Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 10, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
"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.
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost - November 10, 2002
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley, Preacher
Matthew 25: 1-13: “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens”
Saint Matthew 25:13: “Stay awake and be prepared, because you do not know the day or hour."
The unofficial creed in the American homeland war on terrorism, Paul Gunther writes, is this: ‘Be vigilant, be watchful, be prepared’.
- Be vigilant in matters of security, whether at an airport, a government institution or in the back sorting room of your office.
- Be watchful for signs of terrorism: a back-pack left unattended, a strange request for chemicals at a fertilizer plant, a white powder in the mail or unusual behavior by a neighbor down the street.
- Be prepared to call the police or FBI. Be prepared to evacuate a building. Be prepared to take defensive measures when your life or the lives of others is threatened.
- “Be vigilant, be watchful, and be prepared.”
This motto could have easily been written for the “ten maidens” or any disciple of Jesus 2000 years ago or today: “Be vigilant, be watchful, and be prepared.”
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is a story describing the contrast between those who are “prudent” and those who are “foolish”. The “prudent” are those who heed the words of the Gospel, and the “foolish” are those who hear but do not act accordingly.
So, let’s begin this morning to put this story of Jesus into context with some historical background of a first-century Jewish wedding – a wedding ceremony very different than our familiar western traditions. In the East, the bridegroom is often a more important figure than the bride and frequently paid for all the expenses of the wedding. A Jewish wedding had three parts or stages to it. First, there was the formal engagement/betrothal, which was almost always arranged by the parents of the future bride and groom. Later (up to a year or more) came the formal religious ceremony in the bride’s home. This was a religious service similar to our wedding service. Thirdly, there was the wedding banquet (feast), generally at night, at the house of the groom and it generally lasted about seven days and could take place right after the ceremony or weeks later. The bridegroom would come to get his bride and they would walk together to the wedding. It was an elaborate affair that cost a lot of money. It was, therefore, a social event to which their friends were anxious to attend. The bride and the groom walked down the street and their bridesmaids would take part in the ‘welcoming ceremony’ by lighting the way with lamps held by the wedding party. It would be a major faux pax for anyone in the wedding party not to be by the road ready to welcome the bridegroom and bride.
It is from this background that our Lord draws the picture of this parable. Here are ten young women waiting to join the wedding party. They are expecting and waiting for the bridegroom and the bride.
It was traditional for the bridesmaids to wait at a home together for the bridegroom to come and bring them to the wedding feast. Another part of the tradition was for the bridegroom to negotiate with the bride’s family about a gift to give them in return for their daughter. Often, the negotiations would be delayed by the bride’s parents as a way of communicating that they thought their daughter was worth much more than the groom had gestured by his initial gift. That would cause a delay in the wedding feast.
In Jesus’ story, the bridesmaids are waiting through just such a delay. In such a delay, they were to be ready at any moment for him to arrive and escort them to the feast. Five of them, however, were not ready. They had time to get the extra oil they needed, but they did not feel the sense of urgency to do it right away. Their procrastination caused embarrassment when the groom came and they had to run to the store for more oil. The problem was that when they returned and sought entrance to the feast, they were considered no different than other uninvited seekers. The feast had begun and the doors were locked. It was too late. And Jesus says His return will be just like that.
Be prepared - the bottom line of this story - whether the oil represents your faith, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus’ second coming: It could be any or all three of these. However, the main message of Jesus stays the same: be ready, be watchful, be prepared -- all the time.
Do we have bridesmaids in our midst today? Let me offer a couple of illustrations:
I remember hearing the story of a friend’s daughter’s first date? Vicki was expecting Jeff to show up. She was dressed up and waiting patiently. However, by the time he was an hour late, she figured she had been stood up. So, she took off her makeup, put on her pajamas, gathered all the junk food in the pantry and sat down to watch television with her dog. As her favorite show was just about to come on, the doorbell rang. It was her date, Jeff. He stared at her wide-eyed, and said: "I’m two hours late, and you’re still not ready?"
How about the State of California? Did their electrical supply shortage sneak up on them one cold winter’s night? Wouldn’t they have seen it coming and been prepared for it? Why did they ignore the obvious? No power plants built in 10 years while the population grew in double-digit percentages annually. Old plants closed for good and some closed for repairs. Did it sneak up on them? Or, did they take the convenience for granted without considering what it takes to maintain that convenience?
Saint Paul reiterates the warning of Jesus in I Thessalonians 5:2-4 - "For you yourself know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, ‘There is peace and security”, then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you aren’t in the dark about these things, my dear brothers and sisters, for that day to surprise you like a thief."
Like oil for the lamp, there are some things you cannot borrow at the time the bridegroom comes: “Faith” - a relationship with God through Christ and “Character empowered by the Holy Spirit” - a product of our relationship with Jesus over time.
I remember one powerful episode of MASH where Hawkeye Pierce is called out to the front lines due to a surgeon’s shortage there. When he arrives, there are bombs and bullets flying all around. He suddenly realizes that his own life is in great danger. So in the few spare moments he has there, he takes time to write out his last will and testament. Eventually, another doctor arrives at the front and Hawkeye is able to return to the 4077th. He arrives back at the base camp late in the evening, enters the office, sits down at the desk and works on the conclusion of his will. Klinger comes in and sees him and asks what he’s doing. Hawkeye tells him he’s writing his Last Will and Testament. Klinger responds without hesitation: "No paper work is so important that it can’t wait until tomorrow." Hawkeye looks at him thoughtfully and says, "I used to think that way too, but not anymore." It was not until Hawkeye had experienced his close encounter with death on the front lines that he had come to realize the great importance of being prepared for death and living each day to the fullest.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23, “ Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me you evildoers.” What evidence is there for a relationship -- a real relationship in your life with Jesus?
Our current “life” choices reflect our faith and character – “the now” does matter.
We have no guarantee of tomorrow. All we have for sure is today, this moment. In Hebrew 3:7-8,15 - "the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, when you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion on the day of testing in the wilderness” . . . But never forget the warning: ‘Today when you hear His voice. Do not harden your hearts against Him’ . . ."
Years ago, when 20th Century Fox advertised in the New York papers to fill a vacancy in its sales force, one applicant reflected his “life’s choices”: "I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at anytime, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in, you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workday approach and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer." From among more than 1500 applicants, who do you think got the job?
I have to admit this is a “tough” parable to hear. Like most of the stories Jesus told, He emphasized gracious invitations, offers of mercy, and that’s the way this story starts, but then there are those words - "and the door was shut." That’s so final. This story seems so contrary to the image Jesus has drawn of God - forgiving, endlessly forgiving. But Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like this story too. We all like the parables that emphasize “grace - come anytime - God will take you just as you are.” But, there is an end to the window of opportunity, and it comes at death or the second coming, whichever comes first for you. There are no second chances then.
So, how do we keep plenty of oil in our lamps?
First, if you have never placed your faith in Jesus, that’s where you have to start. When you become a Christian at Baptism, you receive the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit. He gives you a new nature. You begin to draw from that never-ending well to change your life from the inside out.
Then, if you have already placed your faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, on a daily basis seek to freshen and deepen that relationship through prayer, the study of God’s Word, being in fellowship with other Christians, and being open to allow the Holy Spirit to guide your life’s choices. Keep in mind that age-old question: “If you knew that tomorrow was your last day on earth, how would you live it differently?” Would you confess hidden sins that you thought you could get away with or that you thought you would deal with some day later? Would you decide to follow through in accepting God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus? Would you heal a relationship with someone you are angry with or someone you hurt? Would you talk to God more in prayer? Would you finally get around to sharing your faith with that person you have been thinking about for so long? If so, then what Jesus is saying is "do that today, right now, because today may be your last day."
Finally, eagerly await His return.
Hebrews 9:28 - "so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him."
Revelation 16:15 - "Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed are all who are watching for Me, who keep their robes ready so they will not need to walk naked and ashamed."
Do you anticipate His return or do other things here distract you? Are you like this person in an old country song: "Prop me up beside the jukebox when I die. Lord, I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight. Fill my boots up with sand. Put a stiff drink in my hand, and prop me up beside the jukebox when I die."
Josh McDowell tells about an executive “headhunter” who recruits corporate executives for large firms. This headhunter once told McDowell that when he interviews an executive, he likes to disarm him. “I offer him a drink,” said the headhunter, “take off my coat, undo my tie, throw up my feet and talk about baseball, football, family, whatever, until he’s all relaxed. Then, when I think I’ve got him relaxed, I lean over, look him square in the eye and say, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’ It’s amazing how top executives fall apart at that question.”
Then he told about interviewing one fellow recently. He had him all disarmed, had his feet up on his desk, talking about football. Then the headhunter leaned over and said, “What’s your purpose in life, Bob?” And the executive said, without blinking an eye, “To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”
“For the first time in my career” said the headhunter, “I was speechless.”
No wonder. He had encountered someone who was prepared. He was ready. His purpose, “To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”
You and I might not express it that way. But, do you doubt that this is one man who has extra oil for his lamp?
If we were really looking forward to heaven . . . if we really trusted Jesus to prepare a place for us that beats anything here on earth…
Do we live life prepared for His return?