes care of the sick”
(From The Heart of the Enlightened By Anthony de Mello, S.J., pps. 152-153).
Jesus invites us all to go out for an oil service!
Thanks be to God.