“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
(Matthew 25:1–13 NRSV)
This is my sermon on Matthew 25. If you’d like to hear the audio go to Camas Friends Church.
The Gas Company*
There is a church about the same size as ours in southern Ohio.
In just about every way there are just like every normal church, they sing songs, listen to sermons written just for them, they pray for one another, and they enjoy eating food together.
But there was a little undercurrent within that community that has the potential to unravel the church.
See in this poor rural town where they all live Fracking has become a pretty big thing and the church was being touched on all sides by it. Because of being a poor community there wasn’t a lot of work to go around. When the gas companies came in to start the fracking and set up gas plants, there was a significant burst in jobs and a number of folks from the church were finally able to get work. This was a good thing. Children were eating better and were able to get clothes for school, bills were finally getting paid off, even the stewardship committee of the church was happy to see that giving was up a little. But there wasn’t the space to openly celebrate the way you might a wedding or a baby dedication.
That’s because there was another group of people touch by fracking but in a completely different way. A number of the families, and a number of elderly folks, had just learned that their well-water had been contaminated and ruined by the fracking. These were wells these families lived off, some for a generation or more. Now they were completely unusable.
Both groups of people loved each other. They were all apart of the same community, same church, some even in the same family, but this undercurrent created a segregation that threatened their ability to stay focused on loving God and neighbor.
Now let’s turn back to Jesus’ parable for a few minutes.
If you remember when we talked about parables before, James Alison points out that there are always two ways to read a parable: the dull-hearted way that props up the status quo and the way that includes a subversion from within or a hidden shock (Raising Abel). A parable is meant to work its way into our imaginations and when it detonates, it is to open us up to new possibilities and new challenges.
Therefore, a dull-hearted reading, those are Alison’s words not mine, always reinforce a violent and exclusive understanding of God. In this instance, God would be the bridegroom who shows up whenever he wants, and makes necessary cuts and once that door is shut, its shut and too bad so sad if you don’t make the cut. There is plenty of Christianity that is based on this version of faith.
So I want to attempt to point out what might be a different reading that is more off-center. I apologize if it ends up being completely heretical in the process.
To me, this parable is like the “What’s Wrong: How many silly things can you find in this picture” activity at the back of the Highlights magazine. Oh, there’s a guy on his skateboard with a scuba diving mask on. There’s a dude with a helmet that has strawberries on it. There’s a huge plate of fried chicken in the middle of the skate-park. There’s something wrong with this picture. I think this is what is going on in this text.
Here are some of the things that are out of place about this parable:
This parable reveals a wedge in-between a wedding party where there would have been no expected wedge. A wedding party is a typically a fairly unified group. They all still get the fancy outfit and get to stand with their friends. They are all there to be support the bride and groom whom they love. And while I’ve been in enough wedding parties to know there are some wise and some less wise groomsmen and bridesmaids they are all still included.
Another thing that is interesting to know is that it was the “bridesmaids” job to wait at the bride’s home, and when it was the appointed time, they would have walked out together to wait for and greet the groom. And together they would escort the bride and the groom, with their torches lit, through village to the groom’s house where they would as a unified-party enter to a great celebratory feast.
So you can see why this wedge is disconcerting to me and feels really out of place.
The groom who shows up much later than he is supposed to. He is the one who is not working according to the plan. If I were to show up hours late to my wedding people would have been freaking out. Emily would have thought I’d gotten scared and ran out on her and my mom would have had my head.
I think it’s important that we see this as snag in Jesus’ version of a wedding story. Something “silly.” Something out of the ordinary. The first century hearers would have know this was very problematic.
If the groom had shown up on time there would have been no trouble. It is his dramatically late arrival that adds a third piece to the story that creates the clash between our two groups.
In fact, it is the result of his arrival that creates the existence of two groups: one wise and one foolish.
They all fall asleep. The punch line of the parable is Jesus telling his hearers to “keep awake.” All of the bridesmaids are caught sleeping with their torches lit, which I am sure is not in alignment with fire code.
Likely it is one of the groomsmen whose shout wakes the bridesmaids wake up only to find their torches, which were sort of like a tiki stick with a bundle of cloth jammed at the top of their stick and soaked in oil to burn, all burned up. We learn that five of the girls brought some extra oil and five are stuck with flashlights whose batteries have died.
I do not see any reason why they, upon hearing and seeing the groom coming down the street, would not have shared what they had with the others. Especially given small village life most of the people would have been close friends or family.
What makes the five so wise?
