The Gospel According to Matthew 25:1-13
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Then the dominion of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But 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.’ 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The Gospel of the Lord…
Sometime ago, I heard a story on the radio about the human brain. The host talked about getting in his car, and suddenly realizing he had pulled into the parking lot of his office with very little recollection about how he gotten there. It was almost as if he was sleeping. His brain kicked in, and that familiar drive became something automatic. Unfortunately, for many of the callers, it wasn’t just a drive to work that was giving them that fast asleep feeling. Many of them felt caught in a routine, spending a day at work without a sense of having done anything. Dinner conversations with their families that they couldn’t really recall. They were living but sleeping. Alive, walking around, functioning, working, spending time with friends and family, but something was missing.
Don’t we all know that feeling? Of sleepwalking through life? Sometimes forgetting what week it is, or realizing that things have just started to feel the same day after day after day? Of waking up one day and wondering if this is all there is? If we could be more? If we could do more? If there is something out there to shake us out of the everyday?
Staying awake seems to be a problem for the followers of Jesus, just as it for the wise and foolish bridesmaids in our parable for this morning. The disciples fall asleep in the garden, after Jesus has commanded them to stay awake and pray as he waits for soldiers of the empire to arrest him. The bridesmaids, both wise and foolish, fall asleep, because the bridegroom is delayed. The excitement of the wedding isn’t enough to keep their eyes open, and all of them, the foolish ones with no oil, and the brides who have saved enough to keep their lamps lit, let their eyes close and nearly miss the coming of the bridegroom.
I’ll admit, this parable is pretty difficult to get into. I know many a preacher who wishes this text simply wasn’t in our lectionary. Parables are meant to surprise us, to shake up our sense of meaning- to make us think they will turn out one way when they turn out totally differently. And, parables are supposed to leave us wondering who we are in the story, who God might be, and what that means for us to live lives of faith. But, in this parable, I’m just not quite sure that I want to be any of the characters, and I certainly don’t get the sense that I want God to be any of them either. You have these bridesmaids, waiting on the return of the bridegroom, but falling asleep, only to realize that the bridegroom has been held up much longer than they anticipated. So some of them have enough oil in their lamps to light the way, and others do not. Those whose lamps are beginning to run dry ask the others to share, and without hesitation they say no, go out and buy your own. You should have known better. And, honestly, I don’t want to be either of those people- the ones who are ill prepared, because my own internalized protestant work ethic tells me that being ill prepared is something I should avoid at all costs. Yet, I also don’t understand the other five who refuse to share- surely they know that it isn’t the amount of oil you have that makes your lamp burn brighter- in fact, 10 lamps, even low on oil will always burn brighter than 5 left while the others run off to buy more. And then, there is a bridegroom, kept longer than anticipated, but, who shuts the door when the party finishes the procession, and who seems to have no more room for those who tarried.
For those first hearing this parable from the gospel, they were very much anticipating the return of Jesus, their bridegroom. It was supposed to be close, and yet he wasn’t returning when they thought he would. Things weren’t getting much better, and the temple, their holy house of worship had been destroyed. Followers of Jesus Christ were being persecuted and martyred. So Jesus’ return was important, because it meant that things would be restored to what they were supposed to be. We hear in Paul’s letter the fear of the followers of Jesus that those who had died had died too early and wouldn’t be a part of what was coming. Because something was surely coming. They feared, truly feared that those who had died had simply died too soon and would be lost to them for all eternity. Just as the bridesmaids waited for the bridegroom, those ancient followers were waiting, with bated breath for Jesus Christ to return. And it seemed to be taking a lot longer than they anticipated. Much, much too long, really.
The same can be said for us. We live with the knowledge that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. For some, this leads them to read deeply into the Thessalonians text, anticipating the return of Christ, and the drawing up Christians up into the clouds. For others, it has led them to see our parable in Matthew’s gospel as one of divine judgment. Figure out if you are wise or foolish, and get ready, because Jesus is coming. Don’t get caught without oil and locked out of the banquet. You better do all the good you can now, prepare as much as you can now, because if you don’t, well, you might just get shut out of the kingdom. But for many of us, this waiting for the coming of the kingdom has found us just feeling a little tired. Asleep. Waiting. Not sure exactly what we are waiting for, but waiting nonetheless.
A few weeks ago I was in a taxi heading home after teaching in Hyde Park. The driver asked me what I did for a living, and after telling her that I was a pastor and a teacher, she told me she had a question for me. Bracing myself to pull out all the important theological lingo I could manage, she said, “Pastor, are we in the end times?” The problem with any answer to that question is that the end times, well, most of us mainline protestants don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. The best answer I could come up with to her question was, “well, sometimes it feels like it, doesn’t it?” We know that the ending has already been written. We know that God loves all of creation with such a passion that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God. It isn’t about being saved or not being saved, of being let in or locked out. That is the wrong question. We know that God loves us and God has redeemed us, and what Christ did on the cross was for all creation for all time. It doesn’t depend on our level of oil anymore, because Jesus has filled us so full that nothing can ever empty our lamps. We shine like lights on a hill.
The right question is about what we will do while we wait. Will we fall asleep, will we sleep walk through this life? Will we keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect it to yield different results? We know that the bridegroom is coming. It has been promised. We know that God has a desire for all of creation. So what do we do while we wait? What do we do with this life in that not yet time, in the hours before that divine banquet? What do we do with this life, right now, and right here?
Our text from Amos has some pretty harsh words about what we do right now. The people were worshipping God and celebrating God’s deeds. They were offering sacrifices. And Amos declares that God hates their worship. God hates their sacrifices. God despises what they are doing. God despises these things because they are empty. The people are worshipping without a connection. They are offering praise and ignoring injustice. They are singing songs about what God has done and doing nothing on their own. And so Amos tells them that God is going to let justice roll down like water, and let righteousness be an ever-flowing stream. It sounds pretty, but the meaning isn’t. God is going to let justice flood the world, because the people are offering pretty music with no substance. This justice is going to flood the world, and turn everything upside down, it is going to drown the systems and the structures we have come to believe are ordained by God, and the world is going to be turned upside down.
Do you want to wake up? Do you want this waiting time to mean something more, to be something bigger than yourself? Because we know that God has saved us. We know that Jesus Christ has redeemed us. That’s the grace. That’s the big answer. But what we don’t know is how we will respond. Will we offer empty praise, prayers and sacrifices that mean nothing? Will we come here Sunday after Sunday and celebrate the day of the Lord only to return to our homes empty and without purpose? God’s great purpose is justice. God’s great plan is righteousness. God is flooding the world with justice, changing it moment by moment and day by day. That is what wakes us up from the day to day of this life. Doing justice. Restoring the world. Dreaming bigger than we ever imagined. Seeking God’s will for the world, for ourselves, for this church, and being a part of God’s creative vision.
Our life is so much more than just sleep walking. Our life can be so much more than just emptiness. It can be filled to the brim with the oil of God, we can be set on fire to do the work of God in the world. We can wake up, plug into something bigger and greater than ourselves. So let justice flow like waters, let righteousness be an everflowing stream. Amen.