Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
Caught in the Act of Being Faithful
First Baptist Richmond, November 12, 2023 the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
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. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
It begins like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Here are ten bridesmaids, on their way to a wedding. They’ve probably spent the day getting into their dresses, putting on their makeup, fixing their hair just so. And then they go to the place where they are supposed to meet the bridegroom. They’re excited. It’s a Jewish wedding in first-century Israel. It’s going to go on for a week! But as you may recall the Jewish day doesn’t begin when the sun comes up, but when it goes down, and so these bridesmaids go off to meet the bridegroom carrying lamps—small oil lamps with a flame no brighter than a candle. Their mothers probably suggested that they take extra oil, because you never know when a bridegroom will actually show up, but only half of them listened to their mothers, because, as Jesus said, five were foolish. But if everything works the way the wedding planner has imagined it won’t matter. Ten bridesmaids will come down a country lane toward the bride’s house on a soft summer evening with their lamps twinkling like fireflies as they hover around the bridegroom, giggling, their arms linked in his.
But that’s not what happens. The bridegroom is delayed. The hour gets later and later. The bridesmaids stand there as long as they can, holding their lamps, but it is way past their bedtime, and eventually they sit down on the soft
grass by the side of the road, and then lie down, and then fall asleep. At midnight someone shouts, “Here he comes!” And they all jump up and fix their hair, smooth their dresses, and reach for their lamps, and that’s when they notice that the lamps have started sputtering; they’re nearly out of oil! The five bridesmaids who were wise enough to listen to their mothers start filling their lamps with fresh oil and the others say, “Give us some!” But they say, “No, because then there wouldn’t be enough for us. You’ll have to go to the dealers and buy some of your own.” And that’s what they do: they go off looking for an all-night oil dealer in a state of absolute panic while the others, with their lamps trimmed and burning, go off with the bridegroom to the wedding. When the others finally get there the door is shut. They knock, and beg to be let in, but when the bridegroom looks out he says, “Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.” And the door is slammed in their faces.
It’s a horrible story, isn’t it? Can’t you just see those foolish bridesmaids sitting on the front stoop crying, with mascara running down their cheeks, while the party rages on inside? Fred Craddock says we’ve gotten so used to Jesus’ parables of grace—where the ones who worked only an hour get as much as those who worked all day—that nothing has prepared us for this parable of judgment. But there it is: these five bridesmaids were foolish; they didn’t bring enough oil; and so they end up in the outer darkness with all those others who are weeping and gnashing their teeth.
I don’t like this story, and neither did Chuck and Joe, my regular backpacking partners with whom I spent most of last week hiking and camping in the Texas desert. Chuck is an Episcopal priest, and he was getting ready to preach on this same passage. And Joe is a Baptist hospital chaplain, and he decided to
preach it, too. So, we talked about this parable a lot while we were out there in the desert, and one of the things we noticed is that it’s a story about not having enough of what you need.
That resonated with us. We’ve been backpacking together for years and that’s always the question as we get ready for a trip: will we have enough? Enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter? You want to have enough but you don’t want to have even one ounce more than enough, because you have to carry everything on your back. But this time we weren’t backpacking. We were base camping and day hiking, which meant we could take Chuck’s truck all the way to our campsite. And Chuck has a big truck. That’s how we ended up with four folding chairs, a guitar, a mountain bike, a Frisbee, twenty gallons of water, and enough groceries to last us for at least two weeks. Because we had read this parable. We knew you didn’t want to get caught without enough! But enough what? What was Jesus talking about? That’s what those first disciples and the disciples in every generation since have tried to figure out.
This is the first of three parables in Matthew 25, and it might help to remember that it comes after Jesus has finished teaching in the temple, after he has crossed over to the Mount of Olives with his disciples, and after he has given them instructions regarding the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man. It is in that context that he says, “Then (meaning in those days), the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.” And then he tells a story about ten bridesmaids on their way to a wedding, and some who didn’t have enough of what they needed. In that context it seems clear that what Jesus’ disciples will need in the days ahead is enough faith and courage to make it through the many trials they will face. “There will be wars and rumors of wars,” he says. “Nation will rise against nation, and
kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Then they will hand you over to be tortured and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
So, how about it, disciples? Do you have enough oil in your lamps to get you through all of that? Will you be able to endure to the end? Apparently some of them did. They made it through those first few months in the life of the early church, through the scattering and persecution that followed, through the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. And if Matthew was one of those disciples, then he made it to a place where he could write this Gospel, and tell the disciples of that generation what they would need in the days ahead.
