Matthew 25:1-13 (from the ESV)
1 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them,
4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.
6 But at midnight there was a cry, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'
7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.
8 And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'
9 But the wise answered, saying, 'Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.'
10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.
11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'
12 But he answered, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.'
13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Today's lectionary passage is hard to preach on. In fact passages like this are regularly avoided because our society has deemed them too harsh. We would much rather hear feel good messages which assure us everything will be alright. If a pasage begins to hint about an outcome where things might not be alright, it is classified as fire and brimstone and cast out as fear mongering. I think this is in disservice to the church in the West, though there may be a good reason we have come to it. Often when these passages have been preached carnal imagery is used and this brings about carnal fear. Carnal fear can bring about the results we want but it often doesn't change what is underneath. Jesus' purpose is to bring about awareness not carnal fear.
If we trust Jesus as our Lord and believe that the gospels are an accurate accounting of his life and teaching then we must come to some understanding of these passages. I see this passage as a warning. It is as if I were to yell out, "Watch Out!". In this room the context is fairly well known to be safe so none of you would react to to a warning like that but what if it were a different setting? What if we were in a park or we were at a construction site getting a tour of a new building going up? The warning would be taken much more seriously, in fact I would venture to guess that that particular warning would result in many people ducking to cover their head and instinctively moving away from the area the warned danger was perceived to be coming from. Jesus' teaching was full of these kinds of warnings. They are not to induce a carnal fear but an awareness of the spiritual reality we live in. This warning comes in the middle of Jesus' teaching about his return at the end of time. I hope we can learn from this warning and react properly in our lives to it today.
We are all living in limited time. It is the ultimate statistic, one out of every one person dies. Even if Jesus does not return to Earth in your life, there will still be an end to your days in this life. The letter from James says our life is like a vapor, here one day and gone the next.
Recently Steve Jobs the founder of Apple computer company died. When he died many news outlets played a recording of a speech he had given at Stanford for their commencement in 2005. In it he says "remembering we'll all be dead soon is the most important tool I have ever encountered to make the big choices in life." He continues by saying that it helps by making the unimportant things fade away and only the important things remain and he says, "knowing you are going to die helps avoid the trap of feeling like you have something to loose." This is a basic message of the gospel. In fact the gospel doesn't call us to remember we will die but calls us to live death now. To shed off all things from our sinful past and live anew. To take off the old-clothing of our self centered lives and put on the new outward looking clothing of Jesus.
One of my mentors from history knew this well, Jonathan Edwards. At the young age of 19 Edwards did what was common for serious puritans to do and he wrote a list of resolutions. By the time Edwards finished he had 70 resolutions which he was committed to live by. Out of the 70, nine specifically mention his death and many more allude to it. When I first came upon these, one stood out and acted as a mirror for the condition of my own heart. Resolution 7 says, "Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life." For Edwards this was a message that pushed him toward purity and holiness but at the time, when I thought of my own death all I could think about was a list of selfish things I would want to do. It made me realize I was living my life for myself and not for Jesus.
In this passage Jesus is hoping that the knowledge of our limited time refocuses us on what is truly important. This parable comes at the end of a discussion about Jesus' return at the end of time. Something known theologically as the parousia or the coming near. Each teaching of Jesus on this topic makes sure to point out that the time is unknown. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly. Watch out! He is saying. Be ready.
I want to remind us all today that no matter your views on Jesus second coming and the end of time, YOU will have an end time. Your life here on earth will end at least for a time and then it will be too late to live your life over. We are all living in limited time.
But, unexpectedly in this parable Jesus reminds us we should be ready for the long haul. Since we do not know the time or the hour of Jesus' coming, or more personally our own death, we should live as though it were far from now just as we should live as though it were immanent. The problem of the foolish virgins is that they live for the short term and not the long term. They do not prepare.
In June I completed my Masters of Divinity and had already begun a search for my first call. After the first round of churches began to be whittled down, one Church was left. It was between me and another candidate and I felt like I had the edge. In God's providence I did not get the call but I was disappointed. Not particularly because I wanted to be at that Church but because I had nowhere else to go. Stacy and I trusted that God would lead us to the right place but our reaction wasn't to wing it until that happened. We found a place for us to stay in the interim and I began searching for work I could do to bring in income. We were digging in for the long haul in case it took some time. God's timing came suddenly and much faster than we anticipated and a few short months later I stand here preaching for you.
