“I do not know you.” That sentence reverberated in my head, over and over and over again. “I do not know you.” Could there be anything more devastating than knowing – you’re going to die. There will be no eternal life. How do I even justify my existence? Is there penance enough?
God is outside of time. What if I ask to be a cautionary tale to others? What if, upon hearing my story, even one person ensures that they stay awake, aware? I may not be chosen to live eternally, but I can help others to do so. Oh, Lord, will you use my folly to save others?
Now we don’t know that that’s where this parable comes from, but what if it did? It is devastating to be rejected by the bridegroom, because His word is final. The rejection is made even worse by Christ’s reputation for love and generosity. It would have been so easy to please him! Why didn’t they do so? Why don’t we do so?
Matthew’s Gospel tends to talk more about judgment than the other Gospels, and separating things – the wise from the foolish, the wheat from the tares, the fish in the nets. There are a couple of chapters that include what are known as the judgment parables, and today’s Gospel is one of them.
Scholars vary in their understanding of what the oil in this parable represents. If the thrust of this story is that we must be prepared with oil for Christ’s coming, what’s the oil? Luther said that it’s faith. Others have identified it as piety, good works, or a personal relationship with the Lord.
One approach to understanding the what the oil is, is to examine the context—both the narrow context of this particular parable, along with the series of four parables and then the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel:
In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51), the faithful slave is the one found at work when the master returns. Being prepared—having oil—means working faithfully for the Lord.
In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), the faithful slaves wisely use the resources entrusted to their care. Being prepared—having oil—means practicing good stewardship, having good ecological practices, carefully managing your time and money, being generous to those in need, proclaiming the Word. The possibilities there are endless.
In the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), which is a parable after this one, the Son of Man rewards those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner— all of which corresponds nicely with what Jesus identified in this Gospel as the greatest commandment—to love God and your neighbor (22:37-40). Being prepared—having oil—means generosity to those in need.
So now this parable. As we discussed a couple weeks ago, weddings at that point in time were actually about the celebration. Today, we refer to them as wedding receptions. Often, the bridegroom would begin at the house of his bride, and the wedding party would process to where the celebration would be taking place. One of the things to keep in mind is that the five wise bridesmaids were rewarded, even though they didn’t share the oil they had with their sisters. We might think the wise bridesmaids were acting selfishly, but they are instead acting with wisdom, particularly for their time. It is far better that they use five torches to illuminate the pathway of the Bridegroom for the entire distance than to use ten torches at the beginning and thereby to risk having to walk in darkness at the end. We can see lots of metaphors there.
In the wider context of this Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which covers two entire chapters on its own, gives us great insight into Christ’s expectations. Being prepared—having oil—means obeying Jesus’ teachings.
This parable speaks pointedly to those who have become Christian through an initiatory event, be that conversion, baptism or confirmation, without requiring a corresponding growth in discipleship. A good beginning is not yet a race well run, as all children today learn from the Tortoise and the Hare.
These stories in Matthew also generally include choices for both the wise and the foolish, and a delay in the master’s return.
Matthew addresses the delay in the coming of the bridegroom because people during that time believed that Christ would return “soon”. The problem is, our concept of “soon” and God’s concept of “soon” are apparently very different things. And people were beginning to question – why hasn’t Christ returned? Where is He? So Matthew uses a common idiom – the bridegroom is delayed – something that was not an unusual occurrence, and one that everyone could understand. The problem again, is that definition of “soon”.
The concept of “hurry up and wait” is well known to those in the military. Believe it or not, the military is part of the government, and the government isn’t always efficient.
“Standby” is a “preparatory command.” Usually the order to standby alerts a unit that it will “soon” receive some kind of marching orders, like “standby to launch.”
Unofficially, it’s used to tell junior members to be ready and wait. Often, troops find themselves waiting for long periods of time because of logistics or command indecisiveness.
Said sarcastically, “standby to standby” means that a unit is waiting to wait some more. “Hurry up and wait,” also said sarcastically, pokes fun at the military’s propensity to perform tasks quickly, and then sit idly for long periods of time.
