ORDINARY SUNDAY 32 a 2 St Dunstan’s Camberwell
Matthew 25. 1 – 13 8 November 2020
CONTEXT OF MATTHEW’S GOSPEL
The gospel of Matthew is written for small, struggling community of Christians. Nearly all of the members of this community were Jewish. They had come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and as a result they had been excommunicated from their synagogues and abandoned by their families. Their businesses were boycotted and their livelihoods were destroyed. They had made a bold, all or nothing commitment to Jesus Christ so they needed the support of other Christian believers just to survive. The community of fellow Christians was everything to them.
It is not surprising that in Matthew’s gospel we find a great deal of teaching on what a Christian community should be like, and how Christians should act towards one another. We also find in this gospel a number of what are known as the Kingdom parables: that is, stories that start with the words, ‘The kingdom of God is like . . ‘ and one of these parables makes up our gospel reading this morning.
THIS DIFFICULT PARABLE
This parable has been called the Parable of the Ten Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, or the Ten Wise and Foolish Virgins, or – by some scholars – the parable of the Closed Door. What did we hear about the story of this parable?
Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom at a wedding. The ten bridesmaids all seem to be alike and initially they each have oil in their lamp and their lamp burning; Then all ten bridesmaids go to sleep as they wait; and all wake up together in time to see the bridegroom arrive. But, only five find they have enough oil with them to keep their lamps lit, and they will not give any of their oil to the others. So the five whose lamps need more oil go in search of it, and meanwhile the others go into the wedding celebration and shut the door. Then the bridegroom callously refuses to open up even when the five other bridesmaids return with their lamps now burning, even when they cry out what sounds like their confession of faith, ‘Lord, Lord.’ But to no avail: the door remains closed with the groom insisting, ‘I don’t know you!’
At first glance, this parable fits with how people are sometimes expected to act in our competitive modern society. People who store up for themselves and refuse to share seem to come out on top. So then, keep all your oil for yourself, even when it means another person will have to go out in the dark with no light. Certainly don’t give them a second chance when they return, this time with the oil they need.
I don’t think this is what the parable’s about. Parables never give credibility to the way in which a society – either our own now, or one in New Testament times – parables never give support for the way things are and the way society normally operates.
And nor does this parable seem to fit with other things Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel. Such as not making a big deal of the splinter in your brother or sister’s eye; about how if we knock, the door will be opened; or about forgiving not just seven but seventy-seven times. It doesn’t fit with the story of Jesus blessing five loaves and two fish that are then sharedamong thousands of people so that everyone is satisfied. It does not fit with the search for the one lost lamb.
It doesn’t fit with that other very difficult parable where the kingdom is like a landowner who includes everyone in the work of the vineyard and pays them all equally no matter what time they’ve started. We all know that the kind of community to which Jesus invites us is unlike any other, and its full expression requires more of us than other kinds of communities. More sharing of lamp oil, not less!
However, in all of this we must not forget some of Jesus’s other teachings, say, about the narrow gate, about the weeping and grinding of teeth, the parable of the weeds and the wheat or the parable about the one individual who was tossed out of the wedding for being improperly dressed: Jesus said those things as well in Matthew’s gospel. No single parable can contain the whole spectrum of Jesus’ teaching.
So what might the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids be saying to us?
We get a clue from the details about the oil that the bridesmaids need. Whatever the oil represents in the story it is not just any ordinary oil, because it can’t be bought or sold, or even lent or directly given. As much as the wise bridesmaids may want to share their oil, they can’t. This is a kind of spiritual fuel and you can’t get that from someone else. In other words, you can’t make another person have faith in Jesus Christ. You may be able to show a person the evidence of faith in your life or in that of someone else, and maybe the first person can recognize the faith for what it is – but you can’t ensure that the first person develops a faith in Jesus Christ. You just can’t do it. In the same way, you can’t ensure that another person prays regularly, ponders the Scriptures, seeks to live a life oriented to Christ. You may encourage this spiritual fueling up, but you can’t make it happen.
There are some kinds of things we can only do for ourselves, and developing our faith, or building up spiritual reserves, is one of those things – that no one else can build up for us. It’s something we each have to receive from God, cherish, and deepen for ourselves.
So what this parable from Matthew is telling us about is the importance and the urgency of fueling up. As all ten bridesmaids realize when they wake up, the time for acquiring oil and building up reserves can run out suddenly and unexpectedly. Dark times come into all our lives, and it’s in the darkness that we most need the sustenance of the kind of oil that Jesus is talking about in this parable. This is so that in times of real difficulty, it helps if we can remember from better times things like the habits of regular prayer, the joy of reading the Bible, the comfort that the sacraments bring. And through these, remember the love which God has for us, his promise to be always with us, and his peace. In other words, in the dark times, we can draw on our spiritual fuel reserves.
Now, while it is true that we each have to seek our own spiritual sustenance, it is also true that we usually discover what we need in community with others, seeking spiritual fuel together. That is why it so crucially important that our Christian communities are healthy, without serious conflict, and truly life-giving. It is good that St Dunstan’s is a parish like this.
The parable reminds us of the importance of a sharing community, while at the same time affirming the difficult truth that many of the decisions about a faithful Christian life are ours alone to make.
And one last point. We shouldn’t ignore the ending of the parable, where the door to the wedding banquet is shut on some of the bridesmaids. Thank goodness we can hear this parable while the bridegroom is delaying and the door to the celebration is still open. Thank goodness we are all bridesmaids together, each individually seeking spiritual sustenance, and together receiving the support of a community of faith.
A version of this sermon was given in the Parish of Goodna 2017; and Holy Spirit, Algester 2014.
Bishop Alison Taylor