The early Church founded in Thessalonica was not as prudent however. Many there became convinced that Jesus' return was immanent. Something we should all believe, but they used this as an excuse to live their lives for themselves. If they had listened to Jesus' teaching in the apostles they probably would not have needed Paul's rebuke in 1 Thessalonians 3 and 5. Many had stopped working and had begun to live off of the work of others. Jesus' point here is that we live faithfully as though he were returning at any point but also with perseverance if the timing is longer than we thought.
In this story the wise virgins had extra oil. They had enough forethought to live in preparation for the worse case scenario. The foolish has enough for what they thought the timing should be as if it depended on them or ran on their schedule. When the time came they realized they did not have enough to burn for the whole wedding processional which would mean they would not be accepted into the wedding feast. We should learn from this and be ready for the long haul.
What does this passage mean for us? I think that it means we should be focused on the bridegroom. The focus of the story is the bridegroom. The bride is never even mentioned in the whole parable. Of course the bridegroom in the parable is Jesus so our focus should be on Jesus.
Many scholars when looking at this passage, have focused on the details. What does the oil represent? What does the fire represent? The problem with these questions in my mind is that none of these things are the focus. The real focus is the bridegroom and the relationship of the virgins to him. The reason why I would propose this as the real focus is because of the end. The foolish virgins are not rejected from entering the wedding because of their lack of oil or fire but because the bridegroom did not know them.
In our culture, there are many things which demand our resources; time, money, property...we are so busy and pulled in many different directions. Some of the things that demand our attention are good things; family, school events, work...but we can not give all of them all of our attention. We make choices and give as much attention as we can to the things we really value or see as necessary.
When you are invited to a wedding there are often varying levels of whether it will be important to you. If it is the wedding of an immediate family member you will be there on time. If you are invited to be in the bridal party you will make sure to be on time. I have been in multiple weddings and usually the wedding becomes the focus of my life for at least the day of the festivities. Even though I am not needed hours before the wedding I am there to make sure I don't miss it because it is important.
I think that the actions of the foolish virgins betrays their true feelings about the bridegroom. If they cared they would have done everything necessary to be ready. The ceremony would not have been viewed as something that needed to fit into their schedule but they would be ready to be flexible for any circumstance. The fact that they did not do this showed their lives were focused around themselves and not the bridegroom.
Jesus is teaching us here that we are to live our whole lives in preparation for his coming. We should act as though it may come at any moment but be ready if he delays for some time. Our focus should not change either way. We should not waver in our focus but be completely sold out to Jesus in all we do. This means that in all the things that vie for our attention we need to make them about Jesus too. Our work should be done in praise of Jesus. Our family should be built around Jesus and every relationship we have should have Jesus at the center. In all that we do, we should be focused on the bridegroom.
I want to remind us though that this parable is not without the context of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our ability to wait on Jesus is only because the one we wait on first waited on us. It was we who turned away from God and God spent millennia in patient love knowing one day he would send Jesus. In fact, God's patient waiting is an example to us who are made in the image of God about how to act.
There is another parable Jesus tells about waiting. In this one a father is dishonored by his son when he asks for his inheritance in advance. The son runs off with the inheritance and squanders it. In this parable the father is the one who waits. He waits by the door for his son to return home. God our father has done so much more than wait for us. He has been patient and waited till the perfect time and then he acted by sending Jesus to die for our sins and reconnect us with God.
This parable is not about works but about relationship. Knowing the bridegroom and being in constant anticipation for him is the key. Know if you feel you have lived your life in complacence or for yourself without focusing on Jesus he has already provided the way home. He sits waiting in anticipation for you to come home and put your focus where it belongs.
When I first heard Steve Jobs' speech about death I did not feel hope. Though the gospel shares a similar message there is something missing from Jobs' message. His message is one that makes you look inward for hope you can provide yourself. It requires that you have some sort of opportunity before you to make life changing decisions. What if you do not have that opportunity? For a child born with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa no decision you can make will give you hope. Only the message of Christ is universal and frees us because he accepts us back home where we belong, in relationship with God.
I want to challenge all of us this week that all we do would revolve around our Lord Jesus. When you get home from work and just want to relax but the kids want attention, serve them in Jesus name. When our spouse has done something around the house that makes us angry let us look to Christ and forgive them because we are forgiven. When we see our neighbor outside let's let them know we care for them by having a conversation with them, sharing life together.
In all these things let us constantly remember that we are living in limited time, but we should be prepared for the long haul focusing on the bridegroom because the one we wait on has first waited on us. Amen.