Sermon based on Matthew 25: 1-13. I have been working on a book. The book is not a novel that will grab the reader from the opening line. The book is not one on theology, so profound that it would become an instant classic.
No, I am working on something perhaps far more important; the book I am working on is a book of passwords. It all started, this past Christmas when I gave my wife a small diary that she uses to store her user names and passwords for all the important internet sites she uses. I bought it for her because she was using her daily calendar for that purpose and would carry it around in her purse. Furthermore, every year she would have to re-write all her passwords and usernames into a new calendar. Now, she has one book that she keeps in a safe place at home but can turn to it, when she forgets or must make a change.
After giving her the book, I realized that as the old saying goes, what is good for the goose is good for the gander; what is good for a woman is equally good for a man. Not only have I been known to forget my username and password on occasion, but more importantly working on the book is an acknowledgement that if absent, Beth may need access to some of the important websites that we use. Since so much of our banking and bill paying is done online, unless we prepare, we would needlessly face some major challenges accessing the information if one of us was suddenly absent.
I share that with you because the Gospel of Matthew has been discussing the challenges of absence --- in this case the absence of Jesus. In the parable of the King's Son's wedding found in chapter 22, the King doesn't show up until the wedding hall was already filled with guests. In the parable which directly precedes our lesson this week --- the faithful servant and the unfaithful servant found in chapter 24 --- the problem of absence revolves around the “delay” of the master. With today’s parable it is obvious Jesus was preparing the disciples for his absence, something to which the author of Matthew and we need to consider as well in our day and age.
To help us let us turn to today’s lesson: the parable of the ten bridesmaids. First some context. In a typical wedding of that time, the bridesmaids would accompany the groom to the home of the bride, then the bridesmaids would accompany the couple to the site of the wedding and banquet. Just imagine a small rural community that --- unless the bride was from a community far away --- was a joyous journey from home to home to banquet all within a block or two.
With that in mind, we read that Jesus told a parable and said the “…the kingdom of heaven will be like ….” ten bridesmaids who go out to meet the bridegroom. This bridegroom however we are told “was delayed.” The word we translate into delay in English is chronizontos which not only means “delay,” but it also has the sense of lingering. It indicates that the bridegroom was not being forcibly prevented from coming, but rather is overdue of his own choice. The groom is in no big rush. In the meantime, Jesus tells us that the bridesmaids get bored as they wait that no amount of snicker’s bars could help. It gets so long that Jesus tells us that they all fall asleep.
“But at midnight there was a cry!” Our translation does not convey it exactly because it is bit awkward in English. Roughly the Bible suggests that in the middle of the night there was an inbreaking --- “a behold!” a “TaDa --- the bridegroom!”
We can just imagine the impact on the household waking up with start, with the scurrying and sudden need to get ready for the trip to the bride’s home. But it is now that we find out what we readers were told earlier, five of the bridesmaids, had brought extra olive oil for their lamps, but five did not --- there are five who are called “wise” and five who are called “foolish.”
The five without enough oil try to borrow from those who have extra but the ones with extra do not have enough to share because that would leave everyone short. Rather, the five without rush out to find some to buy. How they were going to find a 24-hr. convenience store at this late hour we are not told.
In the meantime, the five with extra have enough not only to accompany the groom to the bride’s home --- the part of the journey we are never told about --- as well as enough to reach the location of the banquet. The five who by now had either picked up some olive oil or gave up entirely arrive at the banquet, but find wedding party is in full swing, with the doors locked. What we read is reminiscent of another parable where people then call out, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” What is the response from inside? We are told that the bridegroom, now the husband says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Then, we have an addition whether it is from the bridegroom in the parable or Jesus as a commentary it is not clear: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day not the hour.”
How does this parable help us as we live in the absence of the Kingdom? Well we could just go to sleep, because in this parable it doesn’t matter if you are awake or asleep. This parable however challenges us all around the theme of “being prepared.”
I don’t know about you but if all faith meant was to make sure I had enough oil in a lamp not only is that odd for faith is not so simple is it? Because, faith is not about believing correct thoughts with the right amount of certainty. Rather, faith is about trusting in Jesus, which, in turn, means living in the new reality Jesus teaches --- not status quo, business-as-usual living, but rather living in “the way” of Jesus, in anticipation of God's kingdom.
All the bridesmaids knew the wedding banquet had not been canceled. All the bridesmaids knew the groom was coming and the bride was waiting. Likewise, living in faith, is trusting and anticipating God’s full restoration affirming for example, the absolute equality and dignity of all people. But this “way of Jesus” means hanging in there being prepared even when it appears that the bridegroom has chosen to delay.
What does this mean for us? How do we live in the “way of Jesus,” faithfully prepared? I think it is important to return to the ten bridesmaids and who they represent. As you may have noticed, there was no noticeable difference between the wise five and the foolish five. Moreover, they all became weary and took a nap while waiting for the party to begin. The only difference between the women is that some carried a spare vial of olive oil.
