Signs of Christ’s coming…

Matthew 25:1-13
Rev. Dr. Christy Newton
12 November 2017

Matthew 25:1-13
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.*  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”  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.”  
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.  Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*

Signs of Christ’s coming… next 3 Sundays leading up to Advent… 
Anticipating Advent…
     In this story, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives teaching his disciples, critiquing the practices of the Pharisees, and talking about the signs of Christ’s coming.  “Tell us,” the disciples say, “when will this be?  And what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”  Context—so much injustice, storms…
     Jesus answers—like he so often does—with metaphor and stories.  We hear, “Be ready.”  “Be watchful.”  “Stay awake.”  “Be faithful.”  “Be fruitful.”  Then, beginning in Matthew 25, we hear 3 stories that further elaborate and explain what Jesus is talking about.  The first is this story of the Ten Bridesmaids.
     It is important to remember that the gospels are not histories; they are not historical accounts.  They are theologies—presenting a particular point of view about how God works in the world.  And in Matthew’s gospel, he puts this story in Jesus’ mouth and starts it with, the kingdom of heaven will be like this. . . . 

     Then as now, this story is reflective of the gross disparities present in society.  The 10 bridesmaids are broken into 2 diametrically opposed groups:  in modern-day parlance and understanding, we might describe the 2 groups as the clever, pretty children of privilege and the stupid, plain children of working-class, single parents.  And this is where our problems really begin. . . .
     Although this is supposedly a parable about a wedding, there is no bride!  And the bridegroom shows up late. Very odd.  This is a big clue that this is not really about what we might think it is about at first. . . .  Part of the Jewish tradition of that time was for the bridegroom to come to the home of the bride’s family, where the party would continue.  The task of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived by lighting his way with their lamps.  The 10 bridesmaids all show up with their lamps, lit and ready to welcome the bridegroom.  And they wait . . . and they wait . . . and they ALL fall asleep.  All 10 of them fall asleep.
     And then, at midnight—who starts their wedding party at midnight?!—the groom finally arrives.  But after all this time, 5 of the bridesmaids—let’s say the stupid, plain children of working-class, single parents—realize they are running low on oil and need more.  So, sacrificing their pride, they turn to the clever, pretty children of privilege—or maybe to their sisters, friends, and family—and they say, “please share with us . . . give us oil for our lamps, keep them burning. . . .” 
     But the pretty children of privilege say no.  If we give you some, there might not be enough for us. You will just have to go out and buy some for yourselves.  This zero-sum mindset is unfortunately and unhelpfully pervasive in our culture:  If I’m going to have more, you’re going to have to get less.  Remind you of current conversations about taxes?  Sharing isn’t going to cut it.  Abundance is not a reality.  I’m going to get mine, no matter what it costs you. 

     And then, we also run into a literary problem that really doesn’t make sense:  Just how far away is the bridegroom?  He must be already in sight.  So, really, how much extra oil are they going to need?  Clearly, the clever girls could have given them some oil; they were just being stingy and petty. 
     And where are the others going to find oil to buy at midnight?  Come on now!  And even if there is a place for them to buy oil, do these girls have pocket money for extra oil?  Are you kidding?  They’re just kids, and their moms hold down two jobs and still can’t make ends meet. The rich girls have all the oil they need.  Their parents set up their lamps, made sure they had extra oil, got them new outfits for the occasion, and showed them the proper way for a young lady to greet a bridegroom.
So, of course, the bridegroom comes and the smart, pretty, rich girls meet him and escort him into the banquet. And the door is shut.  When the others return, knock on the door, and ask for the door to be opened, they are turned away, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 
Is this troubling to anyone else?
I think I have told you the story before about a talk I heard Fred Craddock give to a group of child advocates.  But it is good enough to tell again: 
“God, don’t you have too many children?  God as single parent. . . 
Molly Shepherd adopted 57 children. . . . 
Those who are able help those who are unable. . . .  That should catch on. . . . 
That is the purpose of government.  And church.” 

