SUNDAY SCHEDULE
9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

The Well-Oiled Church

San Williams

November 6, 2011
Matthew 25:1-13

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Of all the parables of Jesus about the kingdom of Heaven, this may be the one we’d most like to rewrite.  There are parts of this parable that we’d change or at least question.  So let’s take out our imaginary red pencil and subject this parable a good edit.

To begin let’s draw a line through that last sentence that commands us to “keep awake.”  This ending is misleading at best.  It suggests that staying awake is the main point of the parable.  But that can’t be true.  For one thing, we’re told that all 10 of the bridesmaids became drowsy and slept.  Also, from our own experience we know that constant vigilance is humanly impossible.  Staying awake through one sermon can sometimes be a challenge much less are we able to live in a constant state of wakeful attention.  No one can stand on their spiritual tip toes all the time. Like the young women in the parable, at times we’re all going to become drowsy and need sleep.  It may not be a major concern, but I’d at least put a question mark beside the parable’s closing line.

And while we have pencil in hand, did it bother you that when the five so-called wise bridesmaids were asked to share their oil with the others, they turned them down flat? They said in effect: “We’ve got what we need; the rest of you are on your own.” I’d hate to think people would say of us:  “Well, you know those Presbyterians: They’re always looking out for themselves. Don’t ask them for any help.”  Surely the moral of this parable isn’t:  Don’t share with others or you might not have enough for yourself.

Is that what Jesus taught?  If so, we’d need to go back and rewrite a lot of the Gospel.  For example, try to re-imagine the episode of Jesus feeding the five thousand.  If Jesus had echoed the attitude of the five wise bridesmaids, he might have responded to the hungry crowd something like:  “What! You forgot to  pack a lunch! No way we’re going to share these loaves and fishes. There wouldn’t be enough.”   Don’t you agree that the unwillingness of the five bridesmaids to share with their sisters in need seems out of sync with the message of Jesus?

Now before we put down our editor’s pencil, there’s another part of this parable that needs a rewrite.  Earlier in Matthew, Jesus had said, “Seek and you shall find, ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened.” But in this parable the door is shut tight.  Even when the foolish bridesmaids come knocking, the bridegroom refuses to open saying, “I don’t know you.”  This is the kind of statement that often brings out the worst in Christians.  It can lead to a we’re-in-because-we-know-Jesus kind of arrogance.  It’s also used as a basis for religious scare tactics. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker:  “If you died today do you know for sure that you’ll go to heaven?”  It may bother you the way it does me when Christians use this parable to try and scare people into the fold.

Well, for these reasons, I can’t resist the temptation to rewrite portions of the parable. Our rewrite might say something like this:  When the bridegroom appeared, all the bridesmaids went out to meet him.  The wise bridesmaids who remembered to fill their flasks gladly shared with those who had none.  Even though there wasn’t enough to go around, the bridegroom commended the wise bridesmaids for their selfless generosity and welcomed them all into the wedding feast-wise and foolish alike.  The end.

Granted it’s somewhat presumptuous to rewrite a parable of Jesus.  However, no less a Christian figure than Tomas Merton also preferred a different ending.  Merton’s revisions took the form of his poem titled “The Five Virgins:’

There were five howling virgins
Who came
To the Wedding of the lamb
With their disabled motorcycles
And their oil tanks
Empty

But since they knew how
To dance,
A Person says to them
To stay anyhow.

And there you have it:
There were five noisy virgins
Without gas
But looking good
In the traffic of the dance.

Consequently
There were ten virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.

Admittedly, it’s sort of fun to do a rewrite on portions of scripture that are not entirely to our liking.  But there comes a time to cease trying to change the parable, and ask instead how the parable is seeking to change us. In truth, our task is not to rework the parable, but to let the parable rework our lives.

Now that process can start when we recognize that the parable is addressing a fundamental issue in the church, one that concerned Matthew’s Church and still concerns us today.  On the one hand, Jesus promised us that he will return and all things will be healed and reconciled.  It will be a time of joyful celebration–eating, dancing, music, joy and good will all around.  That’s why the wedding feast is an apt metaphor for the promised kingdom of God.  But on the other hand, the church has had to grapple with the delay of the Kingdom’s full arrival.  So the question the parable addresses to us is how are we to live faithfully even as we wait expectantly for the Kingdom to come?

And the wise bridesmaids help us answer that question.  Simply put, they were prepared for delay.  They kept their lamps well-oiled.  Remember near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, ‘Let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’   At the end of the same sermon, Jesus reminds, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the ones who do the will of my Father in heaven.”  It follows that the oil in this parable can be understood as active discipleship–good works of love and mercy.  The parable is a challenge that the church not be like the foolish bridesmaids who still had their lamps, but who had ceased to carry oil.

So the take home lesson is that we can’t simply presume a gracious, joy-filled future without preparing for it with active discipleship.  The oil that keeps our lamps burning are active things like worshipping, praying, welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, offering forgiveness, spreading justice and peace. In short, Jesus asks his followers to preserver in discipleship and to keep our lamps buring with the oil of good works.

Friends, I think those church folk who use this parable as a way to scare us all straight are missing the point.  You don’t practice kindness, do justice and love your neighbor because you’re afraid you’re going to get locked out of the kingdom of Heaven.  No, you do it because you can’t wait to meet the bridegroom.  You do the work of Christ because it fills you with joy and peace.  You do it so that when Jesus comes he’ll recognize us and say, “I know you.  Well done good and faithful servants.  Come on in!”