I have good news! Great news, in fact! Great news for all the savers and hoarders out there. All of those who wince at the unplanned, reckless, last-minute holiday shopping evident the week before Christmas. All of those who start their Christmas shopping on December 26...for next year’s gift-giving.
I have good news for those of us who like to hang on to what we’ve got sure that might be useful someday –
That sweater that’s hung in the closet for years. It might fit someday.
The National Geographic collection that you started in 1965. You might get
around to reading them.
I have good news for everyone who’s got enough canned vegetables and Jif peanut
butter stacked up in the basement to feed a family of four for a year. They were on sale, right? It’s good to know you always have enough.
I have good news for everyone who sees self-reliance as a virtue -- a duty, even – and believes that the world would be a better place if everyone thought the same. God helps those who helps themselves – that’s in the Bible someplace, isn’t it?
Well no, it’s not, but – here’s the good news -- there is a scripture lesson in the Bible that seems to say about the same thing. And today’s is it.
Matthew 25:1-13, Common English Bible
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. 2 Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. 4 But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.
5 “When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’
7 “Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. 8 But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’
9 “But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.
11 “Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’
12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore, buy your oil ahead of time, in bulk – oh, no it’s – Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.
See? God helps those who help themselves. Save your oil, don’t share it when people ask. It’s their fault they don’t have enough. Actions have consequences. You reap what you sow. It’s right there – in the Bible.
This passage might not seem like good news to those of us who are not so good at planning ahead. Who sometimes forget to bring what we need and have to borrow from a friend. Who loan out the waffle iron that almost never gets used...and then need it one day but can’t remember who we loaned it to. Who give away our last 5 bucks to the guy on the street corner and then don’t have enough to buy lunch.
“The wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours.” Not good news at all.
Fortunately for the foolish among us there is...the rest of the Bible. Even just the rest of the Gospel of Matthew:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume.... (6:19)
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink...(6:25)
Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find.... (7:7)
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.... (7:12)
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (22:39) How can one Gospel say two such different things?
There are other oddities to this passage. For one thing, some of the details about this wedding seem realistic, but others are clearly unrealistic.
In ancient Palestinian weddings, the marriage feast was at night, the bridegroom was met with lamps, and the bridegroom did delay coming for the bride – so Matthew got those things right.
But bridesmaids did not attend the groom, and certainly no bridegroom in his right mind would have entered alone into a room filled with bridesmaids, whether they were wise or foolish ones.
The delay was for the bride, not the bridesmaids. Which brings up another point – where is the bride in this story, anyway?
And lastly, as Rev. Anna Carter Florence points out, in this story the wise bridesmaids tell the foolish ones to go out and buy what they need. But it’s only in the last century that anyplace with oil to sell has been open at midnight.
All of these little quirks in this story are telling us that it message might not be quite as straightforward as we first think.
Those of us who have been participating in Gateway groups – our small Bible study-fellowship groups have been learning that the Gospel of Matthew reflects two primary concerns: the return of Christ and the judgment that comes with his return, and the priority that followers of Jesus must give to right living, to behaving as obedient disciples. The two are connected, of course: the consequences of a failure to live as Jesus taught will be felt when he returns.
But it was beginning to occur to Matthew – or to put it more correctly, since so many of you are becoming biblical scholars – it was beginning to occur to the community that produced the Gospel we now call “Matthew” – that Jesus’ return might be delayed longer than they first thought. Most scholars think that this gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, which means after 70 AD. The earliest Christian writings assume that Christ is coming back at any moment. But now it’s 2, 3 generations since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The church is starting to realize that they might have to prepare for a long wait.
Matthew writes, therefore, with a double message. No one knows when Jesus will return, so speculation about it is futile. On the other hand, his return is certain, so preparation is crucial. In the parable just before the one we heard today, the Master returns sooner than his servant had anticipated, and finds the man taking advantage of his master’s absence by abusing his powers. In today’s story, the
Bridegroom comes later than the foolish bridesmaids had anticipated and they have not collected the supplies they need to welcome him.
