November 12, 2017 “In or Out?” – Matthew 25:1-13
“In or Out?”
November 12, 2017 – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
We stood there waiting for the doors to open, ready to hop on. It was last year in Toronto and we were riding the subway between our Airbnb apartment and our daughter’s apartment. Beth and I move a little slower these days, so we were very conscious of the brief moments one has to get on the train before the doors close again. So we took our positions, paid attention, and got ourselves ready to move when the time arrived.
In Matthew 25, in some of His last recorded parables, Jesus warned His followers about being ready when the time arrives. This week’s story reads almost like a little joke about ten young bridesmaids who need to be ready for a wedding to start. Five of them are wise and diligent and five of them are foolish and ditzy. When the time arrives, the wise girls hop on the wedding train while the door shuts in the faces of the foolish ones.
The word “foolish” in verse 2 is moros, the root of our word “moron.” These five foolish bridesmaids are truly dumb girls. I like to imagine that Jesus’ listeners were chuckling right up through verse 10, at those five silly girls locked out in the dark.
This parable is the beginning of the second half of what is sometimes called “The Olivet Discourse,” a sermon about the end times which Christ preached while seated on the Mount of Olives. Matthew chapter 24 is the first half—predictions about both the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. and about what will happen just before Jesus returns, then a couple little stories about being prepared. In chapter 25 Jesus told three longer parables of what it means to be prepared for His second coming. This first one is about a wedding.
Jesus spoke of Himself as a bridegroom in Matthew 9:15 and John the Baptist called him that in John 3:29. Paul picked up on the image in II Corinthians 11:2 and Ephesians 5. We see it again in the great wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19 and 21. That image goes all the way back to Old Testament prophets like Hosea who pictured God as married to His people. It all suggests that we should feel the same kind of excitement and nervousness about Jesus coming back as a bride feels about her wedding day.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in this wedding story. We have very little information about first century wedding customs in Palestine. We’re not told why the ten virgins were waiting for the groom, where their vigil took place, why the groom was late, or where they were all going when he got there. We only know that they were to go out to meet him and that they needed lamps for the purpose. The exact arrangements are vague.
We do know it was customary for the groom to come to the bride’s home and escort her in a joyful procession to his own house. Our best guess that these ten girls were the groom’s young relatives waiting at his house to go out and meet him as he returned with his bride. It got long because the bride and groom first lingered over a feast at her house.
Our weddings are shorter and more scheduled. You print “3 p.m., Saturday, June 24, 2018” in a fancy font on invitations and you’ve got a time certain. Be ready then. The florist knows when to show up with flowers and maybe a caterer with food for the reception. Groomsmen know when to be in their suits and bridesmaids in their dresses. Nobody gets sleepy waiting for some indefinite period. You have a pretty good idea when the groom will walk in and the bride come down the aisle on her father’s arm. But in Jesus’ story the time is unclear. The groom and bride will show up whenever they show up. These lamp girl bridesmaids needed to be ready for hours to go at a moment’s notice.
Verses 3 and 4 display the practical foolishness and wisdom of the young women. Their whole job for the wedding was to carry lamps, or perhaps torches, to help light a nighttime procession in an age when there were no street lights. The wedding party was depending on them to illuminate the way. But five of them failed to prepare. They brought no extra oil to keep the lights burning until they were needed.
Verse 5 says the bridegroom was delayed. For us looking back as Christians, it’s a pretty clear symbol of the fact that Jesus has been delayed for two thousand years. Long ago He said, “I’ll be back,” but it hasn’t happened yet. Here it says that all of them got sleepy and dozed off. Likewise the Christian church. It’s been a long, long delay and the Church of Jesus Christ has gotten pretty sleepy about it all.
The bridegroom finally does show up in verse 6, at midnight when the lamps are truly going to be necessary. In verse 7 the girls all get up and get their lights in order. If they were lamps then they would need to trim the wicks to keep them from smoking and to provide the best light. They would also add extra oil. If they were torches, they would need to pour more oil on the rags so they would last for the length of the procession. Either way, they had to perform last-minute preparation of their lights.
