Are we ready and waiting?
Matthew 25: 1-13
Nestled in what is sometimes called Jesus’ end of time teaching the parable of the bridesmaids follows his warnings about the end when many will fall away from the faith and the faithful will be hated by the world.
The parable in today’s reading teaches all would-be disciples of Jesus the importance of vigilance in uncertain times and illustrates how each of us are able to “endure to the end”.
This entire section of teaching is addressed to the disciples privately as they sat with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, a cosy setting for a far from cosy subject. The teaching of the wise and foolish maids builds on the previous teaching of the wise and foolish servants. Both parables illustrate the need to live in a way that expects the return of the Lord, even when the return is delayed.
The parable opens with a familiar phrase, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” The kingdom is like the whole scene shown in this parable where some bridesmaids are prepared for the groom and enjoy the banquet and others are excluded by their own lack of preparation.
The banquet itself is symbolic imagery of the promised heavenly banquet. The importance of a typical wedding feast, however, could not have been lost on anyone. Wedding festivities typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the joyous event.
In this story, it is expected that the bridesmaids would wait for the arrival of the bridegroom and greet him with a procession of light in the darkness. Presumably the bridesmaids were waiting either at the brides' home for the groom to come and fetch her or at the home of the groom's family where the wedding would take place. All the maids have lamps lit in eager expectation of the groom's appearance.
The bridegroom is delayed. In reality, a groom’s delay was not unusual. For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s family over the gifts exchanged. Indeed, the reason for the delay is not the bridesmaids’ concern. They should have anticipated that a delay could happen. In its literary setting, the delay echoes the previous parable of the two servants, it anticipates the parable of the talents, and illustrates Jesus' warning, “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Due to the delay of the groom and the late hour, all the bridesmaids had fallen asleep. Their sleepiness however was not the problem, since both wise and foolish alike had become drowsy. The wise though had brought extra oil for their lamps. Both groups knew that the groom was coming and waited with their lamps burning, but only half considered that the wait in the darkness might be longer than anticipated.
When all the maids were woken by the announcement of the groom's arrival, they all set about trimming and preparing their lamps for the procession. To the horror of the foolish, though, they discovered that they would not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The wise maids refused to lend their extra oil. If they gave away their oil, they would not have enough. Then what would become of the procession?
For modern ears, the wise maids’ suggestion to go to the dealers to buy more oil may seem ridiculous. The text says that it is midnight. Where will the foolish maids buy oil in the middle of the night? This detail is unimportant, however, because apparently the maids in the end do find a place to buy oil. When the foolish were away making arrangements that should have been made already, the groom arrived. The procession took place without the foolish bridesmaids, and the banquet began.
The foolish maids returned, ready for the procession. They knocked on the door of the house, but the groom denied them entry to the wedding feast. They had missed the grand procession. Although these bridesmaids were chosen to accompany the bride and groom, their role as bridesmaids did not guarantee them a place at the banquet. They had initially played the part of wedding attendants. They had waited with lamps lit, for a while, but they did not plan for the long dark time of waiting. As a result, they were shut out of the banquet. The maids’ plea recalls Jesus’ warning that not everyone who cries “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
The parable is summed up in verse 13. The necessity often translated as “keep awake” might best be judged, “be vigilant.” In this parable, the bridegroom’s arrival was certain. The uncertainty of the timing illustrated the need for constant vigilance.
The earliest readers of this Gospel had already entered the dark days after the crucifixion and resurrection and had begun anticipating Christ’s return. This parable challenged them to be vigilant and live in expectation of the Lord’s coming.
Today may find us secretly sympathetic to the foolish maidens. Does the church in our time really live as though the bridegroom’s arrival is certain? Some people have become caught up in trying to control the day and the hour, while others have let their lamps run out. To live in vigilance means disciples can do the work that they have been given to do, in preparation for the Master’s coming. In Matthew’s Gospel, those tasks include bearing witness to God’s kingdom by welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the prisoners, and making disciples in the entire world.
The Rev’d Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 08/11/2020
The Soldier By Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.