23 PENTECOST - PROPER XXVII - A - 17 MATTHEW 25. 1-13
I am sure you have heard the old saying, “don’t fall asleep at the switch?” I have heard it all of my life but it wasn’t until I was ten or twelve that I finally asked what it meant.
My grandmother told me about the switchman who watched for the oncoming train. He was the one who would manually turn a heavy lever that would switch the tracks so that the on-coming train would not collide with one coming from the opposite direction but pass safely parallel to it. Obviously, he could not afford to fall asleep!
Today’s gospel ends with Jesus’ admonition “keep awake!” It comes at the close of his parable of the ten bridesmaids. He is speaking about the kingdom of heaven and is using an everyday example the people could easily relate to, a wedding feast.
Jesus’ parable gives us a glimpse of first century Jewish wedding customs. The bridegroom was expected to come at night to the house of the bride that he might take her to his own house. He was expected to be punctual. She and her bridesmaids await the moment. The bridesmaids are to go forth to meet the bridegroom when the cry is heard that he is near.
The bride has ten maids of honor, and their lamps are to be ready, trimmed and burning while they wait. Therefore, the oil needs to be abundant in the event he is delayed. It is not like that today, where we receive a nicely engraved wedding invitation containing the exact time and location of the wedding. Moreover, it is usually not the bridegroom we wait for but the bride!
In Jesus’ parable, five of the bridesmaids were wise enough to bring plenty of oil, just in case, there happened to be a delay. Five of them did not. They all dozed off, but when the cry came that the bridegroom was about to appear, the wise ones trimmed their lamps and were ready to follow him. The others were left in the dark, their oil being depleted, and were left behind.
They eventually made their way to the wedding feast, but by then the door was shut. They found themselves outside looking in. The point of the parable is our need to “stay awake,” to be prepared at all times for the coming of the bridegroom, that is, Jesus Christ himself, for we know neither the day or the hour of His appearing.
In the first lesson, the prophet Amos describes the “day of the Lord” as something to dread. “Why do you want the day of the Lord,” he asks God’s people. “It is darkness not light, and gloom with no brightness in it.” The prophet’s words were meant to be a warning to the king and the people of the Northern Kingdom to repent. If they did not the “day” of the Lord’s coming would be to them as the prophet described.
In contrast, St. Paul refers to the “coming of the Lord” as a means of encouraging the young Christians at Thessalonica to remain steadfast in the faith. It is a day to look forward to. What Jesus is saying in his parable of the ten bridesmaids is that when He comes again “with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet” those who have made themselves ready to receive Him will be gathered to Him and made like Him in His eternal and glorious kingdom.
For those who have not prepared for His return, well, they will left behind. That kind of shatters some folks idea of “I can do what I want with my life and in the end all will be well,” doesn’t it? Today’s parable may seem harsh to some. It paints a different picture of God than the one we prefer to think of. Why would God close the door on anyone? Maybe the question should be “why anyone would chose to close the door on God?”
There were ten bridesmaids waiting for the wedding to begin; only five brought enough oil in case their wait was longer than expected. These were “wise” Jesus said. Even though they feel asleep, they kept their lamps trimmed and when the cry came that they bridegroom was near, they rose and were ready to follow him to the banquet.
God desires that we should all be ready to come to him and join the bridegroom at the wedding feast when the cry goes out. All are invited. It is the choices we make here, that determines our preparation for that day, and whether or not we are welcomed into the banquet or find ourselves left out.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow him into all Truth. We don’t have the luxury of shifting through the gospels and deciding which parts we will accept and which ones we will discard. That is to fool ourselves into believing that it doesn’t matter what we do or say or what we truly believe as long as we love God, all will be well in the end.
Such thinking places us in the company of the five who Jesus said were not prepared to meet the bridegroom, because of their lack of oil, and thus missed the wedding feast. The delay in the bridegroom’s coming is a test of our hope and our love of God. We can’t afford to fall asleep.
In the life of the kingdom, here and now there will be inevitable delays where we long for visual manifestations of the Spirit of Christ. How invaluable in the church at such crisis are those whose cruses are full to the brim with the oil of patience, hope, and truth and whose lamps on the darkest nights are bright and incandescent.
“Stay awake,” Jesus said. We must be prepared for His coming by being prudent in building up reserves of strength and fortitude, so that in all circumstances, favorable or unfavorable, the light of our hope, faith, and love of God and our desire to be with him, does not go out.
Rather that it remains illuminated by the light of His presence, which shines forth in our hearts and awakens our hope in anticipation of His coming and our expectation of being united with Him at the wedding feast of the Lamb. AMEN+