The five without represent the “wisdom of this world--the live-by-what-you-see wisdom.” The five bridesmaids with extra on the other hand, represent the “wisdom of faith,” the wisdom of trusting in God's redemption of the world. The five wise bridesmaids lived in anticipation by taking “vessels of oil” in addition to the oil in their lamps. Interestingly, in some places in the Hebrew scriptures, oil is often a metaphor for good deeds. In other words, since we can’t take an extra vessel of faith around because faith does not come in measurable vials, we live out our faith in the way of Jesus, doing as Jesus would have us do as disciples during the absence. Living out our faith is that same as being equipped during the absence.
The five foolish bridesmaids on the other hand preferred participating in the established market system --- the status quo of the world --- so when the bridegroom interrupted this business-as-usual by breaking in and making a dramatic arrival, they wind up going to the marketplace to try to buy “faith” when they need it. And when they finally manage to make it back to the wedding celebration? They find the door to the wedding feast closed, to which they holler, “Lord, Lord.” This is reminiscent of another place when Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
What about the advice to “watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour?” Again, in chronological time, what we measure either by the moon, atomic clock or our number of birthdays it seems that the Lord is delayed. But for God ANY time is God’s time, even and especially the present moment. That said what else can this parable mean for us, who struggle against our marketplace scarcity mentality --- that everything has a price to be purchased when needed; either one has it or not?
Timothy Merrill, a Christian author, tells the story of running out of light while visiting Israel with his family. One day, they -- two adults and two little kids -- went out to hike through Hezekiah's Tunnel. Hezekiah’s Tunnel or the Siloam tunnel is a water tunnel that was carved underneath Jerusalem in ancient times. Its name is due to the most common hypothesis of its origin, namely that it dates from the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah in the late 8th and early 7th century BCE and corresponds to the water works mentioned in 2 Kings 20: 20.
It was rediscovered in the mid 1660’s and has become like many things in Israel an option for tourists. The portion of the tunnel that can be walked is not more than 30 inches wide with a varied height from 10 feet to 5 feet in some places with water came up to your knees unless a spring is flowing at which time the tunnel is closed. Well, Merrill and his family decided to walk through it.
“Is it safe?” his wife asked the man sitting at a little wood table at the entrance. “Yes, yes, safe,” he said. “Very safe. No problem.” Merrill asked him how long it would take to walk through it. “You walk twenty minutes. No problem,” he said. Merrill gave him some money and received in return four candles, one for each person, not more than a third-inch thick and about five inches long. These candles were to provide light for the 20 minutes it would take to slosh through Hezekiah's Tunnel.
Merrill retells the tale sharing that the candles illuminated the tunnel for only a few feet ahead and behind. As they felt their way through the tunnel, they sometimes had to stoop slightly as the tunnel shaft was not high enough to accommodate their height. After 10 minutes of wading occasionally hunchbacked through the water, Merrill began to think this trip might take longer than 20 minutes. He decided to blow out his candle, since he was the last one. The youngest child, 7, went first, then his mother, followed by the older child, 10, so he had no trouble following his wife and the boys without his candle lit. Now into 15 minutes of sloshing through the tunnel, following its curves and bouncing against its cold sides, and ducking to avoid bumping their heads, he noticed that Jeanie, his wife, was getting a little edgy. “Are we there yet?”
After twenty minutes had elapsed, they were still in the tunnel, with no indication that they were close to the end. Twenty-five minutes passed, 30 minutes, and now the candles were just about out. First one candle burnt out, then another. Thirty-five minutes and still walking, Merrill says, “Jeanie's candle was just about gone, and I was about to produce my candle when, at 40 minutes, we felt a rush of cool air and heard the sound of water flowing. This development energized our flagging spirits and we pressed on with fresh zeal. Soon we were at the other side, the end of Hezekiah's Tunnel!”
What interests us however is that Merrill goes on to relate that while he didn't carry an extra candle, as a group they had extra light --- his unlit candle --- in reserve should it be needed. Merrill added that for him the church, a diverse body of people of different sizes, backgrounds, needs and perspectives is the one God has given that has “candlepower” and “candle people” who can help to refuel, rekindle and recharge the soul-lamps of those people whose flame is flickering. The man at the marketplace said 20 minutes. It took at least 40. The man at the marketplace said the candles were sufficient for the journey. They weren't.
Jesus offers no specific condemnation of the women who fell asleep. They all did. But when the “Tada” moment appeared, when the bells rung, five of the women were candle people and had candle power; the others were not.
As people of faith, a faith that is not purchased but gifted, do we show and glow? Do we value being the oil of preparation not depending on the marketplace but living the way of Jesus faithfully equipped? Or when our faith is flagging, do we look to each other in the church? Or do we prefer to turn to the marketplace of scarcity to relight our faith we have received as gift? What do we do in the absence? Beth and I are trying to prepare for when one us is not there to keep the candle of our family lit. Let us live in faith in the way of Jesus and let us be the light for others faithfully prepared for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.