The wise bridesmaids, on the other hand, have lived correctly, in keeping with Jesus’ teachings. Their lamps are lit. Dr. Alyce McKenzie of Perkins School of Theology says that light in this parable, and in other places in the gospels, symbolizes good deeds done in response to God’s grace. In the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus urges his disciples “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (5:14-16) Later he will say to them “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (13:43)
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
Maybe this is not a story about how much you have and whether or not you should share it. Maybe this is a story about how much you carry with you.
Dr. Anna Carter Florence points out that this parable doesn’t actually say one word about how much oil any of the bridesmaids had stored away at home. We might’ve been assuming that the wise ones had hoarded gallons of it, but there’s nothing in the text to imply that. For all we know, the wise bridesmaids were down to their very last flask of oil, and the foolish bridesmaids were keeping barrels of the stuff in the basement. The story gives us no clue about the back story or motivations or extenuating circumstances or why five women brought their lamps but left their flasks of oil at home.
What it tells us is that all ten bridesmaids had lamps, but five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. The wise ones brought flasks of oil with their lamps; the foolish ones showed up with lamps and nothing to keep them going. And when your lamp goes out, you may have gallons of oil sitting at home; but it's not going to do you any good there.
I’ll bet you know what it’s like to run out of oil.
Your kid walks into the kitchen at 5:30 and says, "What's for dinner?" and you say, "Meatloaf," and your kid says, "What, again?"-and suddenly you have morphed into Godzilla, right there in the kitchen. When you have finished ranting your kid looks at you calmly and says, "Let me guess. You're out of oil."
You burn the candle at both ends, almost never getting a good night’s sleep, eating on the run, letting the gym membership go unused. You drink more than is good for you. You neglect relationships. You ignore the shortness of breath that sometimes bothers you. When you find yourself in the ER, the doctor takes one look at the lab results and comes in to tell you, “You’re out of oil.”
When a two-year old misses her nap, she’s run out of oil.
When all of the conversations between husband and wife are about carpooling and grocery shopping, the marriage is getting dry.
When you snip at people you used to grin at, or tailgate when you used to take your time, or flip channels instead of playing bridge, or never sit down at the piano bench anymore...it’s possible that you’re on empty. And there are some kinds of fuel that are just not negotiable.
“Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”
The role of the Christian – not just the pastor, not just the Sunday School teachers, not just the overly pious, or the ones with time, or the ones who don’t hate speaking in public – the role of the Christian is to be a light to the world. So what happens when the oil runs out? The light goes out and you have nothing to give. And a Christian with no oil can’t be the light of the world for anybody, no matter how much they want to.
So what fills you up spiritually when you run dry? What replenishes your oil? Where do you find God? How can you make sure that you get enough of that oil for your lamp? Because if you haven’t yet, you will run dry. And when you do, you can't be a light for anybody.
It is sorely tempting to tell you where to find the oil you need. Many preachers will tell you: Attend church regularly and give generously. It’s not a bad idea, actually. It works well for many people. But each of you needs to find your own source of oil; everyone is different and over time, everyone will find that their needs change.
For some it’s quiet prayer for 15 minutes in the morning.
For others it’s the Bible study group they meet with once a month.
It could be less obviously religious: a regular meeting with a close friend;
Often filling up your lamp happens when you think all you’re doing is
shining the light. In other words, as you actively practice your faith by helping others or by working for justice, you find that spiritually you are the one being renewed.
There are some kinds of oil you can't borrow from anyone else. There are some kinds of preparation we can only do for ourselves. There are some reserves that no one else can build up for us. You can't borrow someone else's peace of mind or their passion for God. You have to figure out what fills you up, spiritually, and then you have to carry it with you, everyday, for the rest of your life, because that’s how often you’re going to need it.
This is not a parable about hoarding lots of oil so that you can turn away the people who weren’t as smart as you. This is a lesson in filling up your flask and keeping your lamp lit wherever you go...because you can’t wait to meet the bridegroom.
Anna Carter Florence. “Filling Stations: Matthew 25:1-13.” Day 1 radio program. November 04, 2007. http://day1.org/1065-filling_stations
Alyce McKenzie. “The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, Lectionary Reflections on Matthew 25:1-12.” Posted October 31, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional- Resources/Bridesmaids-The-Time-is-Now-Alyce-McKenzie-10-31-2011
Philip Culbertson. “The Pharisaic Jesus and His Gospel Parables.” The Christian Century, January 23, 1985, pp. 74-7