Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
15 March 2015, The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A, Narrative Lectionary
Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:1-13
Sermon: Oil crisis!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this’ says Jesus. It’s a familiar enough start to one of Jesus’ parables. But what do you think of when you hear those words? For many of us, the Kingdom is what we often use to describe the ongoing activity of God in the world. Jesus, we believe, has initiated this new movement- his Kingdom. As more and more people become involved, as more and more the goodness of God is seen in the world- that’s the Kingdom, isn’t it- so we say! And heaven? Well, that’s for afterwards. The place we go when we die- a rest after all our work for the sake of the Kingdom.
‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this’. And then Jesus tells us a story- a story which makes us think (as always). A story about ancient Jewish wedding customs, involving foolish and sensible young women, a bridegroom who arrives late, oil lamps that are running low, and a wedding part that only some people are admitted to. What has any of this to do with doing the work of God’s Kingdom in our world? What has any of it to do with our hope for eternal rest with God in heaven, the next world? In fact, what has any of this to do with anything?
One commentator on this passage remarks, ‘we know little about first century wedding customs’ (Amy-Jill Levine, in Newsom et al, Womens’ Bible Commentary, p348). Certainly, if this story is anything to go by, the customs back then were very different to today’s customs. What we do know is that wedding were great occasions, which included in the entire village and lasted for some days. A rabbi could even leave off studying the law so that he could enjoy a wedding celebration (Barclay, DSB). It seems as though there was a custom that the young friends of the bride would wait with her, at her house, for the bridegroom to arrive. And perhaps there was even a bit of a tradition that the bridegroom would seek to surprise the wedding party- rather like we expect a bride to arrive late at the Church. In any case, it was uncertain when he would arrive.
So the bride and her friends wait for the bridegroom to arrive so that the wedding party can begin. They wait and wait, late into the night. No wonder that they fall asleep- an entirely human, natural reaction. But then the cry goes up- the bridegroom has arrived. The girls scramble to go out to meet him- but it’s dark outside- they need lights. So they trim their lamps- which were probably torches made of rags wrapped around the end of a pole and soaked in olive oil. They didn’t burn for long before you needed to top up the oil.
Five of these young women are wise- they have brought extra oil containers, so even although they have waited a long time for the bridegroom, they still have enough oil so that they can go out and meet the bridegroom. But foolishly, the other five women didn’t think ahead. Waiting for so long, they have used up their supply of oil. They ask for help- couldn’t the others share? But that would leave hardly any oil for any of them. So they five foolish girls trot off to see if they can get more oil supplies (this is the middle of the night- but it’s only a story!). By the time they come back, the party’s in full swing, and the five foolish girls can’t get in.
It’s hard for us to see what any of this has to do with us. We need to do some decoding. Clearly, this is a story about being prepared, and not getting caught out- but by and what for? This parable comes in a section of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus uses language and imagery which the scholars call ‘apocalyptic’.
This is a way of speaking of God and history in a way which is really quite unsettling for many of us, for it looks forward to what we might describe as the end of the world. For many folks in Jesus’ day were sure that the end of history as we know it was nearly at hand. The Messiah- the saviour of God’s people- would soon appear, and put the flight those powers in the world which opposed God- for example, the Romans, who were occupying and oppressing God’s people in Israel. Jesus sometimes uses this kind of language, and thinks in that kind of way. That is what he is doing when he tells this story. This is what he is talking about when he says that this is a story about ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, and what happens when it arrives.
So this story not about what will happen to us when we die- it’s not about heaven in the conventional sense we often understand it to be about- the afterlife. Nor is it just about how we should live as Christ’s disciples, as the Kingdom appears among us, and what we should do to encourage it. This is primarily a story in which Jesus tells his followers that he will one day be back again. It’s a story about the end of the world, and judgement- things which often make us shift uneasily in our Presbyterian pews.
The problem is that we know that there are other religious people who make much more of this sort of thing. History is littered with those who have tried to take apocalyptic seriously- those people who take these parts of the Bible and pore over every little detail, looking for predictions of the future, or trying to work out if any of it is happening yet. They trawl through the apocalyptic bits of the Bible- above all, that strange, last book of the Bible, Revelation- looking for clues. But trying to pin down the details too literally takes away the mystery, and simply causes confusion.
