This is the third Sunday of Lent and each Sunday we have taken time to look at a different parable of Jesus found in the book of Matthew. And for the third Sunday in a row, my initial response to the text has been, “Now, that’s not fair!” It began two weeks ago when there was this master who paid all of his workers the same, whether they had worked all day from early in the morning or for just a few hours in the evening. And then last week we had the first of two parables about exclusionary weddings. Last week this guy is thrown out of a wedding feast just because he had on the wrong clothes. And now we have these bridesmaids who are kept out of another wedding because they did not have enough oil and are late because they went to fetch more.
If I had been wiser, that is, if I had realized this sooner, I would have entitled this Lenten sermon series, “The Unfair Parables of Jesus,” because none of this seems fair on the surface.
There are ten bridesmaids. We are told five of them are “foolish.” But the word in Greek is harsher than that, they are idiots. They should know better but they don’t. We are told the others are “wise,” the word means something closer to prudent. They know what they need and they have it. They are all waiting for a bridegroom who has not showed up.
The text tells us he is delayed. But not just a little delayed, as in there was a lot of unexpected traffic so he is gonna be little late, but the reality of the lateness is more like he missed his plane and there are no more flights to Boston today, so he has to take a flight from Baltimore, MD, that first goes to Columbus, OH, and then has a short layover in Buffalo, NY, before heading to Providence, RI and from there he is taking a train to South Station and has just enough time to catch the last train to get here sometime after midnight. And his cell phone is dead and he has no way of reaching anyone to tell them when he is arriving. So everyone is sitting around waiting for him. And the Bible tells us he is “delayed.” Yeah, I am sure some were wondering if was going to show up at all.
So, the bridesmaids have all fallen asleep, it is the middle of the night after all, and suddenly there is an announcement that the Bridegroom is coming and they gather up all their stuff to go out and meet him. It is at this point that five of the bridesmaids realize that they no longer have any oil. They are supposed to hold lamps and light the way for the procession and dance as the groom goes to greet the bride.
Here is my first question. Why can’t the brides with the oil share with those who have no oil? My mother always taught be to share. These are selfish bridesmaids. Their friends ask them to share and they refuse. It seems to me that it would be better for everyone to have half as much oil than it is for some to have full lamps and others to have empty ones.
But the here is the thing. It was their job to light the way for the procession. Which is worse? For there to only be five lamps filled with enough oil to light the way, or for there to be ten lamps that all go out halfway there leaving them and the entire procession in the dark, with no light to help them find their way. This poor “delayed” bridegroom might really be late if he is left in the dark and can’t find his way to the place he needs to go.
So the five oil-less bridesmaids go out into the night in search of oil. Now these must be some really resourceful and persistent bridesmaids, they somehow manage to find someone who will who will sell them the oil in the middle of the night. This is no small feat and apparently takes quite a lot of time, because by the time they are able to do this and return, the bridegroom has already gone in to meet his bride, the doors have been closed and the wedding feast is well underway.
They ladies come to the door and beg to be let in. But no one will let them in. The groom says he does not know them and they must not know anyone else there because they were not there when he arrived. I don’t know why the other bridesmaids don’t vouch for them or why the bride does not seem to be aware that five of her friends are left outside or why nobody seems to realize that five are missing and there are five at the door, they must be the missing five. The parable and historical context does not answer these questions for us.
Jesus then ends the parable by saying, “Keep awake,” because we will not know day or the hour. So the point of the parable is not about oil but is really about staying awake? One would think that the epitaph that Jesus puts on the end of the parable would help make everything make sense. But how can this be about keeping awake? Both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids were asleep when the cry went up. Being awake can’t be the point of the parable that would make the whole thing arbitrary. So what we learn is the kingdom of Heaven is unfair and arbitrary? We all know that is not what Jesus is telling us. So what is Jesus working to teach through this parable?
If you have your pew Bible open to this passage you would notice the NIV says, “Keep watch,” instead of “keep awake,” this is a better understanding of the word Jesus uses here, it is actually more like, “Keep alert.” So it is not so much about not falling asleep but about keeping watch; paying attention to what matters; not getting distracted or side tracked by things that that don’t matter. This is exactly what happens to these bridesmaids. They get distracted, side tracked. They are not foolish for falling asleep; all ten of the Bridesmaids fell asleep. It was probably actually wise to get some rest while they waited for the groom to arrive. They were not idiots because they did not bring the correct amount of oil. They most likely had a reasonable amount of oil. But the bridegroom was unreasonably late, so a reasonable amount of oil was not enough.
What was not prudent, was heading into the darkness of the night in search of oil. They needed the oil so they could help light the way through the darkness. They had no light, but they went the darkness without any light of their own attempting to find their way to a merchant whom they could awaken and convince to sell them oil and then make it back the house before the bridegroom so they could help light the way for his procession. But because they went on this wild goose chase they miss out. The fact that they actually find what they are looking for, is beside the point. By the time they are finished with this foolish endeavor it is too late. They missed the procession. The bridegroom has reached his destination without them. Their oil is no longer needed. They had become distracted, they had gotten sidetracked.
They had foolishly allowed something that seemed to matter, take them away from the bridegroom. While they were out hunting oil, so they could light their lamps and provide light for the bridegroom, the bridesmaids with the lit lamps had used their lamps to light the way. There may not have been enough oil to share so they could all light their lamps, but there was enough light to share. The five lamps must have provided enough light to lead the procession. They did not need to go into the night in search of more oil. When the bridegroom was coming, their oil became superfluous.
