“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. . . . the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
One of my high school teachers had a few verses of scripture memorized that he liked to pull out of its holster and whack us with when the occasion presented itself. When he coached track and cut people from the team, he sent away those who didn’t make it with, “Many are called, but few are chosen!”
And, if someone was late to class, he slammed the door as soon as the bell rang with the proclamation of the Gospel, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you!”
I’m all for dramatic presentations of biblical passages, but I thought it the wiser course of action not to instruct the ushers today to slam the doors at 10:50 and send away the latecomers.
Instead, I thought it better to look at this parable in its context.
First, we can look at this passage in the context of the community that produced the Gospel According to Matthew. The were a predominantly Jewish community, both by ethnicity and in practice, who believed in Jesus as the Messiah described in the Hebrew scriptures they had grown up learning and reciting until they were, as Jeremiah said, written upon their hearts.
Second, they believed that the Messiah would bring the messianic age, that is, an age of shalom, a time when justice and mercy would reign, a time when people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and war would be no more. The messianic age would be a time when famine and pestilence would no longer exists, when children and youth would all grow old and have long and full lives before dying, a time when nobody would ever suffer for the sins of their parents, when the proverb “The grapes the parents have eaten have set their children’s teeth on edge” would no longer be repeated because it would not be true.
Clearly, the messianic age did not come right after the resurrection. Thirty-five or forty years later, when this gospel was written, the messianic age still had not arrived, and the community was restless. When will Jesus return? When will the suffering we and our brothers and sisters have undergone be redeemed? They waited. Then, they waited. And then they waited some more.
That’s why, in this Gospel according to Matthew, we find a lot of parables about making the best of the time; waiting faithfully, waiting with hope, and staying awake. When we take these stories by themselves, without the wider context of the whole Gospel according to Matthew, without Isaiah and the other prophets on whom Matthew leans very heavily, or without Mark, Luke, John, and the epistles, we could easily dispense with any sense of grace. If all we had were these parables of waiting and watchfulness, we could come to the conclusion that the key to our salvation is staying awake, giving generously, working hard, keeping our flasks full of oil, and doing good works.
And, there is no doubt that the parables of Jesus do exhort us to faithful discipleship. The danger we face is coming to the conclusion that our own faithfulness can secure our eternal salvation.
We use the word “salvation” in more than one way, just as we use the word “love” in different ways.
I asked someone, “How do you like your new car?” and she replied, “Oh, I just love it.” I understood exactly what she meant even though, at a different time, when her world was crashing down around her and her friends surrounded her, brought her food and took care of her children, she said, “I have never felt so loved before.” One use of the word is rich and full; the other is a light reflection of its deeper meaning.
Similarly, we can use the word salvation in both a temporal and an eternal sense. When I left the lights on in my car and the battery ran out and we were stranded in a parking lot fifty miles from home at midnight, my friend with jumper cables who turned around and came back to help was our salvation.
When we save each other, it is a metaphor, a sign, a brief reflection of the grace God has extended through Jesus Christ.
The parables of Jesus work at several different levels, sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical.
A minister named Liz Forney gave a lecture to some seminary students and she brought an old oil-burning lamp similar to those the wise and foolish bridesmaids might have used. Liz lit the lamp as she began to speak to the students about the spiritual life of a minister, the importance of prayer, meditation, and scripture reading beyond sermon preparation and colleagues who will both support and hold each other accountable.
The visual parable was, of course, rigged.
The lamp burned for a few minutes, then flickered out when the oil ran out.
“What are you going to do,” she asked the students, “when the phone rings, the person on the other end of the line is in crisis, and you’ve got nothing? You have run out of oil, you are spiritually drained?”
The paradox, of course, is that the more we depend on our own spiritual practices, our own training, our competence, or our own expert understanding of theology to keep us filled up, the less room we make for the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That is the only oil that will keep us burning past the dark midnight hour.
Faith, a sense of living for the ultimate purpose of God, is not secret knowledge, some bit of wisdom that someone can whisper in your ear and impart instantly, like oil poured from your flask into my lamp. Rather, it gathers over a lifetime of faithful living; it is squeezed out of our minds and into our hearts in times of grief and heartbreak.