Down through history there have been various people who have tried to pin down the details, for example, to try put a date on when they think Jesus will return. All of the, of course, have failed (or we would not be here!). Today the Bible is still misused and misunderstood by those who think it gives them a timetable for the end of the world. It’s a dangerous way of using the Bible, for it inevitably means that you focus on just a part of Scripture, and on certain themes. In their enthusiasm for the end of the world, they forget Christ’s teaching about how to live in this world. As they worry about the darker elements of apocalyptic, the forget that the point of these stories is to bring joy and hope, and not fear.
Today’s parable puts us on the right track. Jesus gives us a story which is certainly about his return. He will return, he says, like the bridegroom who arrive, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night. In fact, as a postscript at the end of the parable, Jesus says something which ought to deflate any enthusiast for trying to predict date of the end of the world, ‘you do not know the day and the hour’: in the previous chapter he has said, ‘No one knows… when that day and hour will come… the Father alone knows’ (Matthew 24.36). These verses are the answer to anyone trying to make a timetable for the future out of the Bible: you don’t know, and you’re not supposed to.
For the point of this parable- and there are other sayings and parables in which Jesus says the same thing- is that we don’t know when Christ will return, and when God will establish justice on earth. In a sense, it is already happening, for Jesus cured the sick and forgave sins, and was resurrected from the dead, and his Spirit is at work in the world today. For this is not the only parable in which he speaks of the Kingdom. Like a mustard seed growing into a tree, or leaven making a loaf of bread rise, he said- my Kingdom will grown among you. It is happening now, and yet it has not yet happened.. the Kingdom is among us, but it is also yet to come. Meanwhile, we live in era in which our world is slowly being redeemed, in which the Kingdom grows even although the powers which would hinder Christ’s way are not yet totally defeated.
So how do we live in this in-between age? We live with expectation, and with hope. The foolish young girls of the parable had not topped up their supplies of oil, and so they went off to get some more. By the time they got back, the wedding was underway, and they were locked out. We are called to live as people prepared for when Christ comes back. It is our individual responsibility- we cannot simply borrow someone else’s oil. Each of us are to be lights for Christ, shining for others to see the coming Kingdom: ‘…your light must shine before people’, says Jesus elsewhere in this Gospel, ‘so they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5.12).
Shortly after today’s parable, there is another parable of the Kingdom, in which we hear that we will be judged on how we treated those in need: ‘Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25.34-35). It is when we help those least important, and most in need, that we are doing the work of the Kingdom. Then our lights burn brightly, then we are preparing properly for Christ’s return.
But meanwhile, watch out! Look out for the Kingdom’s sudden arrival. Look out also, I think, for God to be doing new things as the Kingdom grows even in this age. I am a great fan of the Pink Panther movies, in which Peter Sellers plays the disaster-prone Inspector Clouseau. In one of film, he gives what seems like a totally useless piece of advice to his butler and marital arts partner, Cato: ‘Remember, Cato, always expect the unexpected’. How can you expect the unexpected?
The Jesuit teacher Gerard Hughes wrote a book about how we can experience God in everyday life which he called God of Surprises. For God is always going to surprise us. God’s surprises can be challenging. Yet we need to be able to respond- have enough oil for our lamps- whenever God surprises us.
Sometimes what surprises us is not what God does, but that he takes so long to do it. ‘How long, O God?’ we cry, as the Psalmist did. We might, like all ten friends of the bridesmaid, all get tired waiting. But when God does suddenly bursts into our life, we must be ready- we should have oil for out lamp. And that needs preparation.
For one of the things about faith is that it needs to develop staying power. In a parable about how people hear about the Kingdom, Jesus once spoke of how seeds sometimes fall on ground which doesn’t allow them to flourish. So it is with faith- it can die because it is like seed sewn among weeds, or on stony ground- it gets strangled, or never gets a firm hold (Matthew 13.1-23).
Today’s parable used another imagine: the way to ensure our faith has that staying power necessary is to make sure we keep our oil topped up. We need to nurture our faith and deepen our relationship with God as we go through life- because we need to be always ready. Being ready means living as though the world might end tomorrow. But then again it might not. So we get on with the job of living a lights for the world, and serving God’s world with Jesus’ love and compassion.
Ascription of Praise
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be forever, Amen.
BCO 1994, p586
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise state
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo
SS: Hymn 550 As the deer pants for the water