Jesus actually preaches two sermons on the mount in the Gospel of Matthew. The first is the familiar one early in the Gospel which is filled with beautiful teaching about how to live life in this world to the glory of God. The second is preached to the disciples on the Mount of Olives near the end of the Gospel, and the subject is how to live life in preparation for the second coming. Today’s reading comes in the midst of these teachings.
This sermon begins with chapter 24 when the disciples ask Jesus when the end will come and what the signs will be that this age is ending. Jesus starts out with a sermon in which he talks in apocalyptic imagery about earthquakes and wars and persecutions. His point is that these things will happen continually until the end of time, and his first specific charge to the disciples (and the church) is, “Do not be led astray by false prophets.” People continually try to point to world events and astrological events to make people believe they know when the second coming is going to take place and the world will end. They try to panic Christians into following them into a world of speculation and sign gazing and getting away from doing the things that we are supposed to be doing as Christians in our daily walk. The second specific charge Jesus gives to the disciples (and the church) is “Keep awake and be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Then Jesus tells four parables to demonstrate what it means for the Christian to stay awake and be ready, and today’s parable is the second of the four. I want to mention the first one, because it pairs interestingly with today’s parable.
In the first parable, Jesus speaks of a servant who is given authority over his Master’s household during his absence, who is expected to look after the needs of all those in the house. He says the servant is blessed when the master returns and finds him faithfully fulfilling that responsibility. But if, on the other hand, the servant takes the master’s absence as an opportunity to impose his will on the household and starts beating his fellow servants and eating and drinking with drunkards, the master will return at a time when he does not expect him and the servant will come to deeply regret his decisions.
Today’s parable also has to do with a delay and unexpected arrival, but the problem is not the misdeeds of those who are waiting, but the lack of preparedness. The story is about ten bridesmaids and their role in a wedding. In the story Jesus is cast as the bridegroom and the church as the bridesmaids. I’ve given you some background before about wedding customs in that time and place and the role of the bridesmaids, but let me briefly refresh your memory.
There was not a stated hour for the wedding because there was custom to be observed. The two families would meet to bargain over the presents which would be given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family. The bride’s family needed to show that they were giving her away only with the greatest reluctance, and the groom’s family needed to show sufficient regard for the bride’s family and for the bride herself. Not until an agreement is reached can the marriage begin.
Middle Easterners in general love this process of bartering or bargaining. They would be bored to death with going into a store where the price tag on an item was the actual price the store expected it to be sold for. I’m sure these marriage gift bartering sessions were entertaining, with much outrage, many explanations, followed by warm embraces, back slaps, and shouts of happiness from all sides after the agreement was reached.
Anyway, after the agreement is reached, the processional begins to the home of the bride. The role of the bridesmaids in the parable is that when the bridegroom comes, they are to go out and meet him. They are to trim their lamps brightly, surround the bridegroom, and escort him in brilliant light to the home of the bride. There was no electricity, of course, and there is no pomp and circumstance to arriving for the wedding in the dark!
All ten bridesmaids show up ready for duty. When the negotiations run late, they all fall asleep. When the bridegroom finally arrives and the cry goes up to meet him, the bridesmaids are awakened and five of them suddenly realize that they are unprepared. They brought no extra oil, and while they slept their lamps have burned up the oil they had in them. They ask the ones who brought extra oil to share with them, but they are refused and told to go to the dealer for more. At midnight that is not likely to be an easy task. The wise girls are right that it would be better to have five bridesmaids escorting the bridegroom with lamps burning brightly rather than having all ten lamps sputtering or burning dimly to conserve enough oil to make it to the bride’s house. That would be an ominous note on which to begin a marriage.
By the time the other five get their oil and make it to the bride’s house, they are not allowed in. It has been the custom in Israel even up to modern times that if you arrive late to a marriage celebration, you are not allowed in. This would not be seen as cruel or unusual to the original hearers of the parable. I also feel sure that the problem of not taking extra oil was one that was drummed into the head of every girl after it happened to someone for the first time. They should have known better but still failed to prepare.
