The Parables of Jesus
10 Sleepy Bridesmaids – Response & Responsibility Matt 25:1-13
January 28th, 2018 Steve Schantz
I’ve really been enjoying our current series on the Parables of Jesus. It awakens me personally to the reality of the Kingdom in the simple and obvious as well as the deep and wonderful in each of these parables. An element of the Kingdom parables which gives us pause is the way they simultaneously point to the present as well as the future. Last week we heard Jesus say to his disciples, “Blessed are your ears because they hear, and your eyes because they see.” (Matt 13) Pastor Charles pointed out how the parables give us “sight-lines” into the nature of God’s Kingdom and our intended response. Kingdom life involves the ability to see the present and the future mingled together and to be reminded that our future is being rendered by what we participate in today. “That Jesus came announcing a partly present, partly future kingdom as the centerpiece of his message is widely acknowledged to be at the heart of what we can know about the historical Jesus. The “Kingdom of God” is not an expression found in the Old Testament, but the concept of God as King is pervasive. After the gospels, Christian writers preferred other expressions such as “eternal life” or “salvation” for their summaries of Jesus’ proclamation.” (Jesus and the Gospels, Craig Blomberg, 1997, p. 242) Let’s go to our Kingdom parable text for today:
Matt 25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (NRSV)
Weddings are special. They grab our attention and elicit our involvement. We think of weddings as having happy endings…at the least they have a happy beginning! For the bride and groom, their families, and all the guests, weddings are a mountain top experience. Life doesn’t get much better than this. I’ve officiated several dozen weddings over the course of my ministry with two more coming up this spring. I remember the first wedding I ever officiated some 40 years ago. I had just been ordained earlier that spring and it was a June wedding.
The bride’s name was Theresa, and Jim was the groom. The location happened to be in a well-manicured front yard owned by one of Jim’s hospitable neighbors in Frakes, KY. The groom was in his late 30’s, tall, black headed, with an angular rugged face looking a bit he maty have been ‘kin to Abe Lincoln. The bride was in her late 20’s, with a slight cross to one eye, and a beautiful smile. I share these details as a reminder that all weddings are people specific, guest specific, time specific, location specific, and event specific aren’t they? We hear stories about wedding crashers who drop in on a wedding without invitation, but these are a recent trend, and usually only happen in public hotels. Crashed weddings are still not the rule. To the contrary weddings are not the kind of event you “Crash”, but rather an occasion where you are invited by an RSVP. Set up and preparations made, refreshments and a reception are planned for, and celebrating with friends and family is intentional, not a ‘drop in if you have time’ affair. The small town of Frakes was named after the Rev. Hiram Frakes who founded a Methodist community there in 1925 known as Henderson Settlement. By the way, here’s a picture of a piece of Real Estate currently on the market at 2000 Branch Rd if you are looking for a destination wedding in rural Kentucky!
Weddings are uplifting and celebratory by nature. The scent of flowers, the ambiance, the music, the special foods, the wedding cake! All who assemble are on their best behavior (or should be!), with the bride in her gown, (borrowed, rented, or purchased) – “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” The Groom all dressed up with his groomsmen. It is always special to watch the groom’s face as he watches his bride come down the Isle! “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride so the Lord rejoices over you!” (Isa 62:5)
So in Matt 25 we have the festive wedding preparations known to that day and culture- a feast is coming! And then there’s a delay. Why? Well life is full of unexpected twists and turns, is it not? Time and chance, the occasional traffic jam on route or uncooperative weather can delay the whole affair. And so in this parable Jesus presents all 10 bridesmaids as having fallen asleep. When they wake up, the bridegroom is on his way but five of them don’t have enough oil… and so they go into town and buy the oil but by the time they get back it is too late and the bridegroom won’t let them in.
This is a parable, and parables are to be taken seriously, but not literally at every level. (As with Lazarus and the Rich Man). Jesus tells parables like this because He wants us to think, to use our brains, our minds, to engage our emotions – to use our full capacities, and to grow in response to the Kingdom He has brought to us. He wants us to discover the gems of the kingdom life here on display for us. So some of these parables challenge us, and not all of them have happy endings.
