(Amos 5:18-24); Matthew 25:1-13
“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.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
“Repent! Jesus is coming soon!” is the cry of some Christians. Their point is that you better be ready when Jesus shows up, because your eternity hangs in the balance. Texts like this one in Matthew are used to prove their point. The five foolish bridesmaids are locked out of the wedding banquet (heaven) when the bridegroom (Jesus) comes, because they didn’t have oil for their lamps (weren’t ready). And “readiness” means whatever.
Although there is an accurate element of being ready for Jesus to come at the end of time, there is, on the part of many of these kinds of Christians, a misunderstanding of what that means.
This parable isn’t just about being ready for the end of the world, it’s about being ready when the end of the world is delayed.
The only difference between the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids is preparation for the wait. All of them are invited to be part of the wedding procession. All of them bring their lamps. All of them wait. All of them get tired when the bridegroom is later than expected and fall asleep. All of them, when awakened, trim their lamps. The only difference is that five were ready for the delay, and five weren’t.
In the gospel of Matthew, there are lots of these “judgment” scenes—what Amos today refers to as “the day of the Lord.” Some call it the final judgment, others the 2nd coming of Christ. There are all kinds of bad theologies (movies?) around all that, but it is a recurring theme in Matthew. So we need to deal with it.
Because we usually just don’t deal with it. We don’t often talk about Christ’s return or the end of time or the day of judgment or the “day of the Lord.” Usually we say something like, “well, it hasn’t happened in 2000 years, it’s not likely going to happen today.”
That may be true, but what does that say about our preparation? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be prepared, as this text says?
What “the day of the Lord,” and all the other terms, usually refer to is God finally making things right. God’s vision, God’s justice, God’s ultimate peace become the full reality, especially regarding the poor. Every time God’s people begin to act in ways contrary to God’s vision of justice, the prophets cry out that “the day of the Lord” is coming. Where will those who ignore the poor be then? Look out, they cry! It is coming!
That’s picked up in the New Testament, too. Jesus is expected to return somehow at the end of time and bring about God’s ultimate justice and righteousness, establishing once and for all God’s peace where everyone has enough, everyone is fed, everyone is loved, everyone is forgiven.
Matthew gets pretty dramatic about it, the only gospel that really gets into the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” thing. But like so many other places in Matthew, it’s done to get our attention, to be seen as important. Jesus tells his disciples at the end of this parable to be ready, because though delayed, that day of God’s reign of peace is gonna come.
The question for the bridesmaids, then, is “are we preparing for the day of the Lord—for peace?” Are we preparing to live in God’s reign where everyone is being cared for, where everyone lives without fear of violence? Seriously, are we preparing ourselves and our world to live in God’s peace, to live without violence?
It’s one thing to wish the world was less violent. But it’s another thing to actually prepare to live in non-violence—to have the oil. Speaking for myself, I relate well to the foolish bridesmaids, who, because I’ve been waiting so long for some slowing down of violence, have grown tired. I admit that in some ways I’ve abandoned hope that our culture can ever give up our obsession with violence. I hardly blinked after the latest mass shooting in a Texas church a week ago. I knew, before the body count, before the motive of the shooter was known, before we were told whether there was racism or terrorism or mental illness or domestic violence what the responses would be. The same responses over and over. “Don’t politicize this tragedy!” “We need better gun laws!” “If more people had more guns this would stop.” “If we closed the loopholes on gun sales to the mentally ill we could solve this.” On and on. Again and again. Over and over. The same rhetoric having the same results. Which are: none. So we lose hope as we wait for the next inevitable shooting, the next attack, the next act of mass violence. Couple of days, then we’ll start the useless rhetoric all over again.
I would say that qualifies as not preparing to live in a world of God’s peace. I’ll tell you now, if suddenly God’s peace broke out in the world, no one would be more surprised than me. My oil has run out in my waiting. God’s non-violence and justice haven’t arrived, and I’m no longer ready. I’ve discovered that I’ve even quit preparing for it. It seems beyond hope now.
So this parable is for me. Maybe it’s for you, too. The bridegroom is coming, though he’s quite delayed. The day of peace will arrive, though it seems beyond hope today. Violence will end, though I can’t even imagine it now. Call it whatever you want: the day of the Lord, the 2nd coming of Christ, the end of time, whatever. We are called to prepare to live in a world of God’s peace and justice, a world without violence.
Which means practicing non-violence. Paying attention to the movies we watch, the games we play, the way we speak, the politics we heed. Even when confronted with violence in our world, we practice what non-violence would look like. The day is coming. The peace of Christ will eventually rule in our hearts and minds. God’s day of justice will arrive. We can be ready. We can prepare to live in real peace. There’s plenty of oil for our lamps to light the way for the presence of Christ. Let us fill up our lamps today, and prepare for Christ’s peace.