It adds up through a lifetime of prayers lifted up, sometimes in deepest communion with God, sometimes by rote, lightly and mindlessly. It enters us through sacrament, answering “Yes!” when we baptize a new disciple, “will you help and support, guide and nurture . . .”
And sometimes the “Yes!” comes with a vision of rambunctious play and Kidquake and Youthquake and mission trips and teaching Sunday school and breaking up fights after school in the parking lot; and sometimes it’s just the word we say because it’s part of the liturgy.
Sometimes, we hear the invitation to the table, to the joyful feast of the people of God, to all those who are carrying heavy burdens, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and we can’t wait to be fed; and sometimes, we go through the motions because, after all, we’re here, and the table is spread, and maybe, just maybe, some glimpse of grace will come.
Either way, another drop or two of that oil, that spiritual strength that comes by grace drips into our lamp, another day of moving into a future of God’s making, not our own.
That, ultimately, is where these parables point. It’s not that we need to be preoccupied, as the first century Christians in Matthew’s community apparently were, with the day and the time of the consummation of all history. Whether it is 2012, or six billion years from now, or whenever the universe quits expanding and collapses back in upon itself, the message of the Gospel is that we live in a world of purpose; of God’s purpose. And God is working that purpose out through the grace of Jesus Christ and nothing will come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So, if grace ultimately reigns, does it matter? Why fill our flasks? Why live as faithfully as we can? Why not live for the moment and leave the needs of others to the grace of God? Why be part of it in this life?
A few years ago, I was called to the bedside of someone I had never met before. The hospital chaplain saw that she had listed her religious affiliation as “Presbyterian,” so he called me as she was dying.
She had been baptized in a Presbyterian church as a child, but her seventy-something years since then had not included any community of faith. She did not know the Lord’s prayer, or any scripture. She had no favorite hymns because she did not grow up singing hymns.
“Tell me about heaven,” she said.
She was frightened of death, and wanted something she could hang on to. I read her scripture, the words of Revelation about the time to come when there will be no sorrow or crying and death will be no more. I read to her the stories Jesus told of a heavenly banquet in which all those who had once been not invited would now be invited. I read to her the words of Isaiah 55 about the banquet at the king’s table where all those without money could eat, all those who thirst would drink the best wine. I prayed with her, and when she fell asleep, I left.
When I woke up, she asked the chaplain to call a different Presbyterian minister because that first one didn’t do her any good at all.
And, of course, she was right, I didn’t do any good.
Lander told me later he couldn’t do much good either.
Her ultimate salvation, of course, is in the hands of the gracious God who sent his son to die for us and raised him from the dead. Her ultimate salvation, as a beloved and frightened child of God, is not in question. How we both wish we could have filled her flask with oil, with fearlessness and faith, with blessed assurance, right then and there.
Many years ago, a friend of mine died a very slow death from cancer. After a few years, when the treatments ran out, he called up the local hospice and made arrangements for his final weeks. He reviewed his will to make sure that it reflected his sense of Christian stewardship; that his property would continue to fulfill the calling he had lived out during his eighty years of life. As he lost his ability to walk, and he slept more and more, he would awake briefly when I came to visit and tell me he had been dreaming.
Some of his dreams were memories, the two wives he had outlived and the wedding fifteen years before to his third wife who cared for him, dreams of his children and grandchildren, his travels to South America where he had helped translate parts of the Bible into the native language of the people in a remote village in Brazil.
And he dreamed of the life to come. He had no idea if his dreams were accurate. “The only one who has been to the other side and returned has told us precious little about it,” he said. But his dreams were a comfort to him. In the last week he was able to speak, everything he said was full of gratitude. He was thankful for his wife who cared for him, he was thankful for the hospice workers who kept him out of pain, he was thankful to those of us, his friends and family, who came to visit him. I don’t think I have ever seen someone die so easy.
Donald had lived a life of faith and gratitude. He had made a lot of money and given almost all of it away throughout his life. He had been a part of the church and learned the Bible and taught it to others and he had prayed without ceasing. He never imagined that his good works secured his ultimate salvation. They did not save him from death, they did not open the gates of heaven for him.
Every day of his life, however, filled his lamp with oil. His life of faith squeezed that blessed assurance from mind to heart so that he lived his days, right down to his final hour, with purpose and anticipation.
So, come. Come to this table for a bit of bread, a taste of wine, perhaps a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven in which we have already begun to live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.