What do you see here as the story concludes? There is certainly a call to wake up before it is too late isn’t there? A certain sense of regret and frustration that hangs here in the air. So let’s look at it today from the viewpoint of the 5 foolish bridesmaids the day after, the next morning. If this were you, how would you feel the day after you’ve missed the boat? I’d be upset with myself – moping around, looking for someone or something to blame, and making excuses for myself the way we typically do. Wedding feasts would go on for a week in that day. They would have still heard the celebration going on down the street, but they’d missed the big send off.
It has been well proven in life that most of what we learn does not come to us only from raw data and factual input, but rather from reflecting on our experiences, pleasant as well as painful. (We grow too soon old and too late smart!) Reflective learning is crucial to our Christian growth. It’s why we can all say with authentic remorse, “Hindsight is 20/20”. It is not always easy to learn the lesson in the moment. Jesus is the only one who sees us as we can be, they only one who is truly awake to all our realities; living in the past, present, and future – the I AM.
We need to hear this parable as his first audience did – to come at it as learners and not filled with our preconceived ideas which so quickly jump to an “us” and “them” at the time of time. (And of course, in our minds eye we always place ourselves with the “us” and not the “them” category.) All of us are in our own earth dream when it comes to peering at the ultimate reality which God will sort out when the tares are separated from the wheat. We see what we see at each moment of our walk of faith and grope to see more. We are not the King, we are not the judge, we are not the “I AM.” But as Spirit led disciples neither are we blind! Though once blind, we now see, and these parables are in fact available to us and helpful to us. But even with seeing eyes we still peer as through a shaded glass prism- “a glass darkly” as Paul puts it. We have to continually clean our lenses, refocus our priorities, and struggle with our limitations.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) lost her sight and hearing at the age of 18 months after a high fever. She was frozen in time at 18 months. Even when she was 10 she still behaved like an 18 month old 10 year old. Her whole world had been closed in to her, stymied. Her parents didn’t know how to bring her out of it. And then Annie Sullivan came along and knew there was more than that in her. She began to expect Helen to act like a 10 year old – in fact her parents thought that Annie Sullivan was a little hard on their daughter. Sullivan once said, “She will never be more than we demand of her.”
So Anne Sullivan made great demands of Helen, and of course you know the rest of the story. What a remarkable life of learning and discovering, and through that life really inspired a global community of learning for the deaf and blind. All of us have a tremendous capacity, but we get derailed by certain limitations. A good illustration of this is presented to us in the 2010 British historical drama, The King’s Speech. King George V has died, and the throne has passed on to his first born son Edward, but he doesn’t want to be King, and so it is passed on to his younger brother, King George VI. But King George has a problem – he stutters, he can’t speak more than a few words in public! The movie has limited action, and no special effects other than costuming and expressions of the time period – just the 2 hour story of a man, the King of England, struggling as he learns to speak with the help of a gifted mentor.
Can you feel the agony of these moments? You just want to step in and speak for him as he addresses the British people as they head toward WWII. Angels and Archangels may sometimes view us in a similar way. How often they must wonder out loud, “Wow – this guys really struggling!” Peter writes that our call and growth in Christ is a miracle they marvel at – the kind of things that the “angels desire to look into.” (1 Pet. 1:12)
As God’s adopted children, we can learn from the way our own offspring learn, especially when it comes to raising children and helping them overcome the roadblocks of life. H. Stephen Glenn, author of Creating Capable People (Teaching children responsibility) has some deep insights into how our children actually learn to exercise self-discipline. While instruction with love is crucial for a child’s healthy development, a child really does not change his/her behavior just because we I’ve “Told you for the last time and I’m not going to tell you again.”
There are three questions Dr. Glenn shares with us that are good to ask in reflective learning as adults as well:
- What has just happened? – Deal with the reality truthfully. Who am I, what have I done? Not easy for us to do. It means being truthful with ourselves. How could a wedding bridesmaid lose track of such needed preparation?
