11.09.14 Waiting For God, Matthew 25:1-13, Sermon Summary
There are three obstacles to hearing this parable of Jesus, but the one main point is even more important today than ever.
- How meaning can be lost by over-analyzing
- How meaning can be lost because of our presumption
- How meaning can be lost through anxiety
- The simple and transforming point of this parable
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Hearing the parables of Jesus today is difficult as a rule, since they are metaphors from another time and culture. But if we can sort through some of the challenges, we may still benefit from Jesus’ wisdom. The parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is an excellent example.
One of the obstacles we have is that we tend to allegorize the parables into an incomprehensible complexity. We are tempted to make associations and then predictions about the future. It’s reasonable enough to identify the Bridegroom in this parable as Jesus given the context of the parable from the previous chapter. But then we are faced with a number of rabbit trails.
Who are the Bridesmaids? Why are there ten? What is the oil? And what then would the flasks be? Why is the Bridegroom so delayed? Why won’t the wise Bridesmaids share? What Dealer is open at midnight? Why not open the door? Why does the parable say, “Keep awake” instead of “have enough oil”?
Questions like these cause biblical scholars to wonder how much of this parable as we have in the gospel of Matthew goes all the way back to Jesus. How much has the gospel author added? Is the original understanding and meaning irrevocably lost?
Another challenge to hearing the parable today is that we think it doesn’t apply to us. We simply assume we are among the wise Bridesmaids. Whatever else the parable means—in the end we’ll be inside the wedding banquet.
After all, we’ve confessed Jesus as Lord, and “accepted” him into our hearts (a concept found nowhere in the Bible). We worship on Sunday; we have a goal to tithe. But we could very well be like the people of Amos’ day–highly religious with our worship days and present day ”sacrifices.” But the question from Amos confronts us also: does “Justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”?
We forget that like Amos, Jesus and Matthew’s original audience were the faithful of their day. They aren’t preaching to those outside the faith community, but to those on the inside. Amos warns that when God comes, it will be like running from a lion only to meet a bear, only to retreat to one’s house and be bitten by a snake. Jesus warns us not to be surprised by arriving late to the party. These are warnings for us, the church.
Given that, a third obstacle for not hearing the parable is that it paralyzes us with fear. We hear it like the bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” We are anxious that maybe we’re not busy with the right things. What if we’re not living right way? What if we die in a state of sin and are locked out?
These questions have a parallel in the church of the Thessalonians. They expected Jesus’ return to be imminent, within their generation. But as it drew out longer and longer, and some among their fellowship died, they wondered what happens to them in the second coming. After all, the dead aren’t just sleeping like bridesmaids. They can’t hear the “cry of command” or “trumpet blast.” They’re dead!
Paul’s answer is that the dead rise first. How appropriate that those who have no hope of hearing respond to God’s call. Paul’s conviction that God’s grace is effective even among the dead is completely consistent with the resurrection of Christ and Paul’s own encounter with the risen Lord. Paul’s confidence is warranted because the dead are “in Christ.”
Being “in Christ” is symbolized best by baptism. In baptism we dying with Christ in order that we may be raised with Christ and live a new life. It begins now in this life. It is characterized by hoping according to Jesus’ teaching, and following Christ as we seek and are led by his Spirit. Paul’s answer to the anxiety about our lives is that if there is hope for the dead, there is hope for us.
After we remove these obstacles to understanding Jesus’ parable today, we are left with an echo of the words of Psalm 70: “Let all who seek God rejoice . . . Help me for I am weak. . . You are my help and my deliverer, O LORD, do not delay.” The point of the parable, it seems, is this: To us who are weak and weary, Jesus says, “Keep awake, keep watching, don’t lose hope. I am coming.”
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some other parables whose meaning is jeopardized when we over-allegorize, identifying too many characters and events in the parable to contemporary people and events?
- Given that these warnings are addressed to you and the church today, how should we respond?
- If hope never dies, not even with death, how are you willing to risk your life to follow Christ today and be prepared for the arrival of the Bridegroom?
- What kinds of distractions are in your life right now that jeopardize your preparedness for Christ’s return?