Jesus said, “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
While the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, “Behold the bridegroom comes, go out to meet him.” Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, “Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.” But the wise answered, saying, “Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.” And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” But he answered and said, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man will come.”
Jesus taught with stories, not historical facts. As the wise teacher he was, we may ask, why did he choose to instruct us in this way? Perhaps because stories require imagination. They excite the intellect. In the gospel parables, some of the mystery of God and God’s kingdom is captured in the visions conjured by words woven together in a way that an accounting of facts cannot do. Some of his stories are honestly quite disturbing and invite us to wrestle with their meaning. When we wrestle with the texts, we have to be honest with ourselves about how we see the scriptures. Some say that the Bible is clear-cut truth. I have not found the clear cut part of that statement to be true. And I don’t think I’m the only one who has felt left in the dark.
When we look at today’s parable, it touches on one of the most significant elements in the Bible, the kingdom of God. Instead of feeling enlightened by this story, I was left scratching my head. There are ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. Darkness falls and they need lamps while they wait, but under the glow of their lamps they fall asleep. How could they fall asleep before such a big party? Going to a wedding was an important event for a young woman because she would have the chance to mingle with a lot of men who could be possible husbands. The wise maidens came prepared and will not share their oil. We see some uncharacteristic selfishness here, the kind that Jesus usually warns against. Maybe it was due to the fierce competition among women trying to find a good husband. The foolish maidens have to go to the market and get more oil for their lamps and by the time they get back, the celebration is well under way. They knock desperately at the door, but the groom tells them he does not know them and they are locked out. The story ends with a warning about being prepared. If we take this story at face value, we learn that in the kingdom of heaven, some will get in and some will be left out. Some will be prepared and some will be punished for being unprepared. There is not enough room for everyone at this heavenly party. Is that truly what we are called to believe about our God and God’s kingdom? Why does God seem so harsh here?
Everything has a context and knowing the context for this parable is particularly helpful. This parable is located in the book of Matthew, which is believed to have been written about 70CE and not by anyone actually named Matthew. The disciple Matthew is mentioned in this gospel more than any other and so over time it was attributed to him. The writings came out of a Jewish Christian community who were forced out of Israel around the time of the Jewish War 66 to 70 Common Era and relocated to Roman Syria. Author and theologian Marcus Borg writes in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time that in Matthew’s Gospel “its content points to a late first century community of Christian Jews who were in conflict with other Jews… After the Roman reconquest of the Jewish homeland, the survivors sought to consolidate and preserve Jewish identity…Soon after the Temple’s destruction, the Jewish community began to ostracize Jews who followed Jesus as the messiah, claiming that they were no longer Jews. One of Matthew’s central concerns is to claim the opposite.”
With that in mind when we look at Matthew chapter 25, we can see that the people may have been using this story as a way to claim that they were right because they believed in Jesus and were preparing for Jesus’ return and those who were not preparing, such as the Jews who had ostracized them, were not going to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. No better way to get back at the people rejecting you than to say, “I’ll be in heaven without you, so what you think of me doesn’t’ really matter.” That’s the way people think, but the words of the gospel were attributed to Jesus. Is that truly what Jesus wanted people to understand from this? I find it hard to believe that God takes sides and leaves people out. Some Christians would easily say “God does take sides and not everyone is going to heaven.” One such person who might make this kind of claim is the famous Texas mega-church preacher Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. Several years ago Rev. Warren was on a panel with professor and minister of Harvard University’s church, Rev. Peter Gomes, and they were both asked whether anyone can go to heaven or do you have be saved to go to heaven. Rev. Warren’s theology is very inclusive, but he did believe some would not get into heaven based on his interpretation of scripture, particularly John 3:16. In his reflections on this exchange with Warren, Rev. Gomes wrote “I could not believe that the God who is the creator of all has no plan of salvation for the billions of others in this world except for a New Testament one. Surely God has not forgotten those of his creation that are not Christian. So, I said to my friend Rick, I can only conclude that my God is bigger than yours.” Gomes continues, “Our God is bigger than we are… Throughout the Gospels the claim of a God bigger than those who worship him, more gracious, more generous, more hospitable than they are is at the core of what Jesus calls the Good News and it should be good news.” Some of you may identify with what Warren believes and some of you may identify with what Gomes stated. Like I said in the beginning, it is hard to claim that the Bible is clear-cut truth. One of the things I love about our church is that there is room for a diversity of beliefs. This morning is there anything that we might all take away from these words of scripture?
