Text: Matthew 25:1-13
So this text is a bit of a doozy, isn’t it?
After last week, when Pastor Joe had to wrestle with that parable that was difficult to understand, I was like, WHEW, at least I didn’t have to preach on THAT one. And then I read the parable for this week and I was like…seriously?
I admitted to the folks at Bible study on Tuesday that this is because I have some baggage around this parable, because growing up, this is how I heard it interpreted:
The returning bridegroom represents Jesus’ second coming and the wedding feast is the end of the world.
The oil is the stuff we have to do in order to not be destroyed when the world ends.
The bridesmaids are us, and the wise bridesmaids were the ones who did the things they needed to do, while the foolish bridesmaids were the ones who didn’t.
When the bridegroom came, the wise ones who did all the things were able to get into heaven, while the foolish ones were left out in the cold.
So do all the things. Or else.
And, honestly, it’s hard not to read it this way.
I mean, the premise seems about right. Biblical scholars are for the most part pretty convinced that this is an eschatological parable—which is a very fancy word that biblical scholars use to make themselves feel smart, but which means, essentially, having to do with the end times.
Now, of course, any time you bring up the end times you probably imagine what our culture has conditioned us to imagine: destruction and fire and the good people being taken up into heaven while the bad people are left behind.
Especially in North America since the 19th century, there have been many, many such prophecies that the end times will look exactly like this, and that they are coming any day.
In fact, I remember back in 2011, this guy Harold Camping started telling everyone that the end of the world was coming on May 21 and that all the believers would be caught up. I wasn’t too worried about it because I tended to believe the scriptures—including our passage today—which say explicitly, “No one knows the day nor the hour,” so I’d been joking with a friend about what we’d do if the end of the world really did happen.
Anyway, on May 21 at about 6 pm, when the catastrophe was supposed to take place, I got a text from her: “Are you still around?”
I replied: “This is an autoresponse from Michael the Archangel. Katie has been taken up into the bosom of our Lord. If you are receiving this message, you have been Left Behind. Repent, for the end of the world is here.”
All this to say, this is a very difficult parable.
Like, what’s with the wise ones not sharing with the foolish ones? How hard is it to say, “Here, I see you’re running low, if each of us shares just a little bit more of our oil with one another, we can all make it through the night.”
Doesn’t that seem like a much more reasonable solution? Doesn’t that seem—dare I say it—more Christian? Aren’t we told we need to give what we have to those who have less?
I mean, just a few verses later in this very chapter, Jesus tells the people: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. For whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
So why couldn’t the wise ones just share with the foolish ones? It doesn’t make any sense.
Maybe it’s because we can’t do good things ON BEHALF OF someone else, so the parable is saying, “You have to do your own good things.”
That makes a little more sense, but what does it even mean to do good things? If you do good things so that you can earn a reward or avoid a punishment, is that good at all? Or is it just rational? If a person puts two buttons in front of you and says, “Press this button for cake; press this button to be tickle-tortured to death,” does anyone really think you deserve congratulations for pressing the cake button?
So maybe it’s that the wise ones do good things for good reasons, out of the sheer joy of doing good for its own sake. But I am sorry, that is really hard. Have you ever spent even a moment paying attention to the nonsense that is constantly bouncing around your brain? I’m not sure I have ever done a good thing for a totally good reason. I freely confess to you that I relate a lot more to Paul, who says in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” If there is a more apt description of the human condition, I don’t know what it is.
So maybe it’s not about doing good things for good reasons all the time, but more like: here we have these wise bridesmaids who do good-ish things for good-ish reasons more often than their foolish counterparts, such that they have enough oil in their lamps to get them through until the end?
But people aren’t one-dimensional caricatures. I’m sure both the wise and the foolish ones have done good things for good reasons and bad things for bad reasons and good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons, just like the rest of us. I mean, even in the parable itself, it’s not like the foolish bridesmaids don’t have *any* oil.
So what’s the cut-off? Is there a certain quota of good things we have to do for good reasons in order to be okay? And if so, why don’t we all just do that bare minimum and no more? But that doesn’t seem right, either. I don’t see anywhere in scripture where God’s like, “Hang on there, friend; you’ve hit your good things quota for the rest of your life, so you’re cool to just do whatever now.”
But if that’s NOT it, then why are some spared, just because they happened to do that many more good things for that many more good reasons, while the ones who ended up doing that much less are told, “Too bad, so sad, you can’t come in here.” It all feels so…arbitrary, you know?
And where is grace in all of this anyway? Supposedly we believe in grace. Maybe we’re tempted to say, “We’re saved by grace so it’s not that you have to do the good things for the good reasons, it’s just that you should want to do the good things for the good reasons, so if you don’t do the good things for the good reasons it just shows you weren’t really saved and when the time comes you’ll realize it’s too late for you?”
But is that grace in any sort of formulation we could possibly recognize? It just feels like a sneaky way of saying the same exact thing: do the things and you’ll be fine, don’t do the things and you won’t be fine.
Well, how is a person ever supposed to know they have done the things? Are we all just clinging to our salvation by our fingernails, praying we can eke out enough goodness to survive the night and not have to run to the oil store at the last minute and be left outside the wedding feast?
I am sorry, but if this is what this parable means, it is a terrible, terrible thing.
What if that’s not what this parable means at all?
What if the end of the world isn’t being lifted away from the world to a distant heaven—which, incidentally, is not at all what the Bible says about what we have to look forward to—but heaven joining us here on earth until the entire universe is healed and renewed and glorified, just as Jesus’ resurrected body was healed and renewed and glorified?
And what if, in between the resurrection of Jesus and the renewal of the universe, we’re here in a time of waiting: waiting for the promises to be fulfilled…waiting for peace and justice to come to earth at last…waiting for God to finish what He started in Christ Jesus.
And what if this parable is meant to remind us that the only thing that can get us through this night of waiting, this night that literally no one knows how long will last…is grace itself?
What if the oil isn’t “doing good things” at all, but grace?
What if grace is the oil that fuels our light? What if grace is the thing that allows us to go to the gates of the bridal party and say, “Here, I have this overflow of love and mercy and forgiveness and wholeness that God has poured out upon me, so let me in, in the name of Jesus my savior!”
And what if the real mistake the foolish ones made was to think they could get oil some other way? As if grace can be purchased from a store? As if it can be manufactured, bought, or earned? As if any of us can do enough things to cause our own lamps to overflow?
When the foolish ones begged the wise ones for more oil, of course the wise ones couldn’t comply. Not because they didn’t want to, but because none of us can do what only God can do. God is the source of grace, not us. God is the one who makes us whole. God is God and we are not, and to imagine otherwise is–well, pure foolishness.
Why is it so easy to forget this? Why do we twist ourselves in knots trying to do anything but surrender to the overpowering, all-encompassing, incomprehensible grace of God? Why do we try to convince ourselves that we have to do this, that, or the other thing in order to “earn” our place? Why is the idea that it’s not actually in our hands so difficult for us to accept?
But friends, it is not actually in our hands. God is pouring out the oil of His grace all day, every day. Open up your lamps. Let Him fill them over and over and over again, until there is only oil dripping down your hands and your feet and flowing through the streets and washing over the entire world. Let His grace flow in and through you until you are healed and whole and welcomed into the wedding feast of our Lord.
Because we are helpless to do anything else. Because there is nothing else we can do but to receive, and to receive, and to receive again.
Thanks be to God.