Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. ~ Hebrews 4:12-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, "Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 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.' 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, "Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, "Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. ~Matthew 25:1-13
Once upon a time, the people of a certain church listened to two scripture passages. One was a story, while the other reminded them of the importance of stories. Jesus knew, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, that words are important, stories are important. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active…” (Heb. 4:12)
Once upon a time, there was a man who was revered as a prophet, and feared as a cultural and political rebel. He was known as a healer, a miracle-worker, a preacher and a teacher. Some called him “Messiah”—anointed one—and some called him, “Lord.” His background was a little problematic—something about his parentage didn’t quite add up—but that just seemed to endear him more to people, to let them know, he truly understood what it was to be at the bottom rung in this world. He was also known for one shocking thing he did, walking into the holy place of his people, the Temple, and flipping over tables and destroying things when he saw that people were being cheated and hurt. That single incident got him into so much hot water that he knew: the end was near for him, death was imminent. He was a dead man walking.
Once upon a time, there was a man who knew that he was going to die. So, naturally, he turned to telling stories. And these stories had a decidedly “end of days” feeling about them—as if he were talking about, not only the end of his own days, but the end of an age, the end of the world. So one day, in that very same holy place wherein he had flipped over the tables and protested against injustice, he said:
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this:
“Once upon a time, ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight, there was a shout: ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” (Matt. 25:1-6)
“Five of them were wise, and five of them were foolish.”
Here is how we know that five of them were wise: They were waiting for the bridegroom. They were waiting a long time, but they had prepared for the wait. They had anticipated the possibility that night would come on, and it would grow dark. They brought oil for their lamps.
Here is how we know that five of the bridesmaids were foolish: They too were waiting for the bridegroom, buy they didn’t prepare for a long wait. They didn’t anticipate that they would still be waiting when night came on. They didn’t bring any oil for their lamps.
The man continued his story:
“Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ 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.” (Really, what he said was, the door was locked.) “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.’” (Matt. 25:7-12)
This is the ending of the man’s story. He said just one more thing:
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt. 25:13)
Once upon a time, the story for the day felt kind of like bad news—as if the message was that “forgetfulness, confusion, or a substandard level of faith”[i] was good reason to be shut out of the feast. Bad news for anyone who ever ran out of gas, or was caught short when it was time to pay the bills, or who ever had to whisper to family to “hold back” so that company would have enough to eat.
And for some, that story of being locked out triggered feelings of utter despair. What is happening here, the people wondered. Is this really how God—who, our faith tell us, is so loving—is this how God would respond to those who had less than optimal planning skills? Or are we dealing with something else entirely here—Jesus’ existential angst? Or Matthew’s?
There are actually at least two stories going on here. The stories told in the gospels are always taking place on at least two different levels. We have the story itself: ‘Once upon a time, there was a man, called a prophet, called Messiah, and he knew he would die soon—that very week, in fact, on a cross.’ But there is another story being told as well: Matthew writes, not only this story, but also the stories in chapters 26 through 28. ‘Once upon a time,’ he writes, ‘Jesus died, and then God raised this Jesus from the dead, and he lived again! And then—a little later—he disappeared, riding the clouds into heaven.’ Both these stories are grappling with the reality, the likelihood, of losing Jesus. And even though the early church believed—as we claim in our creeds—that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead—Matthew and his community are still wondering: “What shall we do while Jesus is gone?” And I think Jesus is wondering that too.
Once upon a time, there was a man occasionally spoke of himself in the stories he told. He even, from time to time, liked to insert himself into the story, disguised as a bridegroom. But sometimes he came disguised as someone—or something—else. And as his days on earth grew shorter, he began to worry about the people he was leaving behind. How would they fare? Would they still trust that God would have the last word, that, in the end, God wins, and all are invited to the feast? Would they have the resources they needed to wait in confident hope? Even in the encroaching darkness?
In a way, the story Jesus tells here reminds me of a one particular story my mother told me as a child—and she told it more than once—a story that I heard as dire, even scary warnings of what to do and what not to do. That story was, “Once a upon a time a little girl left the beach to get an ice cream cone. But she left without telling her parents where she was going. And she was never seen or heard from again.” Some stories are expressions of fear, anxiety, warning.
John Calvin had some thoughts about this story of Jesus’. And his thoughts all revolved around that precious commodity that proved one set of bridesmaids to be wise, and the other foolish. His thoughts were about the oil.
Oil is used in a number of ways in scripture. It is used as a fuel for lamps, as in our parable. (Once upon a time, there were ten bridesmaids. This little light of the bridesmaids: They needed oil to let it shine! Oil makes it possible for light to shine in the darkness.)
Oil is of course used for cooking in the bible, just as it is in our day. (Once upon a time, a gardener picked a perfect heirloom tomato, and drizzled olive oil on it. And it was delicious.)
The psalms are filled with images of oil. In Psalm 23 we pray, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows”; in Psalm 104 we rejoice in “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine”; In Psalm 133, kindred living together in unity are “like precious oil upon the head.” (Once upon a time, oil was a sign among God’s people of well-being, of joyful company, of hospitality. Oil meant welcome.)
Oil is also used as a means of setting someone (or something) aside for a particular purpose: David is plucked from the pastures still smelling of the fields and sheep, and Samuel the prophet pours a horn of oil over his head, and now he is Israel’s rightful king (1 Samuel 16:11-13). Oil is used to anoint Aaron and the other priests. Oil is used to consecrate some offerings (Leviticus 2:16; 8:12; and others). (Once upon a time, God’s people used oil as a sign of holiness, or whole-heartedness for God. Oil is and was a sign being set apart for God’s purposes.)
And then it hits us (or, it hit Calvin): the name by which we call Jesus—Christ. Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah—And Messiah means anointed one. Jesus, the anointed one. Could the oil possibly be… Christ?[ii]
Once upon a time, Jesus told a story that might have been about his leaving, and he offered this advice, he made this plea: Don’t let me go!
Jesus is going away. What do we need as we await his return? We need Christ. It’s confusing… it’s a paradox, a mind-bending twist. In the absence of Jesus, we need Jesus to be ready to welcome him back. Of course.
We need Christ, whom we call the light of the world, and who assures us that we are the light of the world. We need Christ, who feeds us and nourishes us, and who requires that we feed and nourish one another. We need Christ, who makes all people welcome, and so we welcome all in his name…thereby welcoming him. We need Christ, the whole-hearted one, who urges us to be whole-heartedly for God. We need Christ if we’re going to keep our lamps shining, if we are going to be ready.
Once upon a time, Jesus left us the church, so that we could be in community with the living word, Jesus Christ. He left us a place that would be filled with stories, the stories of our ancestors in faith, the stories of Jesus, and our own stories too. He left us a place where we could practice feeding one another and welcoming one another… not just the folks we know, but those whose faces and lives are strange to us. He left us a place where we can practice the challenging work of reconciliation. He left us a place that calls us beyond the divisions we live in every single day, to something higher, something better, which then—again paradox!—sends us right back into those trenches armed with this gospel of love and inclusion.
Whether we live in Jesus’ end times or our own, there is work to be done in this world and in this church, and we need Christ to help us to accomplish it. Once upon a time, Jesus called us to be light for the darkness, to be nourishment and welcome for the stranger, to be whole-heartedly for God’s purposes. With Jesus in our midst we can keep our lamps burning and be ready for the feast.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Prof. Matthew L. Skinner, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/matthewlskinner/posts/1507213662728435, 11-7-2017.
[ii] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. 3, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom33.ii.xxii.html.