The oil was not what was important at that point. The bridegroom was what was important. Being with the bridegroom, going with him was what was important. Their job was to go with the bridegroom to take him to the bride. No wonder they were left out in the night. They had one job and they had failed to do it entirely. The oil, although important, was not vital to their mission. When the bridegroom was arriving the most important thing was to be there to greet him and to go with him and the procession to the bride. Their job was to lead the procession, to light the way, and to dance. They might not have had light any more, but their sisters still had light enough, they could have still danced, they could still have lead the procession. Instead they missed the bridegroom, they missed the procession, they missed the whole wedding, because they went out into the night looking for oil.
As Christians it is our job to be ready when Jesus returns. We need to be ready to greet him when he arrives, ready to go with him. And we need to keep alert, to not be distracted by seemingly important things. We need to not be sidetracked by things that we believe are vital but actually only serve to lead us astray. It is not foolish to tire, to need rest. It is not unwise to expect him to return sooner than he does and not have enough, to fall short in some way, what is idiotic is to go off in one direction or the other and leave him behind entirely.
I like having people over to the house, for dinner, for a game, night, to spend time with them, to enjoy their company and their presence. I like cooking good food and sharing it with people. It is fun to introduce people to the games I love. When I have people over I need to clean my house. Having a clean house is a part of being a good host. People tend to be more comfortable when they come into a house that is neat and tidy. Not having stuff all over the dining room table makes it easier to eat dinner.
When I was newly married I often took things too far. I would be sitting in my living room with guests and I would see something out of place and I would go put it away. Then I would sit down and join my guests again and I would see something else and I would go clean it up. Before I got back to my seat I would notice that I had not dusted over there and I would go get the duster and on my way I would see a dish that had not been put into the dishwasher and I would go into the kitchen to put it in the dishwasher and notice the dishwasher needed to be run, so I would run the dishwasher. And with the duster in hand I would notice something in the kitchen that needed to be handled, so I would fix that. As you can imagine, I could do this for so long that I would not enjoy the presence of the people who had come to visit. Not to mention how uncomfortable this would make them feel.
Cleaning the house is an important part of being a good host, but I was taking it too far. I was missing what was truly important spending the time with my friends. I wanted to enjoy their company but I was too distracted making the house perfect for them that they would leave before I was finished. I was being a foolish bridesmaid who missed the whole thing chasing after oil in the middle of the night.
It is so easy to think there are things we need to do as Christians; important things. Things that good Christians do do, things we should care about. But sometimes we get so involved in doing them that they become our focus. Being a Christians becomes all about these things we do and not about Jesus Christ. We take our sites of the one who really matters and go into the night hunting for oil.
I am playing a game right now. At the beginning of the game, it is very clear what my goal is. It is my sole duty to defeat this monster who has terrorized the entire world for over a 100 years. I was brought there to do this one thing, defeat him. And it is not like I have to go looking for him. I know where he is. In the center of the world there is a castle surrounded by this thick black and red cloud. My enemy is in that castle and it is my job to go defeat him.
I have been playing this game for some time now and have not gone anywhere near this castle. I am told there are things I need before I can defeat him. I need to learn how to fight and get stronger. I need better armor, better gear. I need this special sword and all along the way there are people who need me to go run errands for them. Go get me some wood so I can build a house. I lost my one true love can you help me find him. All sorts of side quests, I am doing before I go do the one thing I am there to do. I have assumed that it is important to do all these things. That I need the armor, I need the special sword, the rewards these people give me when I help them out will aid me and give me the strength and the skills I need to defeat my enemy. Why else would the majority of the game consist of all this?
But I was talking to a friend the other day and he also played the game and he told me that you can go straight to castle. You don’t need all the special armor I have been looking for. You don’t even need the special sword, that everyone in the game tells me , I must have to defeat the enemy. My friend tells me that all you need to do is go straight to the castle and if you know what you are doing, you can defeat the enemy almost right away.
Now I am sure he is much better at these things than I am and also don’t think that the game would be any fun if you did not do all these other things I have been doing, but they are a distraction. I have been literally side tracked by side quests since December.
This is how we are in our Christian lives. We are surrounded by so many things vying for our attention. We can always find people more than willing to tell us what we need to be doing; telling us what is important. And some of these things are probably important. There are things we need to do as Christians. And there are things to which we should be giving our attention, but most of what we believe to be important is nothing more than a distraction.
It is so easy to get distracted and miss what is important. How many times have you been somewhere trying to pay attention to something and a phone rings, perhaps it even has the same ring tone as you do. You reach into your pocket or your purse and pull out your phone and by the time you look and see that it was even your phone that rang, you missed what you wanted to see. Our world is full of distractions, some are important and some are not. There are somethings that are worth chasing after and there are others things are not. We need to be alert and to keep our attention on what really matters, on Jesus Christ and living lives that exemplify his light, his love, his forgiveness, grace and mercy.
And this is hard, as Christians we need to work to stay focused on Jesus. Jesus is what matters. If we go chasing after anything else, no matter how seemingly important, not matter how vital we may believe it is, and miss Jesus, it is nothing more than a distraction, oil in the night. So many good things to worry about, so many worthwhile things to which we can give our attention, good Christian things, but first and fore most our attention is to be on Jesus and being the people Jesus is calling us to be.
Do to be distracted, do not be foolish, stay alert!