Like the military, being prepared, and then sleeping when you had the opportunity was a common occurrence. Both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids in this parable fell asleep. Staying awake can be used as an idiom for being aware or being prepared.
I’d like you to imagine yourself back in the first century of the common era. You’re a Roman citizen, fairly well off. You wear the best silks against your skin, are fairly well educated in the “classics”, can speak both Latin and Greek. You’ve just kissed your newly cleaned child, breathing in the scent of the oils used to keep his skin in good condition, and sent him off with his nurse. Now is a time when you can relax with your light evening meal of bread and dates, figs and a bit of meat, wines impeccably matching. Life in your city was perfect. You glance out the window, only in that split second seeing Vesuvius before being frozen in time, dying in superheated gasses and volcanic ash. The explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was so sudden, the citizens in both the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were perfectly preserved in time, as we’ve seen in magazines (National Geographic, May 1984). The saddest part is that these people didn’t have to die. Scientists confirm what ancient Roman writers record–weeks of rumblings and shakings preceded the actual explosion. An ominous plume of smoke was even clearly visible from the mountain days before the eruption. They simply needed to be aware.
Now, living life aware or being “awake” does not mean that you have to forego sleep. It means that you need to be vigilant. Like these bridesmaids, if Christ returned tomorrow – would you be ready?
Let’s take a glance at our Old Testament lesson. Joshua was clear with the Israelites – you either choose to serve God, or go wherever you want to go, away from the protection of God, to live and serve elsewhere. We recognize that it wasn’t really a choice for the chosen people, but that was Joshua’s point. You guys already chose, but you’ve forgotten to be aware that you made that choice. You’re not living up to your choice. And it’s the same thing for us – once you make that choice, be it through baptism, confirmation or conversion, you need to live up to it. You need to walk your talk, because lip service is not going to cut it.
Now, the other thing that Joshua did was set up accountability for the people who made the choice. “You are witnesses against yourself that you have chosen the Lord, and to serve Him.” It’s our responsibility to help each other stay on that path, to walk the talk, and continue to grow.
Twenty centuries ago there was a different kind of preacher by the name of Paul. And when he came to the end of the road he did not write his memoirs in a villa on the Riviera. He sat in an old Roman jail waiting to have his head chopped off. The only stocks and bonds he had were stocks for his feet and bonds around his wrists. And he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Like Joshua, Paul made the decision that “as for me”, I will serve the Lord.
That phrase, “as for me” has history also within our own American past. Patrick Henry fired a verbal shot in an old church in Richmond that was heard around the world. It was on March 20, 1775, during a time when history moved rapidly. The pacifying men of the time were trying to work out a compromise of peaceful coexistence, so to speak, with George III. But Patrick Henry was fed up with appeasement, and he saw no sense in further negotiation. He said, “I don’t know what others will do, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
The die was cast and the Rubicon was crossed, and all bridges were burned and retreat was impossible. There wasn’t any uncertainty about where Patrick Henry stood. He cleared the air and stated the issue. There weren’t any third dimensions and middle ground. Such a speech is awfully out of date in this fuzzy day of wooly thinking when experts in double talk, in the art of almost saying something specialize in a straightforward way of dodging the issue. That was not Patrick Henry’s way – no one doubted where he stood, because his yea was yea and his nay was nay. And while his contemporaries were going around their elbows to get to their thumbs, Patrick Henry decided that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. His speech must have shocked the school of propriety, but he detonated a charge that blasted tyranny from our shores. We have to wonder if, in his classics education, he knew about Joshua. “As for me” makes a statement of not only belief, but of action.
We know that we have chosen to follow God through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Yet we also know that if we allow ourselves to coast, to sleep, to be unready, we may be like the unprepared bridesmaids, or the people of Pompeii. Our oil may be very low. Are you and your household going to serve the Lord?
The last thing we want to hear is, “I do not know you.” So this week, as you go through your daily routines, find ways to be aware of God in what you’re doing. Our lessons point out the variety of ways that God has spoken to us, teaching us how to maintain an awareness of Him. Pick one thing. How are you going to serve the Lord this week?