“Those who are able help those who are unable” helps me make sense of this troubling parable.  Most often I hear teaching on this parable that amounts to “be like the wise ones, bring extra oil”—extra faith maybe or extra preparedness, I don’t know. . . .  But I don’t want to be associated with these so-called wise ones.  I believe their example and behavior is absolutely unacceptable.  They don’t seem to have any concern for the plight or exclusion of the others.  They certainly don’t help, even though they are able.  They simply go off to the party—as if they somehow earned it.  See, we got in because we are wise and prepared…. But do only the wise make it into the kingdom of God?  
What do we learn from the gospels about sharing, serving one another, and God’s incredible, abundant, overflowing grace?  Earlier in Matthew, Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  At the heart of Jesus’ message lies a generous God who invites us into greater and deeper and wider generosity even at great cost to ourselves.  And by contrast, the so-called wise bridesmaids in this parable seem to be more like the Pharisees that Jesus so often criticizes.  Last are first.  First are last.  So, the kingdom of God is like what?
Exclusion may be consistent with Matthew’s idea that there are some in the community of Christ who really don’t belong there, and when judgment is rendered, they will be exposed and shut out from the blessings of salvation.  But I’m not so sure he got this idea from Jesus.  In fact, it seems absolutely contrary to the heart of the gospels.  Although the church has frequently shut doors over the centuries, God doesn’t shut doors.  And Jesus unquestionably occupied himself with breaking down barriers that kept people separated, excluded, and apart.  Even Biblical ideas of judgment are consistently about restoring and reclaiming those who have gone astray rather than punishing them.  Biblical judgment is more about mercy than retribution.  In God’s judgment, the final word is not death; it is that God’s steadfast love endures forever. 
And yet, the interaction at the end of this parable sounds so final and condemning:
“Lord, lord, open to us.”           “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
How does this relate to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7?  “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  Curious.
And then, Jesus sums up the parable with these perplexing words:  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  Jesus does not mention oil or the wisdom or folly of those who do or don’t bring extra.  Jesus’ critique is for those who fall asleep. . . .  But ALL of the bridesmaids fall asleep.  Does this imply that none of them were prepared and attentive enough to get into the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus seems to be telling his disciples to be ready for what comes, to be engaged with the world and the presence of God, to work to make the kingdom of heaven a reality here and now, to stay awake and be attentive. 
But do you remember what happens in the very next chapter in Matthew—in Matthew 26?  Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He takes Peter and James and John with him and asks them to stay awake with him as he prays.  And the disciples, who have just heard this story of the bridesmaids and the important charge to stay awake, instead, go to sleep.  They go to sleep as Jesus struggles with what lies ahead….
What a perplexing scene we are left with:  Inside is a group of selfish bridesmaids who refuse to do what Jesus taught—to share generously.  Outside is a group of excluded bridesmaids who experience rejection despite their last-ditch efforts to knock on the door, which Jesus said would be opened.  And then we have sleeping disciples who don’t seem to understand what Jesus has been teaching them.
And we, too, are left to wrestle with this story.  The kingdom of heaven will be like what?  Where is the hope?  Where is the grace?  How can we call forth the very best in ourselves that is always willing—radically and even foolishly—to share oil with whoever asks?
I think the answer lies in Molly Shepherd’s rule:  “Those who are able help those who are unable.”  It’s not about having extra oil or running out in the night to get extra oil.  It is not about knocking on the door or staying awake at the right time in the right way.  We all have been wise, and we all have been foolish.  We all have been asked to stay awake, and we have slept.  Yet the promise of God’s love remains.  Through all our attempts and failings and successes and do-overs, our God is with us, desiring the best for us, bursting forth new life, and opening doors that have been corroded shut.  Now, it is up to us to be awake and alert for ways to share this new life.  It is up to us to be prepared to share the light that we’ve been given.  It is up to us—in whatever ways we are able, to help those who are unable. 

Let it be so.  Amen.