Nov. 8th, 2020, homily on Matthew 25:1-13 by Pastor Galen Zook
This week many of us probably felt like the bridesmaids in Matthew 25, burning the midnight oil as we waited to find out the results of the presidential elections.
Around 2 am on Wednesday morning, my brother, who is a political science professor and lives in downtown Washington DC, texted me to ask if I was still awake. He was downtown at 2 in the morning, waiting to hear President Trump’s speech.
As more of a morning person myself, I had been fast asleep for several hours and missed both the president’s speech and my brother’s text, but I did in fact do a Google search for “election results 2020” when I woke up in the middle of the night. And I definitely found myself checking the election results frequently during random hours of the day and night all week until it was finally announced yesterday who had won.
For most of this week we did not know who the next president would be — having to wait so long is a very rare experience for us here in the U.S.
As Americans, we are generally not accustomed to waiting. We’re used to getting what we want, when we want it. We can order fast food and have it delivered while it’s still hot. We can even order ice cream online and have it delivered before it melts!
Waiting very long for anything is not very easy for most of us.
What is Going On?
Now, the parable in Matthew 25 is a description of what Jesus says the kingdom of heaven “will be like.” And there’s a lot of waiting involved in this parable.
Now I’ll be honest — this has never been one of my favorite parables in the Bible, and not just because I don’t like having to wait for things. I never liked the fact that Jesus called some of these bridesmaids “foolish.” And the five “wise” bridesmaids seemed rather selfish to me — why wouldn’t they share their oil with those who didn’t have enough?
We might wonder, what is Jesus trying to tell us with this parable? Is the moral of the story that we should look out for ourselves first and foremost? That we shouldn’t share what we have with those around us who are in need?
Well, we know that is probably not the point of this parable, since this chapter ends with a parable in which the “righteous” are the ones who feed the hungry, welcome the strangers, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
So if this parable is not about stockpiling and hoarding our physical resources, what is it about? What is going on in this parable?
Well, like most stories in the Gospels, before we can understand the meaning of this parable, we have to dig a little bit into first century Palestinian culture. And in particular, we have to understand the role of bridesmaids in first century Palestian weddings.
You see, I’ve been a groomsman in a couple different weddings, and for the most part, being a groomsman involves showing up on time with your tux, making sure your bowtie is on straight, and trying to stand as still as possible throughout the whole wedding ceremony so that you don’t take attention away from the bride and groom.
But in Bible times, being a member of the wedding party — and particularly a bridesmaid — came with an additional responsibility. You see, the role of the bridesmaids was to escort the groom to the bride’s house, where he would meet the bride, and then together they would travel to the wedding feast.
Since the wedding feast would take place in the evening, it was important that there were torches to light the way for the wedding procession, and that’s where the bridesmaids came in.
It was the responsibility of the bridesmaids to light the torches that would illuminate the path so that the bride and groom would know where to go. Without the benefit of streetlights or any other sort of illumination, you can imagine that it got very dark on those rural country roads. And travel at night on those dirt paths and steep roads would have been quite dangerous. So the bridesmaids and their torches played a critical role.
The problem was that the bridesmaids had no idea when the groom would arrive. And in this particular story, he was delayed for some reason. And so the ten bridesmaids had to wait.
Waiting must have been so difficult for them. Many of them had looked forward in anticipation — probably from the time they were little girls — to the day when they would have the opportunity to be bridesmaids and to light the torches for the newly married couple.
But eventually they all grew tired. And as the night wore on, they became drowsy and dozed off and went to sleep.
The problem was that when it was announced that the groom was finally soon to arrive, some of them couldn’t light their torches. They had failed to adequately prepare for the possibility that the groom might be delayed. They had failed to bring extra oil for their torches, and they could not light them.
The five bridesmaids who ran out of oil asked the five who had brought extra oil if they could have some of theirs. But the dilemma was that if those who had extra oil shared theirs, they all would run out of oil for their torches before their journey was completed, leaving the whole wedding party in a vulnerable and potentially dangerous situation
So the wise bridesmaids, who had come prepared with extra oil, suggested to the foolish and unprepared bridesmaids that they go and quickly buy some oil, which they hurried off to do.
Fortunately, there were shops open at this time of night. A wedding celebration of this magnitude involved the whole village. And since wedding feasts lasted for seven days, no doubt the shopowners expected that someone might run out of something, and were thus prepared to sell oil to these bridesmaids.
Unfortunately for the bridesmaids, they did not make it back in time. The groom arrived while they were still at the store, and the five wise bridesmaids accompanied him and his new bride to the wedding feast by themselves. By the time the other five returned with their oil-filled lamps, it was too late. The party had already started, and the host refused to let them in.
Because they had not been properly prepared, they had failed at the one job they were supposed to do. Their lack of diligence and foresight had jeopardized the safety of everyone involved in the wedding party, and their failure brought a certain level of shame to the bride and groom.
This would be not unlike a modern day bridesmaid or groomsman forgetting their gown or tuxedo, or arriving late to the wedding, or making a big show during the wedding ceremony that drew the attention away from the bride and groom. This is something that the bridesmaids will probably never live down, and it might take a while for the bride and groom to forgive them.
Now it could be tempting to try to pick apart every element of this story and try to correlate it to our world world — to try to figure out exactly who each of the characters in the story might represent, or to try to decipher some hidden meaning in even the most minute details.
But Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). And remember, Jesus prefaced this parable by saying, “…The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” (Matt. 25:1).
So Jesus’s main point is that we should be vigilant. We should keep alert. And we should always be ready, because we never know when Jesus will return.
As the traditional Gospel song said, “Keep your lamp(s) trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh.”
In the meantime, though, since we do not know how long it will take for Jesus to return, we must keep praying, keep serving, keep working to bring about God’s reign here and now on this earth, as it is in heaven.
Life is a Marathon not a Sprint
You see, we might think that the idea that Jesus might return at any minute means we should try to cram our days and weeks full, working for the Lord, frantically trying to get everything done while we can.
But I think Jesus’s point is actually the opposite. You see, the wise bridesmaids were not the ones who burned up all their oil as fast as they could. No, the wise ones were the ones who bought extra oil so they could keep their lamps burning as long as necessary. The wise ones were prepared to wait all night if necessary, and they kept extra oil on hand — just in case.
Those of us who have ever ran in a long-distance footrace know that you never want to use up all your energy during the first mile. It’s important to pace yourself, to save some of that energy for the last mile of the race. As it has often been said, life is a marathon, not a sprint.
And so, while it may seem selfish, even while we wait, and work and strive to bring about God’s reign here and now, we need to tend to our own spiritual health and well-being. We need to make sure that not only are our lamps “trimmed and burning,” but that we have enough oil to last us for a while, because we do not know how long it will be until Jesus returns.
And so, even while we pour ourselves out to help others, we also need to pull back, to allow God to refresh us and restore us — to refill our oil. We are not invincible or invulnerable. Just as the wise bridesmaids wisely held on to their extra oil, knowing that they wouldn’t be any good to the bride and groom if they used up or gave away all their oil, so we too need to be wise in our service for God’s Kingdom.
Friends, we do not know when Jesus will return, or when it will be our time to go and be with him. We must be faithful, vigilant, and keep alert. We must keep our lamps trimmed and burning, so that we are ready at any moment when he returns. But let’s also make sure that we have enough oil to last us for a while. Let’s seek help when we need it, and remember that we are not in this alone.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh.
Children don’t get weary. Children don’t get weary.
Children don’t get weary. ‘Til the work is done.