One of the things they would need, apparently, was patience. Jesus had told those first disciples that immediately after the tribulation of those days the Son of Man would come, and they wouldn’t have to worry about missing it. His coming would be like lightning flashing from east to west. Everyone would see it. He would come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and then gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. And then he said to them, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But that had been fifty years earlier. Disciples who had been young then would have been old by this point, on the verge of passing away themselves if they weren’t gone already. And so Matthew reminds his readers of this parable. “When you find your
lamp sputtering,” he says, “don’t be foolish. Fill it with the fresh oil of patience and perseverance. Remember that the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
But Jesus didn’t come then, and he hasn’t come yet, and the warnings of his imminent return don’t sound as urgent as they used to. We still give lip service to the Second Coming, but not many of us are holding our breath. And yet, as my friend Joe reminded us, whether he comes to us or we go to him we will—one day—stand before Jesus, and on that day we don’t want to hear him say, “Do I know you? I don’t think I know you?” So, what do we do? How do we fill our lamps with fresh oil in times like these?
One way is to remember that Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and at some point in that little synagogue in Nazareth he must have learned from Amos 5, our Old Testament lesson for today, where the prophet talks about “the Day of the Lord.” As in Jesus’ parable it’s a moment of crisis, a moment when someone shouts, “Here he comes!” And the question is the same: will we be ready? In Amos’ day, apparently, the people were trying to get ready by going through the half-hearted motions of worship, but the Lord was having none of it. He said, “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.” Because this can happen, can’t it? We can replace religious devotion with religious ritual. We can stop earnestly seeking the Lord, we can stop actively waiting for his return. Instead we yawn and stretch and come to church on Sunday morning. We sing a few hymns, say a few prayers, and listen to the more interesting parts of the sermon. We stir the pot of our faith, as it were, keep
it simmering on the back burner for the next two thousand years or until Jesus comes back, but God says, “I hate that! I hate it when people are simply passing time in the pews. No, if you really want to please me do this: let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
And that reminds me of Jesus. Because he didn’t have much patience with empty ritual, did he? He criticized the Pharisees for it again and again. But he was passionate about justice, wasn’t he? And for the kind of righteousness that would change the world? Jesus wanted more than half-hearted devotion; he wanted his disciples to help him bring heaven to earth. When people ask me how to do that I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.” That’s justice. But I could also say, “Look inside for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.” That’s righteousness. If your lamp is full of those two things, of justice and righteousness, then whether Jesus comes to you or you go to him you will have nothing to fear.
In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about a slave whose master has put him in charge of things while he goes away and says, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives,” that is, blessed is the one who is caught in the act of being faithful. May it be so for us, and when Jesus comes to First Baptist may he find justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
One day while we were in the desert, Chuck and Joe and I went hiking and ended up walking through a dry riverbed. It went on for miles and miles, with big, yellow-leaved cottonwoods on either side and dry gravel on what used to be the river’s bottom. But at one point we found a place where the water used to flow
down over a huge slab of white rock, and in the rock itself were these smooth, round basins, hollowed out, I suppose, by gravel in the bottom being swirled around and around by rushing water over the course of centuries, millennia, maybe even eons. I’ve seen some of these rock-cut basins in the James River. Maybe you have, too. But this was different. This river had died. Where once there had been rushing water and flowing streams now there was nothing but a dry riverbed, and empty basins, bleached like bones.
Is that the way God sees the church these days? Have the waters of justice and righteousness simply stopped flowing? Have we given up any expectation that the bridegroom is coming? Are we simply going through the motions of religious ritual because we have nothing better to do? “I hate that,” says the Lord. “I despise all this emptiness, this barrenness. Put your minds to it! Put your hearts into it! Put your backs into it! Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
We could try. We could look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and get to work. We could look inside ourselves for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and do the same. We could seek by our own efforts to fill our lamps with the fresh oil of doing and being what God wants us to do and be, and we might succeed. I hope we will. But something happened out there in the desert that seemed like a parable of grace: it rained. For two of the four days Chuck and Joe and I were there it rained. When there was a break in the weather we went for a walk, back down to that dry riverbed, and there I saw those same basins with a little rainwater in the bottom. Not a lot, but a little. It was as if God were saying, “Even when there is no river here, I’m here. Even when you’ve got nothing left to give, I
do.” So let justice roll down like waters, Lord, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, let rivers of oil flow from your holy throne and fill the empty basins of our lives until we have enough, and maybe more than enough, to light the way to your eternal kingdom.
—Jim Somerville © 2023