That they brought extra oil? That could be because they knew that the groom was notoriously irresponsible and would inevitably be late as he always was. It could be the case that the “foolish” girls in this story were the ones who were more likely just trusting the guy would show up on time. I wonder if the designations wise and foolish are meant to trip us up and get us distracted.
I don’t think it is our place to try and judge between wise and foolish but rather to stay awake. To stay awake and live like the church in the midst of whatever is happening.
For a community such as Camas Friends that values as one of our core threads “generosity” these wise bridesmaids should not seem so wise to us. Couldn’t it be that their falling asleep was their lack of generosity?
“The absence of gratitude is a sign that people have turned away from God.” (Nouwen)
But here’s another piece that is out of place: the groom shows up and does not acknowledge his relationship with five of the people in his wedding party. The groom Walks to his house with the remaining wedding party, arrives, shuts the door and moves on.
When the remaining part of his wedding party shows up, with women who likely would have been his neighbors, cousins, possibly even his own sisters, he tells them “I don’t know who you are” and goes back in to finish the chicken dance.
He does not acknowledge the existence of a previously established relationship.
Summary of what is wrong:
- a wedge in the party
- the groom shows up late
- all fall asleep
- lack of generosity
- the first are first
- does not acknowledge relationship
What do we do with all these “silly” things?
For one, let’s think about what we know of Jesus.
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30 NRSV)
And Paul said:
1Cor. 1:27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong;
This story is not about Jesus. I think Jesus is pointing to a contrasting story, saying what the Gospel does not look like.
Dorothy Day sheds light on this reading when she says:
“The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor. -Dorothy Day
This parable is meant to raise questions about who is deserving and who is underserving. It is meant to stir you and help you to see that this is not reflective of the Kingdom of God but rather what some in the religious community have claimed to be the kingdom of God.
Instead – Couldn’t it be that the groom who is delinquent, and drives an artificial wedge between a party of loved ones is himself the one who divides and conquers? The one who is constantly trying to build up a rivalry against us and them. The one whose existence relies on their being scapegoats and victims? The one who parades as wise, as efficient, “just being about business” while instead actually being revealed as foolishness?
I want to wager that Jesus is telling this story as a bit of a key or clue for what to look for – when there are events or persons who come and try to divide, who work to create more victims and scapegoats, then we know that this cannot be of God. This groom is not Jesus.
This is why we must stay awake.
To fall asleep means that even the wise among us turn to fear, defensiveness and scarcity.
To fall asleep means that we allow ourselves to be divided by false labels such as foolish or wise, deserving or undeserving, good or bad, right or wrong.
This wise in this story find themselves in the middle of a gingerbread house, only to learn that it only an illusion.
What I think Jesus is saying in this parable is quite simple:
Don’t let it be like this among you. Don’t replicate this story. Do not let me find that you have shut the door and locked out anyone. Or if there is a door that is locked, you ought to be standing with those who have found themselves locked out.
Jesus has told us this parable to help us sniff out the imposter. The story itself is a test to see whether or not we are awake and can tell “What Wrong: How many Silly Things Can you Spot?”
Back In Ohio
There is a little more to the story: The two groups or designations did not become apart of this church until the gas company came to the pastor of the church and asked for the rights to drill the land.
The arrival of the “man of Gas,” shall we say, is what precipitated the drawing of lines. Who is deserving and underserving in this picture? Who shall we discriminate against? Who should the pastor side with? Those who have lost their water due to chemicals or those who finally have food to give to their kids? Who do we as people choose between when there are legitimate conflicts in this world and we find ourselves together in a community like this?
We must be aware that when a third pieces, person or event moves into to create a triangle between groups, things become unbalanced.
If we are asleep it is easy for us to react. It is easy for us to take the bait and begin to draw lines and discriminate.
But the Gospel takes away our right forever to do this. The Gospel removes fear. God’s unconditional love removes our fear. The Gospel takes away our right to shut the door in the face of some who is “foolish” or “underserving.” It is the gospel that intends to pull us together in order to build up the beloved community.
If there is someone or something to challenge then it is that which creates the unbalance. We must challenge the false assumption that by drawing lines in the sand we will finally have the kingdom of heaven.
So, how does the story ends? How do we proceed in a way that refuses to create a victimize or a scapegoat? How do we proceed on the grounds that generosity rather than hoarding oil? And if we find the door shut in the face of people we love, where shall we stand?
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
- Disclaimer on the story. This is a fictionalized version of a recent story I heard from a colleague.