Most of us have grown up in an age when it’s frequently easy to skate by totally on last-minute preparations. Surprise guests for dinner? Swing by Costco, pick up a frozen lasagna and a box of salad, crank up the microwave, and you’re ready. Stores themselves don’t keep backstock. Everything is ordered and shipped to arrive just when it will be needed. A complex computer program figured out how to have that lasagna and salad arrive at the loading dock just a day or two before you would walk in to buy it.
The same goes for homework or driving directions or plans for that new deck. We don’t need to think ahead too much when we can just look up answers on our phones at the last minute. What we don’t really consider is how much preparation and forethought goes into making all those products and information available to us in an instant. A huge network of growers and shippers and retailers keep our stores stocked. Someone out there updated that news site you are reading for homework or that Google map you are driving by. Someone else got things ready for you to just reach out and grab what you need.
In verse 8, those foolish bridesmaids wanted to take advantage of someone else’s preparation. When they realized their lamps or torches were going to run out of oil and go out, the asked the girls who brought extra to share. What they didn’t realize is that there wasn’t enough oil to go around. Shared out, no one would have enough, like happens when everyone rushes to the store before snow falls and that modern just-in-time delivery and stocking system breaks down.
Here’s where the parable turns harsh. In verse 9 the wise young women tell the morons to go buy their own extra oil. And in verse 10, by the time they get back from Burt’s all-night bait, beer and lamp oil shop, it’s too late. The bridegroom has arrived and led them all back to the wedding banquet hall and “the door was shut.”
As I said on my blog this past week, most of us here at Valley Covenant are not too keen on the idea of a shut door in relation to our faith. We want people to feel welcome. On cold dark nights in the winter, we open our doors to some of the poorest and, frankly, dirtiest people in town to have a place to sleep. We don’t want anyone to be excluded from the love of Jesus. Those fake Christians on the alt-right or at Westboro Baptist may exclude people, but we don’t. We’re too loving, too kind, too Christian for that.
But then our loving spirit of inclusion bumps into what Jesus actually says, what the Bible actually says. God forbid I give the impression that I am in favor any form of hate speech or activity. I don’t want to offer any hint of excuse for excluding people from God’s love on the basis of race or culture or language or gender or even on the basis of moral purity. But the Scriptures do in fact confront us with texts that turn on the idea that God does and will finally shut some doors.
In the very beginning, at the end of Genesis chapter 3, God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and closed off the way back. Genesis chapter 7 verse 16 says that after Noah and his family went into the ark, “the Lord shut him in,” thereby shutting everyone else out. In Matthew 7:13 Jesus taught about going in through the “narrow gate” and all the many people who won’t enter it. And at the end of the whole biblical story in Revelation 22:14 and 15, we’re told how those who “wash their robes” are in God’s city, while a whole list of evil people are left outside. It’s all harsh, really harsh.
It’s tempting to reject the idea and like some of my friends and some of the theologians I read, just ignore these Bible passages. The term for that view is universalism. Everyone is in. No one is left out. Jesus will save everyone in the end.
On the other hand, it’s also tempting to become smug, complacent, exclusionary Christians quite happy to accept the fact that God will shut out some stupid and mean people while we ourselves will waltz right into the kingdom.
I don’t think Jesus meant for us to fall into either of those traps. He taught us neither universalism nor complacent exclusion of others. He didn’t teach that everyone would be saved and He didn’t teach you and me to be confident about our own spiritual condition while expecting others to land outside when the time comes.
No, this parable Jesus gave us for today is asking you and me which side of the door we will land on when that day comes. Are we going to be wise or foolish members of the wedding party at the great marriage of the Lamb? Will we go out prepared with lamps burning when He comes or will we be frantically scrambling to get ourselves in order at the literal last minute of time?
If we want to be wise, then, what does that mean? What do those lamps, does that oil symbolize in the parable? Jesus didn’t explain it and there have been several answers. Traditionally, Christians took the extra oil to mean love or good works. We get ready for Jesus to come back by living lives of Christian charity toward others.
