23rd Sunday after Pentecost

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus said: “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.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Have you ever known a “prepper”? Preppers are people who prepare for emergencies or disasters by storing large quantities of items they might need. With some stockpiling dehydrated food, water, flashlights, extra batteries, and even ammunition, prepping has become a growing industry in the United States during the past few years. It has seen an enormous uptick during the Covid-19 Pandemic. In lots of ways, this makes sense. At the onset of the virus, there were shortages of everyday items such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and PPE (personal protection equipment). Fortunately, many of the supply chains have caught up to the extreme demand placed on them earlier this year.

While we might laugh at the idea of having lots of astronaut ice cream or beef jerky on hand, people who prepare for disasters often weather the storm better than those who make no plans. “Be Prepared” is a motto often attributed to the Boy Scouts, but many other groups prepare items for emergencies and disasters. 

Being prepared is an important life skill we all can develop. It goes beyond having what you need and extends to planning the response you’ll make when something unexpected happens.

Speaking of being prepared I think the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids should be called the parable of the tardy groom. And what about the bride waiting at the altar? I bet she was more than a little upset. “Midnight? Really?” Of course none of that is the point of the parable, well, except the tardy part. Mathew’s community is wondering what happened to Jesus. After all he said “this generation shall see my return” (Matthew 24:34) and that generation is almost all dead by the time this parable is written down. So the point of the parable is verse 13 and none of the details really matter except as a promise and on the flip side a warning. If you are awake and waiting faithfully you are wise and it doesn’t matter how long it takes for the groom to arrive because your invitation is as good as gold. But if you grow tired of waiting and doubt the promise you are foolish and your lamp will go out and you’ll be left in the dark. 

So what does it mean for us over 2000 years later? I suppose the message is the same since we neither know the time or the date of Jesus’ return. But maybe more importantly the message is for us to use our waiting time wisely as Jesus will say at the end of this chapter. 

“When I was hungry you fed me, in prison you visited me, naked you clothed me, a stranger you welcomed me, thirsty you gave me drink.” We don’t just sit around in the glow of our lit lamps and sing Kum by Yah. We wait by living into the charge that is given to the baptized when the baptismal candle is presented. “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” So let’s get busy waiting.

Five foolish Bridesmaids and five wise ones. The descriptive words alone are enough to tell us who the hero is supposed to be in this story. I mean, who wants to be the foolish one in any cautionary tale? I’m going to be frank here. This parable is a problem for me, because I certainly don’t want to be like the “wise” bridesmaids either! These intelligent and resourceful individuals stand by quietly while their friends live their best life. Maybe that was frustrating. Maybe the wise bridesmaids tried to step in and offer constructive comments that encouraged their companions to save the evening. We only get to read when their friends needed them, instead of offering grace and compassion, instead of sharing what they had, the wise bridesmaids sent their fellows off on a fool’s errand, knowing it would bar them from the all-important ceremony.

In a lot commentaries I have read on this parable, it is spun as yet another terror-tale reminding us that there isn’t enough room in heaven for everybody. The grand finale party with Jesus has limited seating with conditional entrance and not everyone gets a chair and a plate. This mentality of scarcity and the competition it seeds have brought more havoc and hatred to the world.

“So what’s the good news for marginalized people?” I read once: “At the heart of the gospel is always good news for the hardest up. 

Otherwise it’s not good news for everyone, and that makes it not gospel.” To this passage I say, thank goodness we don’t live in a world defined by such scarcity. 

  • The years (literally YEARS) that families with young children spend on a public housing list taking a bus past empty housing each day don’t have to be. 
  • The counting of items and pennies to ration the usage of food stamps in a grocery store with a food-filled dumpster out back doesn’t have to be. 

In an age filled with fear, wrecked by the illusion that must compete for resources, the reality is that we have more than enough. The lack of basic human rights such as clean water, nutritious food, safe shelter, and essential medical care is a creation of human sin, not an exposed flaw in creation’s failure to function sustainably. God’s world isn’t broken, and neither are God’s people who happen to be living with hunger or housing instability.

What IS broken is a system that pits us against each other, placing us in competition, choking the flow of resources in a disproportionate and unethical way. That is why we don’t just provide harm reduction services like food pantries but also engage actively in legislative advocacy and community-based organizing. It’s not just ending the hunger of a day but eradicating the causes of hunger that need not exist in today’s world. 

  • What if the part missing from the parable is that we can all make it to the wedding? 
  • What if we have enough oil to share and still have light? 
  • What if the doors don’t have to be locked just because the wedding has already started, and latecomers can be given the same grace that many of us couldn’t survive without?

Our wise bridesmaids are clearly smart, gifted in the Holy Spirit with foresight and resource management skills. 

I feel certain, with a bit of gospel redirection, they could become excellent advocates for the ending of world hunger…and oil shortages.

Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if it was Matthew’s intent to remind his people— let alone us—that the prerogative and power of judgment is reserved for the Lord alone. He often seems quite ready to judge others. At the same time, though, and whether consciously or not, Matthew does regularly make it clear that the Lord who comes in glory is the one to judge. Matthew consistently reserves judgment for the Lord and the Lord alone.

And perhaps we can try to do the same. That is, I think that in the wake of all that took place on November the 3rd, and after months of accusations, perhaps the fundamental question before all of us this Sunday is this: can we regard those in our congregation who voted differently than we did as fellow and faithful Christians? And, more broadly, can we regard those in our larger community and country as fellow children of God, deserving of not just God’s love—which is promised!-but of our respect as well? And, by doing this, leave judgment to the Lord?

Now, before you say, “Sure,” think what we’re talking about. There’s a lot at stake in this election. Few people are on the fence, and many on both sides of the political spectrum have declared this a choice between good and evil. So picture the folks who support the candidate that you simply can’t imagine leading the country and now answer whether you can still regard them as God’s beloved children. 

Similarly, if you’re tempted to say, “Sorry, I just can’t,” remember that Jesus’ own disciples included someone who had worked for the Romans, another who stole from the common purse and betrayed Jesus, another who promised to follow Jesus to the very end and then not only deserted him but denied him. And then, perhaps a moment’s reflection on where each of us falls short is in order, too. 

At the end of the day, if we cannot see each other as equally deserving of God’s love and redemption and cannot therefore accord each other a measure of dignity and respect, then we have forgotten that at the root of human sin is, precisely, the willingness to judge others out of our own insecurity. As I’m fond of saying—the minute you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.

  • I don’t know why some of the bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil. Maybe they’d never imagined that the groom could possibly be so delayed. 
  • And I don’t know why the others wouldn’t share. Maybe they were so caught up in their own anxiety they found it difficult to be generous. 
  • And I don’t know quite what to make of the clear note of judgment sounded in this text – “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” – but I do know that, in the end, I trust all these bridesmaids, foolish or wise, as well as all our candidates, our voters, our country, and you and me – again, foolish or wise! 

I find it helpful to keep in mind that at the end of all these somewhat eschatological –which is a theological way of saying “scary” –parables in chapter 25 are these first verses of chapter 26: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified’” (26:1-2). And, still knowing this, he went forward… to the cross… for us… and for all people (26:28). Or, as John says at a similar moment in his Gospel, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).