Navel Lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee is questioning Colonel Nathan Jessup who is on the stand under oath in the military court after the hazing death of young recruit Santiago, (called a code red), and he says: “Colonel, if Lt. Kendrick gave an order that Santiago wasn’t to be touched, and your men always follow your orders, then why did he have to be transferred for his own safety? Colonel, Lt. Kendrick ordered the code red didn’t he because that’s what you told Lt. Kendrick to do!… Colonel Jessup, did you order the code red?” Jessup: “You want answers.” Kaffee: “I think I’m entitled.” Jessup: “You want answers?” Kaffee: “I want the truth.” Jessup: “You can’t handle the truth!” – (A Few Good Men – Tom Cruise as Lt. Daniel Kaffee, naval lawyer, Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan Jessup)
At other times it’s not that we can’t handle the truth, but that at any given moment we don’t have all the truth at our disposal. We just don’t have the experience or the information to answer the question of the moment.
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was stationed at Vienna general hospital in 1850 while he divided his time between dissecting cadavers and delivering babies in the maternity ward. There was an unusually high mortality rate at the Vienna hospital – 1 in 10 of the mothers died after giving birth! Dr. Semmelweis set out to discover why. He traveled to other hospitals in Europe comparing their procedures in the maternity ward and comparing their mortality rates. When he returned to the Vienna hospital he was shocked to learn that the mortality rate for new mothers had dropped drastically! It had happened in his absence. And so he asked the hard question… utilizing the scientific method of inquiry as to what had changed, and the answer was painful – He had left the hospital! From this he made a connection between his work on cadavers and then going immediately to the maternity ward to deliver babies that something must be being transferred from the dead bodies. It sounds unreal to us today, but washing hands and sterilizing equipment was not common practice. Some of his colleagues were offended at the thought of having to wash their hands before operating! Louis Pasteur and others would follow shortly over the next decade, and a simple wash with lime and chorine mixture began to save lives. Sometimes we are the last person in the world to know how we are received in the world. And so in life, as in this parable, we are challenged to ask a second question. What did you Learn?
Life is to learn and to grow. What are we learning? It’s not always easy to find out the lesson in a moment. What is the lesson for these bridesmaids and for each of us? No one else is responsible for the oil in your lamp! We are to own our own decisions and circumstances in life. We have become masters at excuses and blaming and shifting responsibility. “But pastor, doesn’t Jesus teach us to share what we have our neighbors, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ? Why didn’t Jesus have the five who still had oil in their lamps just share with the others?” But Jesus answers that question for us in the parable – “Because they would not have enough oil for themselves.” This is not the kind of thing that could be shared – not a co-dependent situation. Jesus does not finish this parable with: “So those who had oil said, “Of course, you can have some of ours! And they all went into the wedding”, because the lesson that He is sharing here is that we are to own our own decisions in life. When it seems fair or unfair, just or unjust, painful or pleasant results, easy or hard to accept, our decisions have consequences! This parable is not about sharing with someone in need, it is about being responsible for what we are called to respond to! (In an economic sense Paul makes a similar plea when he writs, “the Laborer is worthy of his hire” – and “He that doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.” Jesus asked the man by the pool at Siloam a question which challenged his desire to take responsibility for his next decision in life with, “Do you want to be well?”
A second thing we learn on this wedding march of life together is this: Don’t rescue people too quickly from the consequence of their own decision. We all need time to learn, not just be told. Tony Melendez was born with no arms and one club foot (his mother took Thalidomide before anyone knew the consequences). Somewhere around 10 years old his mother walked into his room with his laundered pants, and tossed them on the floor to him. “I can’t put those paints on!” he said. His mother replied, “I think you can figure it out”. Someone had the courage not to rescue him at that moment, and here is the humbling result that becomes a teachable moment for each of us:
You and I should also be learning from experience and living a reflective form of life. We have a source of oil for our lamps that is plenteous in supply just for the asking. That we continually learn that the Lord is our shepherd, leading us through both green pastures and through the valley of the shadow of death. He will allow it by His grace to be true, and that we would dwell in His house forever.
In this parable we can learn through the angst of these bridesmaids that the only healthy response to our own regrets is to lean more heavily on His grace. We have all slept- but the time is now to awake to the presence of the Groom, for he has arrived, and He will come again!