Text: Matthew 25: 1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a] took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids[c] got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids[d] came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
One of the things which has always interested me about Jesus is that when he taught in parables, there are always several different ways to approach the parable. The parables are rich with meaning, and often we can find several characters in the story as it unfolds that we can relate to. Generally we can also find characters in the story that we can aspire to become. In the story of the prodigal son, many of us can see ourselves as the wayward son, having made some bad decisions. But we can also understand the power of forgiveness of the father in that story and we can identify the father as someone we would like to become. Another example is the Good Samaritan, we can relate with what it is like to get beat up and be left for dead, whether we think about that as emotionally or physically, many of us have been beaten up by circumstances in life. But we can also see how the Good Samaritan gives us an example of something to strive for, a person to emulate. Of course, with parables, not only do we have the opportunity to see ourselves often in different parts of the story, but we also have the chance to identify God. This is an important aspect of the parable as well-it provides us the opportunity to look for and to find the Divine influence in the story.
These are some of the reasons I find this particular parable, the story of the ten bridesmaids that I read a few minutes ago, a difficult one to work with. I can’t find myself in the story, but worse yet, I can’t find a God that I can relate to.
Let me show you what I mean. We have 10 bridesmaids that are immediately identified as five being wise and five that are foolish; now certainly I can identify with the foolish because not every decision in my life has been the best one, but there is no resolution for the foolish. The five foolish bridesmaids are still left out, they are not allowed into the wedding banquet.
But the wise bridesmaids are not exactly the kind of people I would aspire to be. Look at what happens when the five foolish ones ask the five wise ones for help; they are told no-this is our oil, and if we share with you, we will all run out, so go buy your own.
In like manner, I wouldn’t necessarily aspire to be the groom in this story. When the bridesmaids that were sent away do return, the groom claims he doesn’t know them when they knock on the door. Who does that? The entire idea seems kind of petty and juvenile-you were not here and ready when we went in, so you are out of luck, nah, nah, nah-it reminds me of something you might see take place on a playground somewhere; but not in the teachings of Jesus. It doesn’t seem to fit.
Further observation leads me to wonder where God is in the story. Where is the unconditional love displayed, where is the forgiveness, where is the compassion? So there are a few questions around this parable that I find myself wondering about. What is the point of this story?If the problem actually was not enough oil, there would have been any number of ways to solve this problem. Why not share lamps and combine oil? Why not dispatch just one person to buy oil for the entire group? Why not leave just a lamp or two lit while the waiting takes place, so there is some light, and then have everyone light a lamp when the groom arrives? Like I said, I think there are any number of ways we could solve the problem that is presented, if that is actually the problem…but perhaps the parable is there to teach us something else.
I’m wondering if it is possible that this parable is a departure from what we are used to with Jesus and a departure from what we normally experience. If it is, then we must also encourage a departure from our normal techniques when it comes to interpretation of the parable. Maybe we are not to look for someone that we can identify with, perhaps there isn’t a character that is a hero that we can aspire to be more like. Perhaps there are not multiple layers of meaning and interpretation and multiple roles where we can plug our own experience in and relate to the parable; perhaps this parable is so different, it doesn’t have any of those qualities we have spoken of about other favorite parables.
So that really begs the question; what is this parable about and what are we to think of it?
The obvious answer to these questions can be found in the text itself. In the story we find reference to what is called the “eschaton” or the second coming of Jesus. This second coming is depicted as something as a surprise attack and you had better be ready, because there won’t be any second chances.
Well, it is time for the famous Pastor Chuck disclaimer; these are my thoughts and ideas and they don’t have to be your thoughts. You are welcome to interpret this parable any way you want, but I, for one, reject the notion of a surprise attack and even reject the idea of a second coming of Jesus.
There are many Bible scholars who agree that the references to the eschaton by Matthew is a redaction of what might have been an older and certainly an oral story circulated among followers and perhaps attributed to Jesus. I could spend the rest of my time supporting this case, but I will ask that for now, you just play along and entertain the notion that this parable actually has nothing to do with a second coming of Jesus.
Of course, then the next question is what does it have to do with if not the second coming? This is an interesting thought and can lead us to some interesting conclusions.
My first thought is that this parable may be about how the world actually is rather than what the world could become. In other words, it is a story of how things work, without condemnation, but also without any compassion. It is very matter of fact. A modern day interpretation of this parable may sound something like this; there were ten travelers, five who were wise and five who were foolish. The five that were wise left for the airport early and when they were delayed, they still had time to clear security and boarded the airplane with time to spare. The five who were foolish took too long to get through security and missed their flight. When the five foolish ones called the others on their cell phones and said “hey, wait for us” –the five wise travelers said “no” – then everyone will miss the plane. When the five foolish travelers reached the gate they were told the plane has already taken off and the gate is locked.
In my modern day translation of this parable there really are not any good guys and bad guys, there is simply the way things are. Airplanes are easier to catch before they leave the ground. There isn’t any judgement or condemnation present, but there also isn’t much compassion; if you get stuck in traffic or have other complications, you will miss your flight. I’ve been there and done that.
Of course, this parable has nothing to do with actual airplanes. But it has everything to do with awareness of your world and having the wisdom to bring some extra oil with you in whatever form that happens to take. In my interpretation, extra oil can translate into extra time, but extra oil can mean a lot of different things.
I want to take just another minute and point out what a little extra oil might mean for us.
Over the past year we have seen a few changes come our way and we have talked about even more changes on the horizon. I have spoken often of how people seem to be bailing out of Christianity, how many churches are experiencing membership decline and how the rising group of people who say they are spiritual but not religious will impact our future. I have told you on many occasions that what we have been doing for the last 30 years is no longer sustainable and we may have to find some new ways of being and new ways of doing.
I’m hoping a study of this parable may help you realize that when I say these things, I say them without condemnation and I don’t intend to inflict any guilt or responsibility on the church or any individual. What I’m saying is simply a reflection of what is; what I am saying is that if you arrive at the gate after your departure time, you will miss your flight. It is information about how the world works. It is information about how the world may have changed and it is information about what extra oil looks like as we move forward.
We need to be prepared for the future that has already arrived.
In September of last year I offered a vision for our future that I called the Revitalization of Lewiston First United Methodist Church. Many of you picked up copies of this document and looked at it. Others read it thoroughly and carefully. Then in October of last year we voted at our Charge Conference to pursue some of what is listed in this original document and we have made some significant progress.
I want to offer at this time another document. This one is much shorter. It is a Revitalization Recap and it provides background information about where we are, what we have accomplished so far and what we hope to accomplish as we move forward. You might say this most recent document includes what many of us consider to be extra oil for our journey ahead. This is an outline of how we prepare for how the world is. There isn’t any judgement or condemnation here; there is simply a plan for how to move forward with wisdom and take that extra oil with us and leave for the airport early.
Both documents are available in the lobby as you exit the sanctuary. Go in peace and go with God. Amen.