November 12, 2023

Ready for What?

Matthew 25:1-13

(First Reading – Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16)

David Germer

Our second reading is from Matthew 25, verses 1-13. Jesus is in Jerusalem, telling stories.

Listen for God’s word:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten young women 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 young women 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 young women 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.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

You’ve probably been asked, at some point, what your favorite passage of Scripture is. You’ve maybe even been asked to name a favorite parable. Pastors and Bible nerds might have been asked to name their favorite story in Matthew, or even in Matthew 25, or a favorite eschaton or end times about Jesus’ return.

Not once, in all my life, have a I heard anyone, respond to any of those questions, with: “the parable of the 10 bridesmaids.” Not once has someone said, “You know – the story about the ‘foolish women’ (I just love it when Jesus talks about ‘foolish women’) who are shown no grace after they fall asleep… in the middle of the night… waiting for a late man… and then try to get to the bridegroom/Jesus and he tells them that they’ve missed their chance – that’s my favorite!” Nobody says that.

I went looking for what some wise, faithful folks have said about this passage. Author Frederick Bueckner offered basically this: “I hate it when pastors pound the life out of parables; they are meant to be mysterious…” (and then, specifically about this parable, he tosses up his hands and says) “who knows what that one’s about!” I kept looking.

Thomas Merton, in a beautiful poem, reinterprets the story by reimagining or more accurately simply rewriting the ending, saying, “No, actually, Matthew and Jesus got it wrong: all 10 bridesmaids got in.” I like that, and shared this in our Program Staff meeting last week. Patrick, with humor, but very unhelpfully (to me) said, “You know if you’re writing on a farm or from a monastery you can get away with that. If you are preaching to a congregation, you need to address what the text actually says.” Thanks, Patrick [sarcastically]. But actually I do mean that. He’s right, and that was a good word to me, preaching, but I think to all of us, receiving the word proclaimed, and attempting to faithfully engage with what the text actually says.

It would be so much easier to dismiss this, or sweep it under the rug, or drain it of its tensions. For me to pound the life out of it, and for you to go home feeling good about what this parable doesn’t have to mean.

I mean, so much of what we know of the gospel, of Jesus himself, seems to contradict the teaching of this parable, doesn’t it?

“Knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus says earlier in Matthew. But here the unprepared women are met with “go away!”

“Take only what you need,” Jesus counsels the disciples before they venture out. “Do not worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will bring its own worries,” Jesus preached in his most famous sermon… and “God takes care of the birds and the flowers, so will take care of you.” Here those living anxiety-free, in-the-moment lives… are labeled fools.

The prophets, Jesus, the early church… lived and commanded others to live lives of radical sharing: extravagant, selfless generosity. Jesus said “the last shall be first, and the first last.” Here the ones who say “no way, me first,” are called wise, and are rewarded. Here, the first are first, and the last are left out.

The Apostle Paul taught that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God, and God’s foolishness wiser than human wisdom. Here is a story, told by Jesus, that could be embraced, full-stop, by billionaires who “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps” and who see poverty and homelessness as simply survival of the fittest in action. Here is a story that might make them shout, maybe for the first time in their lives, “Amen!” “That’s true wisdom – straight from… Jesus, of all people!?”

What is going on here? This story seems out of place in the New Testament.

But I don’t think that the story actually is a contradiction to all those other teachings. I also can’t responsively remove the mystery, tension, and challenge. Even if I wanted to, I can’t take away harshness of how these women are treated, and portrayed. I will set it aside, for a while (I’ll come back to it), in order to zero in on the wisdom of the passage, which I do think it offers – beyond just the wisdom of the world. I think the clear, universal, biblical wisdom is this:

Be prepared; be ready.

I imagine we’ve all had the experience of thinking we were ready for something, only to find out we weren’t, really.

For example:

It’s one thing to prepare for a backpack trip. To meal plan and shop, diligently. To categorize and evenly distribute all shared items amongst the packs of those in the group. To lay out every article of clothing, and to weigh them, by the ounce, and to opt to take the fewest articles of clothing you’ve ever taken on a backpack trip, in a commitment to reducing your pack weight so that for the first time ever you aren’t each carrying over 50 pounds on your back.

Now that’s called preparing, and getting ready.

It’s another thing to then, after all that careful planning, to have a cold front hit the day before your trip, dropping the temperature by 40 something degrees. This is what happened to me last week. I was prepared for something… but the wrong thing. And my two friends were in the same position. For the sake of connection to our passage I would have loved to have said: I asked my friends for extra sweatshirts and socks and gloves, and they told me I should have planned better – or even the other backpackers we encountered on the trail… but the truth is that I’m not sure there was a person on that mountain, voluntarily spending the night outside with the temperature in the low teens, who could be considered “the wise ones.”

It is foolish to be unprepared, and wise to be ready.

Our passage forces us to ask: Jesus is telling his disciples, and us, to be ready for what?