Jesus concludes the parable with the warning, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” It is an illustration of the same point he had made in the sermon. He is saying, “You know how to prepare and be ready for a wedding; you know the consequences of not being prepared, not having enough oil, being late; it is the same way in getting ready for the second coming and going to heaven. You need to be prepared and you need to be ready.”
What do we learn from this parable about being ready for the end of time or the end of our time? The error of the foolish bridesmaids is that they did not prepare and provide for the possibility of a delay. This may be one of the greatest dangers for the faith of 21st century Christians.
We worry about lots of different things happening and we try to prepare for those things to happen. We buy insurance, we write wills, we set aside money in savings accounts, we prepare health care consent forms. It is one thing to prepare yourself for something to happen. It is quite another thing, much harder, to prepare yourself for nothing to happen. What do I mean by that?
Well, by the time Matthew’s gospel was written toward the end of the first century, a significant amount of time had gone by since Jesus’ resurrection. The early church expected that Jesus was coming back very soon, and Jesus said some things to lead them to expect that, so it created a crisis for the church when that did not happen. Some began to lose faith, some dropped out of church and gave up on it, while others persevered.
The question for us is how do we go on expecting and being prepared for an any-minute return of Jesus when it has already been 2,000 years? How do you maintain faith when nothing happens? In fact, it is worse than that, because plenty of stuff happens. Wars happen, famines happen, hurricanes happen, earthquakes happen. Cancer happens, divorce happens, drug addition happens, death happens. Injustice is all around, inequities are painfully obvious in communities, nations, and the world, hatred and alienation are everywhere. How do you keep oil in your lamp of faith when everything is so discouraging? How do you keep letting your little light shine so that when the time suddenly comes like a thief in the night but is actually the bridegroom in the night you will be able to trim your lamp to accompany him to the marriage feast of the Lamb?
It requires enormous perseverance, and determination to continue in faith and strengthen faith. It is the spiritual equivalent to being a distance runner. The life of faith is not a 50 yard dash where the first one to the finish line wins and it is over. It is an endurance test which lasts the whole of your life. Someone who dabbles in jogging will not be successful in completing a marathon. Someone who dabbles in being a Christian will not be successful in being able to persevere through life’s disappointments and losses. It requires training and surrounding yourself with people who are striving for the same goal so you can encourage and support each other. The extra reserve of oil needed to be ready for a delay is provided by reading the Bible, having an active prayer life, worshiping regularly, being a vital part of the caring community of faith, being involved in ministry in the community. When you do these things regularly and faithfully, you are storing up the extra oil you will need to make it to the end and be prepared for the end. Patience, perseverance, preparation – these help us endure the delay and be ready.
Seeing the parable in this light helps us understand why the wise bridesmaids can’t simply give extra oil to the foolish bridesmaids. If the reserve is built up by actively living the Christian life of faith, prayer, study, and worship, that is not something someone else can just give you. If you have not been preparing, you are not going to have it. The time to begin building up a fund for emergencies is not the day after an emergency.
Lots of new Christians burn brightly like a comet for a short time then burn out and disappear. When it becomes clear that everything is not always exciting and you have to do a lot of the same things over and over and year after year, the initial enthusiasm wanes.
This is another area in which Christian faith is starkly countercultural. Think about the priorities of our society. We are always in search of a faster internet connection and stream. If we don’t hear back immediately from someone we have texted or called we get impatient. If we have to wait in line to vote or for a table at the restaurant we get grumpy. And let’s don’t even talk about if the cable goes out an inopportune time…
But we are encouraged to develop these essential spiritual disciplines which will get us through the delays, through the dark nights. Patience, preparation, endurance, expectation, hope. When we get lazy we begin thinking, “I’ve never been to a wedding yet where I needed that extra flask of oil, so I’m going to quit taking one.” I’ve been living a long time and Jesus hasn’t come back yet, so I’m not expecting today to be any different. I’ll always have tomorrow to get things together and go get anything I need that I don’t have.
The wise ones don’t get distracted like that. They keep on doing things the right way every day, bringing the extra oil to every wedding, developing their faith as a deep reserve to hold them through until the time when the shout is heard from afar: “Here he comes! Bring your lamps to greet him!”
Keep alert. Be ready. For the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian Church
November 9, 2014 Anderson, SC