At the most basic level, the story reminds all of us to be prepared. It is foolish to be unprepared, and you may miss out on something important. The parable is also telling us to be prepared to wait. The wise virgins had oil and they had enough oil to sustain their lamps through the night as the groom was delayed. Be prepared. Be prepared to wait. Sounds familiar to me lately. I think all of you know by now that I am expecting a baby in February. Let me tell you, 9 months can feel like a very long time. It is also a very exciting time for Toby and for me and a time full of preparations. A few months ago, Toby and I began our baby preparations by making our very first trip to Babies R Us. We walked through the aisles of cribs, strollers, bibs, bedding and bottles. We were amazed at all the things you might need or want for a baby. We felt totally unprepared because we knew next to nothing about most of the items. When we walked out of the store, Toby asked me if we could just stop for a minute. We sat down right there on the curb in front of Babies R Us, too overwhelmed to even walk to the car. That moment is marked in my mind, the two of us overcome by the reality of becoming parents. Now that I am into the 6th month, we are feeling a little more confident, but preparations are always on our minds and the topic of most of our dinnertime conversations. If I am honest with you, then I will tell you that sometimes my reoccupation with preparation paralyzes me. I get so caught up in what is to come that I cannot enjoy what is happening in the moment. Do any of you find yourselves doing that too?
Like the parable tells us, there is something to be said for being prepared, but all the preparations in the world won’t be enough when we are face to face with our newborn for the first time. Some things in life you just can’t prepare for. I have also learned that preparing ourselves can have negative consequences too, for instance, when we prepare ourselves for the worst in order to protect ourselves in case something bad happens. I want to share with you something deeply personal in the hope that it might help you in your own life. I am terrified of loss. I am afraid of losing my dogs. I am afraid of losing my husband. I am most afraid of losing my baby. I was pregnant before and I miscarried early in the pregnancy. It devastated me. Now, even though I have made it this far and everything is fine, I find myself preparing for the worst. I am preparing myself for possible loss in the future and that stops me from experiencing the present joy. Do you ever find yourself living by your fears instead of by your hopes? Maybe you too have an experience of loss or pain that you can’t let go of. It can be so hard to let go of our fears. Hope sounds simple enough, but when life puts us to the test, hope can be the more difficult choice. We began today with Jesus talking about the kingdom of heaven, and maybe that kingdom is part of the key to living by hope and not by fear. We pray each Sunday in the Lords Prayer “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom come to earth. We may each have a part to play in making God’s kingdom come, here and now. We will not do that stuck in fear, preparing for the worst or focusing only on the future. We will do that hoping for the best and making the best happen here and now. When we are anxious about the future, our faith reminds us to let go of fear and then invites us to be part of creating God’s kingdom come on earth. We see hints of that kingdom in every act of compassion, every moment of peace, every gesture of generosity and triumph of justice. The parable teaches us, as Thomas Long puts it, “to hold on to the faith deep into the night; even though [we] see no bridegroom coming, still hope and serve and pray and wait for the promised victory of God.” We wait and we trust that one day we will be with God in the fullness of God’s glory and in the meantime we immerse ourselves in the blessings of this life. God invites us to live by hope instead of by fear. This kind of living is active and fully engaged in the present moment, prepared for the wait, even as we trust in the promise of a future that is in God’s hands. What a comfort to know that it is ultimately all in God’s hands. Romans 8 reminds us that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. We have come from God and we are going to God and all the rest is part of the journey. Pain and beauty, fear and hope, threat and promise, Matthew’s Gospel holds more than enough of both and so do our lives. If we had to sum up Jesus’ teachings we could say he is telling us to :
Love one another.
Prepare for joy.
And the kingdom of heaven shall be like this. May it be so. Amen.