November 9, 2008 - Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
So there’s the blonde who couldn’t figure out how to put her new tiger jigsaw puzzle together. Her brunette friend came over, took one look and said, “Dear, what are you doing with all those Frosted Flakes?”
And how do you get a blonde’s eyes to twinkle? Shine a flashlight in her ear.
I confess I like blonde jokes and I further confess to the rather ridiculous imagination that Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 with a twinkle in His own eye as a kind of first century blonde joke.
The word “foolish” in verse 2 is moros, the root of our word “moron.” These five foolish virgins are truly dumb girls. Before anyone gets too upset with me (or Jesus for that matter), remember there are also five wise girls in this story. You may also recall that last week I told a joke about the immaturity of men. Moreover, Jesus’ previous parable in Matthew 24:45-51 is about a man who is not only dumb, but vicious.
In any case, I like to imagine that Jesus’ listeners were chuckling right up through verse 10, at those five silly girls locked out in the dark with no oil for their lamps.
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—mostly straightforward predictions of what will happen just before and when 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. We’re meant to feel the same kind of excitement and anticipation for Jesus coming back as a bride feels for her wedding day.
In this wedding parable it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. There’s 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 sketchy.
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. The best is probably that the 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 more scheduled. You print “3 p.m., Saturday, June 20, 2009” in gold ink on a couple hundred fancy invitations and you’ve got a time certain. Be ready then. The florist knows when to show up with flowers and the caterer with the food for the reception. The groomsmen know when to be in their tuxes and the bridesmaids in their dresses. Nobody’s going to get sleepy while they wait for some indefinite period. You know what time the groom will come in and the bride will walk down the aisle. But in Jesus’ story the time is unclear. The groom and bride will show up whenever they show up. These little lamp girls or bridesmaids or whatever they are need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and stay that way for many hours.
This is a parable of Christian life ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, saying, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.” We know He’s coming. We know we’ve got to be prepared. But we have no idea just when it will be. This may be the single way in which Christian life gets more and more difficult as time goes on. Jesus’ Church has struggled to sustain a sense of constant readiness now for nearly 2,000 years. It’s a long delay.
Jesus might have told this parable just for our own time. We live by last-minute preparations. Big dinner party? A quick trip to Costco, then, 45 minutes and a smoking microwave later, you’re ready for your guests. Our stores themselves don’t keep any backstock. Everything is ordered and shipped to arrive just when it will be needed. Some complicated computer program figured out how to have that frozen lasagna arrive at the loading dock just a day or two before you would walk in to buy it.
We’re not as good as other ages may have been with preparations over the long haul. We’re easily bored. We don’t like to wait. I walk in the post office and see a long line and I’ll leave. I’m not prepared for the delay. We have no patience for the distance. We’re ready to be done now. We make snap decisions instead of taking time to sleep on our choices. When waiting is forced on us, we hate it. It’s terribly difficult to go to bed waiting for the results of an interview, the grade on a test, or a call from the doctor.
As impatient as our time is, waiting was hard in every age. Jesus knew it would be. Verse 5 says all ten of the girls fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom. It was late at night. They got drowsy. They drifted off. Then the moment comes in verse 6. At midnight someone cries, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
That’s how you and I and every Christian through history have had to wait for Jesus. As Jesus has already said in chapter 24 verse 36, “No one knows that day or hour…” Just after our epistle reading, Paul says in I Thessalonians 5:2, “you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” There’s no way to anticipate it, no way for last minute preparation. In verse 10 of our text we see there’s no opportunity for a late night trip to Fred Meyer for lamp oil. We need to be prepared beforehand.
The five wise virgins were prepared by little jars of extra oil along with their lamps. On a backpack trip, you bring extra batteries for your flashlight. What does that mean in spiritual terms? There are all sorts of attempts to make an allegory out of this parable, to figure out what “oil” symbolizes. In the Bible oil is associated with the Holy Spirit, so some readers say we need to get filled with the Spirit. But lack of oil keeps them locked out, so others say it’s faith, the key to entering God’s kingdom. Still others focus argue that the oil produces light. So the way to prepare for Jesus is by witness, by being lights to the world.
Which, then, makes us ready for the Lord? Spirit? Faith? Witness? Maybe none of them. Maybe all of them. Jesus didn’t explain what the oil means because He wants us to be prepared for His coming in a larger way. We’re not prepared just because at some moment in the past we believed, accepted Him as personal Savior, got baptized in the Holy Spirit, or whatever. We’re prepared when we practice.
I used to carry a card in my wallet—Red Cross certification of training in CPR. A class of us came for weeks to watch video demonstrations, learn the number of breaths in proportion to chest compressions per minute, and practice over and over on a “ResusciAnnie” dummy hooked up to a monitor. We practiced until we got it perfect. Then we got our little cards.