Another interpretation remembers that in the Bible oil is associated with the Holy Spirit. So be ready by being filled with the Spirit. Another view is that oil is needed to get into the wedding, so it must symbolize faith in Jesus. We need to make sure that we really believe in Him. Still another reading focuses on the fact that oil produces light. So the way to prepare for Jesus is by witness about Him, being light to the world, like He said we are.
Which is it, then? What makes us ready for the Lord? Love? The Holy Spirit? Faith? Witness? Maybe none of them. Maybe all of them. As I said, Jesus didn’t explain this parable in terms of what items in the story mean. All He did was add what we’ve got in verse 13, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
All our contemporary just-in-time, last-minute readiness at the store and on-line depends on knowing something. The retailer has an algorithm telling it how many boxes of salad need to be on the floor next Wednesday when you and everyone else who needs salad go shopping. Those directions Siri speaks to you from your phone have to come from a program that knows how to get you there. But Jesus says we do not know when He’s coming. We don’t even know exactly how to prepare.
All that means that our preparation cannot be last-minute. We don’t know when that minute will come. We cannot wait to start living as Christians when we figure out exactly what God wants us to do with our lives, whether it’s job or family or which Bible version is best. We often don’t know those things either. There is a lot we don’t know, but we still must prepare ourselves for the Lord’s return. The only way I know to do that is to practice, to think ahead about what God wants for you, and start doing it, as best you can, right now.
So many things in our lives take practice if we’re going to be ready to do them well. You breeze through that spreadsheet you use every day at work, but struggle with the tax software you only use once a year. Computer programs take practice. So do sports. You’re way more likely to sink that free throw if you’ve repeated that shot a hundred times every afternoon after school for a couple months. It’s true in relationships too. If you want scintillating romantic encounters in your marriage, they are much more likely to happen if you regularly offer each other compliments and constantly forgive mistakes and frequently bring home flowers or change a diaper or whatever makes your spouse feel loved and blessed by you. Many of the best things in life take faithful practice to turn out well. Our Christian faith is like that too.
As this story about a wedding suggests, our relationship with God has romance in it. God loves us. He wants us to be with Him. He wants us to join Him at banquet, to be on the inside when the door is shut. So over and over, Jesus and the whole Bible call us to practice our faith, to order our lives in such a way that we are regularly and constantly doing the things God asks of us, all for our own good and happiness.
Atheist groups want the tax exemptions religious organizations enjoy. I’ve heard the phrase “practicing atheist.” I have to smile. What exactly do you practice as an atheist? Get up in the morning and recite what you don’t believe? Faithfully stay away from church? Not read the Bible every day? A “practicing atheist” makes no sense, but a “practicing Christian” is the wisest, most reasonable person on earth. Get up to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Struggle to say a kind word to someone who hurt you. Give a hand to someone in need. Avoid a temptation. Speak a good word about Jesus. It all makes perfect sense, because you are practicing for that day you see Jesus face to face, practicing to be with Him forever.
Part of why we are here as a church is to give ourselves opportunities to practice what really matters. As we said at the beginning this morning, worship is practice for eternally singing God’s praises. Bible reading and Sunday School are practice for sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him teach us forever. Giving and serving others is practice for living together in the light of His love that will never end. Praying is practice for a conversation with the Lord that will go on and on and on.
For all its dire warning, as I suggested, it’s no accident this story is about a wedding. We are headed for a happy event, for great joy, for an awesome celebration. All the practice, all the hard stuff, all the Bible study and prayer and service—it’s all aimed at getting us closer to that wonderful time, at keeping us from being left out.
Jay and Jan, our friends in Chicago, told us about going to a wedding in the middle of a blizzard. A dear friend was getting married. So they packed their car with blankets and food and set out to travel twenty miles across a frozen city. It took four hours crawling through snow packed roads, but they made it, on time. It was one of the most beautiful weddings they had ever seen. The party afterward was hilarious, fueled by sheer relief that guests were there and that the wedding actually happened. Jay and Jan were so glad they went to all the trouble to get there. That’s how it will be with the Kingdom of heaven, with the wedding where Jesus is the Bridegroom.
May you and I make the effort to arrive there at the wedding, ready when the time comes, having practiced and prepared for our parts. May we keep our lights burning, and our hearts aflame, so that we will be safely inside those doors when they close.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj