Sermon; 23 Pentecost/Proper 27A; Matthew 25:1-13
We are approaching the end. We're approaching the end of our liturgical season as we only have, after today, one more Sunday of green, and then a Sunday of white, and then we are into the new year of Advent. So we are approaching the end of our liturgical year. Jesus, in our scriptures, is approaching the end of his time on earth. And if you've been following along with us and remember what I talked about before, all of these past several stories that we've heard from Jesus have taken place during Holy Week.
He is in Jerusalem and if you read in Matthew 25, there are a couple more parables after this, and one of the things Jesus tells his disciples is that in two days the Son of Man will be arrested and handed over. So chronologically, as far as scripture is concerned, Jesus is coming to the end of his days on earth as he only has a couple more left.
We are coming to the end of all of this. Last week's parable, and I'd be surprised if anyone remembered the parable from then because there was none as we celebrated the Feast of All Saints and renewed our baptismal vows, was also an Advent parable. They are termed Advent parables because they deal with the end of days, the end time, and the return of God. And in the bible there are a few more Advent parables coming up.
Today's parable is the second of four Advent parables that Jesus gives at the end of his days here on earth.
In these four Advent parables, and I just want to point out that were are in sort of a min-Advent, we have these parables talking about the end of time and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah so pay attention and keep awake. And it just so happens that in the Eastern Orthodox church the Advent season begins next Sunday. A little earlier, but also longer. than our season. So we are getting ready. We are getting ready for Advent. We are getting ready for the end of days. We are getting ready for the time of keeping awake and keeping watch.
In these four Advent parables, today's is probably the most famous. This is probably the one that most people know. Jesus tells this parable about ten bridesmaids, or ten young women, or ten virgins, who are gathered to wait for the bridegroom and five are wise and five are foolish. The five wise women were wise only because they brought extra oil. And then all ten fall asleep while waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. At midnight there was a cry that the bridegroom has arrived, so wake up and come into the party. It's now that the five foolish women realize they don't have enough oil, so they ask the other five to share what they have. The wise reply that there won't be enough for everyone and tell them to go down to the dealer and buy oil for themselves.
But while they're gone the bridegroom comes and the five wise women go into the party with the him and the door is locked. By the time the five foolish women come back, it's too late, they've been shut out. So they bang on the door asking to be let in, “Lord! Lord! Let us in!” But he replies, “I don't know you, go away.”
What's going on here, in this parable of the five wise and five foolish women?
It's been pointed out that this is really an allegory, where each piece of the story stands for something else. The bridegroom represents Jesus, the Son of Man, who is expected to arrive but delayed. The wedding feast is the heavenly banquet that we look forward to and that Holy Communion symbolizes. The women represent people – either in the church or other followers – doing the best they can to follow and wait for the Messiah. And the oil has often been attributed as representing good works. And you see that in a variety of places. Jesus says, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel.” And there are other places where oil represents good works.
But that allegory begins to break down. Notice that all ten women had lamps of oil. All ten were apt to do good works. And also notice that all ten women fell asleep. All ten were waiting, but they all fell asleep – both foolish and wise. Had the bridegroom showed up on time, all ten would have entered into the banquet feast. Nobody would have been locked out.
So . . . . Jesus says, “Keep awake, for you know not the time or the hour.”
The problem, though, is that we can't do good works all the time. We can stay awake all the time. We need to sleep. That's a physical part of who we are. Deacon Sue, who works for a certain company, now works third shift – from 10 pm to 7 am, and then comes here to serve. But after service, she's going home to sleep. What happens if Jesus comes while she's sleeping? Does she miss out?
All of us need sleep. Both the wise and foolish had to do that. So you can lay the blame on the guy who was late.
This parable has often been used, at least I've heard it this way, as a hell and damnation parable. That is, if you aren't always doing good works, if you don't always have your lamps filled with oil, if you aren't continually working for Jesus, you're going to miss out. Pay attention, and don't miss out. You need to continually work, because if you aren't working, you will get locked out of the heavenly banquet and Jesus will tell you, “I don't know you.” So stay awake. Pay attention. Stay alert. And do good woks for God. But the problem is that we need to sleep.
So rather than being a hell and damnation parable, or rather than blaming the five foolish women for not having enough oil, or rather than laying the blame on the guy, I want to point out that this story is really about our need to be willing to wait.
And now, more than ever, I think, we need to be willing to wait. We, in America anyway, have developed a culture of right now. There was a time when, if you needed to communicate with somebody, you wrote on a piece of paper and mailed it, and then you waited a week or longer for them to get it, and even longer for them to respond. It was a little slower. We all remember the election of 1948 with Truman holding up the newspaper that said, “Dewey Wins!”
And then we developed the fax machine. I remember when my office got a fax for the first time and I could send documents to another office within a few minutes. And then we got cell phones and smart phones and everything is right now. But we need to learn to wait.
In this past election, regardless of how you voted, we have hopefully been retaught on how to wait. I was listening to a podcast last night and the woman was talking about the 2016 election and she was refreshing her news feed every two minutes to see who won. But regardless of whether new information came, or whether she turned it off and waited until morning, the results would be the same. We need to learn to wait.
I worked a football game on Friday – my second and probably my last as COVID is making a comeback and canceling games. But during halftime we were talking about the election. And one of my crew-mates said, “I don't get it. Dancing with the Stars can count 100,000 votes in two minutes and know who wins, but we have to wait 3-4 days to find out who won the presidential election.” We need to learn to slow down and wait.
And this is a good lesson for us as we enter into Advent in a few weeks. Because the push for Christmas is already here. The outside world has already started on Christmas sales and decorations. But we have to go through Advent before we can get to Christmas. We have to learn to wait.
So the five foolish women weren't foolish because they didn't have enough oil. They were foolish because they wanted the bridegroom to arrive when they expected and weren't prepared to wait. God works on God's time.
Yes there are things we need to do to push through to move sooner rather than later. Equal rights for women. Making sure that spousal abuse ends. Making sure society changes to create a more perfect union. But we must also learn to have patience and trust God and be prepared as best we can.
It's okay to go to sleep. It's okay to take a rest. But just practice patience and be ready for God when God comes on his time. And when God does come, we can say, “I was ready.”