I went back annually for a refresher course. A little more practice and I got a new card, certifying me for another year. But when we moved to Oregon I was off the mailing list. I forgot about it. For several more years I still felt prepared, but it was fading. Years ago now, I took the faded card out of my wallet and threw it away. I know procedures have changed. I know I haven’t practiced. I know I’m not ready to do CPR anymore. But maybe our practice for Jesus is just as out of date.
Like silly girls who thought one lamp of oil would be plenty for the evening, we fool ourselves into believing a little faith, a little spiritual experience, even long ago in the past is all we need. But Jesus is asking us to practice for the long haul, to keep on preparing ourselves, even to wait for our whole lives.
If we’re going to meet Him in the air, as Paul said to the Thessalonians, we don’t want to be airheaded bridesmaids. We’re preparing to live with our Lord for eternity. In verse 1, Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven will be like” this parable, a story of being ready to go out and meet the One who is coming. He’s asking us to prepare to be with Him forever. It takes practice.
Friday evening we watched a film about Harry Houdini. At one point Houdini explained his “magic.” “I used to practice cards and table magic for eight hours a day. I studied locks and handcuffs for five years solid… I used to run ten miles a day, push weights for two hours.” Houdini is practiced and ready for all sorts of tricks in this world. Yet he’s constantly obsessed with and unready for his death, his life in the next world. Jesus wants it to be just the opposite for you and me.
Bobby Knight said, “Everyone wants to wants to be on a winning team, but no one wants to come to practice.” Jesus is showing how that’s true of His kingdom. We all want in, just like those girls pounding on the door in verse 11. But not many of us want to take the trouble to get ready.
I recently heard someone use the phrase “practicing atheist.” I had to smile. What exactly do you practice as an atheist? Get up in the morning and recite what you don’t believe? A “practicing atheist” makes no sense, but a “practicing Christian” is the most reasonable person on earth. Get up to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Struggle to say a kind word to someone who’s hurt you. Give a hand to someone in need. Avoid a temptation. Get in a good word for Jesus. It all makes perfect sense, because you’re getting ready for forever. What makes no sense is to only practice things that are temporary.
Sure, it’s foolish to be unprepared for future events like a wedding or retirement or economic hard times. But as Christians we are even more the fools if we fail to consider what we say and do in light of eternal consequences.
Jesus is asking us to practice being people who are ready through the long wait. Keep praying even when it doesn’t seem to work. Keep worshipping even when it’s not very exciting. Keep giving even when there seems to be no reward. Keep loving even other people don’t love us. It’s hours and days and months and years of practice, practice doing what Kingdom people do, while we wait for a Kingdom that’s a long time in coming.
In the Houdini film we saw Harry’s standing challenge to let anyone punch him in the stomach. With a couple deep breaths and body tensed to give with the impact, he could shake the hardest blow. But the punch that he wasn’t ready for killed him. A young redheaded student in Montreal caught him with off guard with a hard right. It burst his appendix and he died. The man who escaped everything else couldn’t escape death. If the Lord waits much longer, neither will we. We want to be ready.
Verses 8 and 9 are troubling. The foolish virgins asked for a little help, but the wise ones refused. There won’t be enough oil to go around. It sounds callous. It sounds unchristian. It sounds as cruel as some blonde jokes are. But if oil in your lamp is about spiritual preparation for God’s kingdom, there’s no way someone else can do it for you. When Jesus returns we’ve either practiced our faith or we haven’t.
No one else can practice for us. Jesus did not want the story to end like it does in verse 12, with people locked out, with the Lord saying, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” That’s not what He wants. That’s why He warned us, why He told us the story. I am sure He would be more than happy for it to be only a blonde joke. He would love to have everyone there in His kingdom at the end. But we need to heed the warning, need to be ready, because there are consequences if we’re not.
There’s a time when the opportunity for practice is over. All the serving or giving or worship we might have done is forever past and we’re left with whatever oil we’ve saved for that moment. What we do now needs to connect with where we want to be then.
How do blondes car pool to work? By meeting up at the office at 7:45 a.m. As Christians we’re just as silly if we think we’re going to meet up with each other in the Kingdom if we haven’t already met here to travel together.
For all the dire warning, it’s no accident this story is about a wedding. We’re 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 good time.
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 some guests were there and the wedding had 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.
Five foolish blondes, five wise brunettes. That might be the joke. But it’s not about hair color. It’s not about male or female. It’s not about black or brown or white. It’s about loving Jesus enough to be ready for Him, to practice being with Him. It’s about not giving up when we get sleepy or bored or discouraged. It’s about this wonderful, challenging, exciting, difficult journey to meet our Lord and King. Will be ready?
So there’s the blonde who keeps a coat hanger in the back seat in case she locks her keys in the car. But you and I don’t want to be locked out of our Lord’s kingdom. Let’s be better prepared. Let’s join in worship and song as joyful practice for the songs we’ll sing when Jesus finally appears.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj