Passage: Matthew 25:1-13
Date: November 12, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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Truth be told, this is not my favorite parable. I find it both annoying and ominous, if a parable can be both of those things at the same time. I find it annoying because there is something about women being called foolish that does not sit well with me. As I looked at some of the older commentary on it, the commentators were quick to latch on to the foolishness of women, assigning them all sorts of silly motivations for not being prepared. So you won’t hear that from me today.
But, as I said, I also find this parable ominous. I am someone who likes to be prepared, who likes to be ready to go, who was raised with the belief that being on time is being late, and that being on time is arriving five minutes early. Imagine my horror when I met people who did not share that understanding!
I find this parable ominous, because truth be told, I don’t think I am spiritually ready for Jesus to come back. My spiritual house is messy. I am terrible at consistent prayer. I do not meditate on scripture as often as you might think I do. I might get a barely passing grade at loving God and loving neighbor as myself. If Jesus were to show up this afternoon, I would be one of those without oil for her lamp.
Of course, this parable as it comes to us in Matthew’s gospel is part of a set of parables about how to live while waiting for Jesus to return. There had been the implication, in the minds of the first generation of Christians, that Jesus would be right back. Out of the tomb, up to Heaven, then right back down to Earth to take care of things. So a generation or two after Jesus died and rose, when he had not come back, the faith community was faced with a challenge: how do we live in the meantime?
Some in that community had specific ideas about how to live, and about the implications of how not to live, and so we get parables about bridesmaids and sheep and goats and fig trees and such. We are to heed the warning of that great wizard Mad-Eye Moody (from the world of Harry Potter): the people were to maintain “constant vigilance.”
Which is hard. For most of us, waiting without an end in sight is impossible – we’re not built to wait, or at least if our definition of waiting is doing nothing. There’s not much you can do in line at the DEQ except maybe check your cell phone and stay in your lane. I remember a few days before Sarah was born, I started a 500-piece crossword puzzle, having gotten the house clean and ready, with food stashed away in the freezer.
But that’s not the kind of waiting that this parable is talking about. While we wait for Jesus to come back, there is one thing we can do: we can pay attention to what’s going on around us. That’s what it boils down to: paying attention.
It’s like what Mary Oliver says in her poem “When Death Comes”:
“When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Jesus does not ask us to be tourists in life, but residents and citizens of this life, paying attention to things great and small, paying attention to pain and joy, doing what we can to mend rifts and prepare banquets. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world. We are the light of the world, and in order to be that, we have to pay attention to our lamps.
Because there will come a point when unprepared and late will become too late. When will it be too late to stop the trajectory of global warming? When will it be too late to stop mass shootings – or is it already? When will it be too late to face that addiction that has us in its grip? When will it be too late to have that conversation we’ve been meaning to have?
Well, we don’t know. We don’t know when late becomes too late, so, if we are to be wise, we do as Jimmy Carter once suggested: we should live our lives as though Christ were coming this afternoon. What does that look like? It does not look like the t-shirt I was once given, which said, “Jesus is coming – look busy.”
Some of you will remember Eddie Haskell from the Leave It to Beaver show – the troublemaking kid who also pretended to be an angel in front of Ward and June Cleaver. That’s not what we’re supposed to do – make it look like we’re doing all the right things and being perfectly wonderful people while we’re really not.
If Christ came this afternoon I think he would want to see our authentic selves. He would want to see our good works, yes; but he would also want to see what we struggle with, and what we’ve failed at. He would look at the connections of our lives – who have we reached out to, who have we confronted, or apologized to, or learned from?
I had a mentor once who suggested that it was a good thing to keep our goodbyes current. I would tweak that just a bit, and say it’s a good thing to keep our lives current. Are we living in the past, in some glory that we knew once but no longer enjoy? Are we living in the past, in some argument or injury that has long since been resolved or healed but that we can’t let go of?
Are we living in the future, to that day when the debt will be paid off, or the dress will fit, or he or she will have come to their senses? We all do those things – visit the past or the future, but they’re just visits. We’re just tourists there.
It is here in the present that we wait and live and live out our faith. Maybe the question facing us, then, is this: how do we live intentionally while still allowing room for spontaneity?
I wore this stole last week and several people commented on how pretty and colorful it is. It is Guatemalan and a frequent style in clergy stoles. When I bought my first woven Guatemalan stole, I noticed that not all the seams were sewn down, and I was told that this was intentional on the weaver’s part – the holes are there to allow room for the Holy Spirit to move.
How do we live with intention, weaving together our days, while allowing room for the Spirit to shape us and guide us?
I offer this as an amateur, because intentionality is not my strong suit. I know people who are great at it – they wake up every morning and know not only what’s on their calendar, not only know what they want to accomplish, but they know how they want to be.
When I was growing up, often in the morning my siblings and I would be at the breakfast table, grumpy, sleepy, not wanting the oatmeal, not wanting to go to school, and my dad would bound in, having run five miles already, and say in a loud and cheerful voice, “Is this the greatest day of your life?” I always thought he was being sarcastic. But he wasn’t. He was intentional about starting the day off as positively as he could.
I was talking recently with one of our wonderful saints here who is going through a less pleasant season of life, and when I asked how she was getting through it, she said, “I guess I was just born a cheerful person.” That is living with intention.
Or maybe we change the entire shape of the thing. Maybe we choose to live with intentionality not because we want to have a meaningful waiting until Christ comes back. Maybe we live with intention because Christ is already here, present, hidden in the guise of strangers, in the shape of foreigners, looking like beatitudes – meek and mourning and righteous and peacemaking and poor and hungry.
As I said at the start, I find this parable ominous and annoying. It is ominous that you and I might not make it to the eternal party. It is annoying that the five wise bridesmaids did not share their oil with the others, thereby eliminating the problem altogether. But that’s not the way Jesus in Matthew’s gospel wanted to tell the tale.
I think there is a different parable for us here today. What if we looked for a parable about how to live not because we’re waiting for Jesus, but because he is here? Because a lot has happened in the world in the last two thousand years, and I cannot bear the thought that Jesus hasn’t been around for it.
So what if, instead, we make our own parable, and said that life in Christ is like a wedding – a time of joy and union and reunion. And everyone has a part to play in this wedding – some are guests who are required to be joyful. Some bring food and drink to share. Some play instruments so there might be dancing. Some are in charge of the lights so that no one loses their way.
The time comes at this wedding for the couple to meet, but it’s dark, and some of the light bearers aren’t prepared. But some are – and so that everyone might enjoy the wedding, so that no one stumbles through the dark, they share their light. And there is much joy.
Ominous? Annoying? Hopeful?