Focus – With the help of Jesus’ parable, we can learn to be wise, learn to be prepared, and learn to do what we can for justice and love.
Do you find yourself leaving tasks that need to be accomplished until the last minute? If you do, you certainly are not alone. I found a relatable humorous story to share regarding procrastination.
The Thanksgiving holiday was looming. It was Wednesday, the day before. A priest was waiting in line to fill up his car with gas. The station he picked had an attendant on duty. Remember those “Good Old Days?” The attendant was working quickly, but still there were many cars in front of the priest. At long last, he was motioned to go to the vacant pump.
“Sorry, Reverend,” said the young man. “It has been a long delay. It seems as if everyone waits until the last minute to get ready for a long trip to join family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The priest laughed, “I know just what you mean. It’s the same in my line of work.”
Whether it is purchasing gas for the car or loving and serving God, we are often tempted to leave everything until the last minutes. As life gets busy, service and participation in the kingdom takes a back seat. We hope that God will not mind that we are elsewhere focusing on our career and our families. The invitation in today’s Gospel is that we need to recognize that God will hold us accountable for the way in which we are using our time. And God should always be our priority, even when we are busy.
When I preached last month, the parable from Matthew’s Gospel was centered on a wedding. It stressed the importance of extending invitations to everyone so that the wedding feast would be attended by a rich array of people from every corner of the city. God invites all people to rejoice in the goodness of love. We are expected to do the same.
Matthew’s parable that we heard this morning, speaks about the importance of being vigilant and prepared. This parable is also centered around a wedding.
Weddings in the ancient world were complex affairs. Typically, there were three stages. First, there is the engagement which could only be broken by divorce. Secondly and perhaps a year later, the marriage feast took place. Lastly, the feast was a spectacular community affair that often started with a grand festival procession of the bride and groom and culminated in a celebration that could last for days.
Matthew’s parable of the bridesmaids follows Jesus’ warnings about the end when many will fall away from the faith and the faithful will be hated by the world. The parable is referred to as Jesus’ eschatological discourse. It speaks of end times. As followers of Jesus the importance of vigilance is stressed and illustrates how we are to “endure to the end.”
The eschatological teaching was addressed to the disciples in private as they sat with Jesus on the Mount of Olives. The coming of this day was certain to happen as predicted by Zacharias. Matthew handles the complex relationship of the human attitude to the divine action of God which will end the age. Wisdom resides with those who are always prepared, always ready, and awake. We need to focus on the role we can play in the wedding feast. We also need to live in a manner that expects the return of the Lord, even when the return is delayed.
The parable opens with a familiar four-word phrase. “The kingdom of heaven …..” The story of the kingdom was portrayed when ten bridesmaids were preparing for the groom. Five bridesmaids were well prepared and able to enjoy the banquet. Five other bridesmaids were excluded from the banquet by their own lack of preparation.
Bridesmaids were expected to await the arrival of the bridegroom and greet him with a procession of light in the darkness. Presumably the bridesmaids were waiting either at the brides’ home for the groom to come and fetch her, or at the home of the groom’s family where the wedding would take place. All the maids would have either lamps or perhaps large torches. They were waiting with their lamps lit in eager expectation of the groom’s appearance.
The bridegroom was delayed. In reality, a groom’s delay was not altogether uncommon. For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s relatives over the gifts exchanged. The text does not explain the delay. The reason for the delay was not the bridesmaids’ concern. Jesus’ previous warning stated, “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Due to the delay of the groom and the late hour, all the bridesmaids had fallen asleep. Their sleepiness was not the problem, since both wise and foolish alike had become drowsy. However, the wise brought extra oil for their lamps. Both groups knew that the groom was coming and waited with their lamps burning, but only half considered that the wait in the darkness might be longer than anticipated.
When all the maids were awakened at the announcement of the groom’s arrival, they all set about trimming and preparing their lamps for the procession. To the horror of the foolish bridesmaids, they discovered that there would not be enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The wise maidens refused to lend their extra oil. If they gave away their oil, they would not have enough. Then what would become of the processional?
After seeking more needed oil, the foolish bridesmaids returned, ready for the processional. They knocked on the door of the house, but their entrance to the wedding banquet was denied by the groom. They missed the grand procession. The banquet had already begun.
Although these bridesmaids were chosen to accompany the bride and groom, their role as bridesmaids did not guarantee them a place at the banquet. They had initially played the part of wedding attendants. They had waited with lamps lit, for a while, but they did not plan for the long dark time of waiting. As a result, they were shut out of the banquet. The maids’ plea recalled Jesus’ warning that not everyone who cries “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
The message is to “Keep Awake and to “Be Prepared.” There is a need for constant vigilance.
As readers and listeners of today’s Gospel, we know we have already entered the dark days after the crucifixion and resurrection and have begun waiting for Christ’s return. The parable challenges us to be vigilant and live in anticipation of the Lord’s coming.
Do we as the church really live as though the bridegroom’s arrival is certain? Or have we become caught up in trying to determine the day and the hour? As disciples to live in vigilance means to take on the tasks we have been appointed to do in preparation for the Master’s coming. Matthew’s Gospel states that those tasks include bearing witness to God’s kingdom by welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and making disciples of others in the world.
Let us Pray!
Gracious God! Time is a gift that You have given us through which we should be able to discover the importance of preparation to receive the coming of Christ. Help us not to fall into the mindset of the five “foolish” bridesmaids in Matthew’s Gospel. It is so easy to carry on convinced that there will always be enough time “later” to make our lives what we want them to be. There is not enough “oil” in our lamps to make it all happen. May we recognize the call of the Gospel to see our lives not only as a wonderful gift, but a gift while precious is short. May we realize that now is the time to see the compassion and peace of God for ourselves and for those we encounter in our lives while our “lamps” are filled with Your wisdom and grace. (I will place a small vigil like on the pulpit for all to see and say…) This little light of mine! I’m going to let it shine. I’m going to let it shine until Jesus comes! I invite you to join me! Amen!
Resources for this Sermon
• Commentary by working Preach, Carla Works
• See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 597.