At the time of the writing of the gospel, it seems that many followers of the Way – many in the Jesus community – were operating under the assumption that the end was imminent, and they were living accordingly. “Jesus will be back any day now to set things right!” And so Matthew tells this parable from Jesus that’s a caution, or an outright rebuke for them. See it wasn’t that they were unprepared… it was that they were prepared for the wrong thing. They thought the hour was at hand; they misunderstood the time that they were living in. They had no extra oil. They were ready for the bridegroom to return… but only right then.

In this story, Jesus is saying to them, and to us, that what they need and what we need to be ready for, is not just the return of the bridegroom… but for his delay.

Throughout Christian history, Jesus followers have prayed the prayer that ends the Bible: “come Lord Jesus!” My sense is that in recent years, for many, this praying has become even more fervent. I’ve prayed it, in part in faith that it is only Jesus who can set the world right.

I have to confess, and wonder if you are with me in this: part of that prayer, for me, at times, is more like a Hail Mary, prayed out of desperation and panic: “would you please hurry up!? We are not going to pull ourselves out of this mess. Things can’t get any worse… or at least, we can’t bear for them to get any worse.”

I’m ready for the bridegroom… now! Natural disasters on a scale and frequency we’ve never seen. School shootings. A.I. replacing human jobs as what it even means to be human, for some, becomes a little fuzzy. Terrorist bombings. Disproportionate retaliatory ‘defensive strikes’ targeting hospitals…

Come Lord Jesus!

I think that’s a great – or can be a great – faithful prayer to pray. I’m ready.

What I, and maybe a lot of us, feel less ready for, most days, is the delay. For Jesus to say, “I hope you’ve brought oil enough to get yourself through the night, because you don’t know when I’m coming. Don’t put all your eggs in the basket of me swooping in to set everything right.” We’ve been living in the last days since Jesus showed up, so thinking it will surely be in our lifetime strikes me as cosmically self-absorbed and narcissistic. People have thought the end was coming in their lifetime, at least since the time of Jesus, and the one thing they’ve all had in common… is that they were all wrong. Are we willing to allow for the possibility, the likelihood, that what Jesus expects from us is to keep going, continue stepping forward, keeping the faith, living justly, patiently, hopefully.

We are living in the in-between times. The bridegroom is delayed.

In that delay, though, there is opportunity. The delay gives us an opportunity to make a choice, or thousands of choices, about how to use the time that we have; to choose how we live. The foolish women, upon arriving without extra oil, and not meeting the bridegroom… had an opportunity to go right then and there to fill their own flasks with oil. Instead, they fell asleep. They prayed, “Come Lord Jesus,” and left it at that. They were not prepared for the delay.

We still may ask: “But did Jesus have to be so harsh in this story about ‘five foolish women,’ where even the five wise women seem uncharitable and self-centered?”

Today’s first reading, from the Wisdom of Solomon, gave us an image of lady wisdom – offered freely to all who seek her. Jesus’ parable is almost a personified retelling of that wisdom passage.

I don’t think Jesus is derogatively stating: “some women are just fools.” No. He’s saying: “all are given an opportunity to seek wisdom. So do; some do not.” Those who rise early will find her. Those who are vigilant for wisdom can indeed then relax, because wisdom will find them. It is those who expect others to do things for them, who get caught when others finally exercise some boundaries and say, “no. I can’t do everything for you.”

We can’t go backpacking with the temperature in the teens and expect to not be cold, or expect some mysterious mythical hiker to magically appear with extra coats and gloves. We can’t go to the bridesmaid party expecting the other women to share their oil.

It IS jarring and harsh that some are kept out, in the story, while wanting to get in. I can’t fully explain that away.

But I can offer this:

We have other stories about the kingdom of God, likened to a party, or a banquet, or a feast… and the guests who want to be there, are welcomed and given places of honor. Here it is the bridesmaids – the people given special roles and tasks at this event – insiders who should be doing all they can for the betterment of the gathering, to highlight and celebrate the bride and groom. They are the ones who are called out. Who are the bridesmaids?

In so much imagery in the New Testament, Jesus is the bridegroom, the church is the bride… and so the bridesmaids… well that might be us [pastors], or it might be church leaders, or committee members, or faithful church-attenders. We are the bridesmaids. It’s those on the inside, who knew or should have known better. As with so many parables, Jesus is holding up a mirror to the religious leaders, and to all of us.

Friends, the good news of this passage is that Jesus IS coming – to set all things right, and to get a wedding party going.

The invitation, the call of the passage, the warning, even, is to be ready for his delay. To use the time we have as an opportunity; not to rely on the grace we’ve come to expect from him, and on the diligence we see in others, counting on them to do the work, to do what needs to be done. But to step up, and take ownership over what is available for us to do, now.

So may we, as followers – bridesmaids of Jesus called to point to and celebrate his and the church’s glory – live not in angst over Christ’s absence or delay… but in the confidence and certitude of his coming and presence.


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