Monday, November 13, 2023

Will You be Ready to Shine?


Matthew 25:1-13

Proper 27 / Year A

As the end of the church year draws near our assigned readings from Scripture turn to last things; especially to the Lord’s return and the judgment which comes with it.  Today we hear the prophet Amos describe with dread the “day of the Lord.”  We read Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica how the dead will rise and we will join them when Jesus appears.  And we hear Jesus tell a parable about a wedding feast and we know from experience someone is going to get left out or kicked out.

Jesus’ story has been labeled the Wise and Foolish Maidens and the Ten Bridesmaids, but the Greek word used in the story indicates they are ‘virgins’.  Given most young girls in that society married around the age of 13, it is likely these maidens are 11 or 12 years old.  The five who plan ahead and bring extra oil for their lamps are called ‘wise’, but this is a bit misleading because the Greek word is best translated as prudent.  The five who do not bring extra oil are called ‘foolish’, however this too is a questionable translation given the Greek word actually means moron, which is much harsher than foolish.

The moral scale from moron to prudent seems a bit skewed, doesn’t it.  It especially feels off given its binary nature.  These is no middle ground, no shades of gray, just two extremes.  All ten are waiting for the groom to return with his bride.  All ten expect to join the celebration.  All ten fall asleep when there is a delay.  The five with oil are not praised for their generosity because, in fact, they don’t share from their reserves.  They are not commended for their sense of community because, in fact, they do not offer to go with the girls who must forage for oil in the middle of the night.  The single thing they do to merit favor and blessing is to plan ahead.  And the only reason the other five are excluded is because they didn’t do the equivalent of packing an extra pair of socks. 

I spent a lot of time this week staring out my office window trying to make sense of this story.  I kept coming back to the oil.  What does it represent?  What is the thing we would be prudent to prepare for? 

Some commentators play up the parable’s allegorical nature by giving detail and meaning to every aspect of the story.  And for them, oil represents salvation.  If you are saved you will be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven when Jesus returns.  If you’re not saved, you won’t.  For some, it is just this simple.  But it raises another question.  What does it mean to be saved?  All ten were waiting for Jesus.  All ten wanted to be with him.  All ten had oil, it is just that half were running low. 

At some point I began to think back to Amos’ words.  He tells people who look forward to the day of the Lord they will be completely taken aback by it.  Speaking for God he says… 

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me

your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being

of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

God is completely disgusted with the Israelites and abhors their attempts at appeasement through acts of worship.  It sounds completely hopeless, doesn’t it.  But then Amos points the way forward:

But let justice roll down like waters,

  and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

What if this is the oil!  The oil allows a person to be a light in the darkness.  Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lampstand so that it gives light to the whole house.  Let your light shine so people may see the good you do and give thanks to God.”  This, I think, is the point of the oil.  It is to continue ceaselessly to be a light, a force for justice, a source of righteousness. 

I also spent some time wondering who the young maidens represent.  Most commentators say the church, but this means some good and faithful people are going to have the door shut on them.  I suspect they represent everyone.  We are all asleep wait for God to act.  In truth, Jesus draws nigh all the time.  Opportunities to celebrate, to do justice, to act with righteousness abound.  So the question is, when these moments come, will you be ready to shine?