St Andrew’s, Carbondale–Matthew 25:1–13
I was a Boy Scout for all of about two or three weeks, when I was around eleven years old. But you don’t have to be a Boy Scout to know about their famous motto: Be prepared. OK, what, specifically, do we need to be prepared for? We’ve all had to make it a habit to grab a mask every time we step outside these days, so we’re prepared to meet somebody at close range. We prepare for a road trip by making sure there’s gas in the tank. Every Sunday evening, I prepare to fix dinners for the week by making a meal plan and a grocery list. But is there not a larger dimension for the application of this motto? Is there a more profound level at which we would do well to be prepared?
In a series of parables toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus urges his followers to be prepared. Today we have a story about ten bridesmaids. Their job as part of the festivities is to wait in a given location, at night, for the arrival of the groom, and then to accompany him in a torchlight procession to the place where the marriage will be celebrated. But, for some reason that we are not given, the groom is late, and the torches are beginning to fade and flicker. They need a fresh infusion of flammable oil. Five of the bridesmaids have brought extra oil for precisely this contingency, but the other five have not. So these “foolish” bridesmaids, in contrast to the “wise” bridesmaids who brought extra oil, have to run to Wal*Mart in the middle of the night to buy some more. By the time they get back, they discover they’ve missed the arrival of the groom completely, and when they show up at the venue for the ceremony, nobody will let them in. It’s too late. Next week, we’ll hear the parable of the three servants who are given “talents” to invest while their boss is away on a long trip, as they wait for his return, and they are asked for an accounting. Two weeks from now, it’s the parable of the sheep and the goats, an image of the Last Judgment as Jesus sits on the throne of his kingdom. So, there are these themes of waiting and judgment, and being prepared for the moment of judgment, of giving a reckoning, an accounting, for our lives. We do well to note the clause in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds: We believe Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. I’m pretty sure this qualifies as the sort of event for which we would want, like good Boy Scouts, to be prepared.
Judgment is an understandable source of anxiety. Nobody enjoys being called into the boss’s office for an annual performance review, and the Last Judgment is a performance review on mega-doses of steroids. Even though our standing in Christ removes fear of the ultimate outcome—we’re saved by grace, through faith, and not by our works—the prospect of judgment, when we think about it, is terrifying. Standing before the One to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid—if that prospect doesn’t cause us to tremble just a little bit, then we’re not really paying attention. So, the question naturally arises: On what will we be judged? How should we “be prepared?”
Since we’re encountering today’s parable in Matthew, perhaps we should look elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel for some guidance. Of all the “teaching” of Jesus in the four gospels, what is usually been considered the high point, the apex? Well, it’s probably the Sermon on the Mount. It starts off with the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted on account of their faith. Jesus then goes on to talk about being the salt of the earth, refraining from anger and lust, being true to your word, not seeking revenge, loving your enemies, giving to the needs of the poor, refusing to be anxious, avoiding being judgmental, and treating others the way we would like to be treated ourselves. This is what it looks like to live the life of the Kingdom of God, and it’s a pretty good bet that this is the material that will show up on the final exam!
But note the feature in today’s parable: the groom arrived later than expected. The “foolish” bridesmaids were plenty prepared for him to show up on time, as expected, but they were manifestly unprepared for him to be delayed, and they were excluded from the eventual wedding celebration. So, we need not simply to get the answer right; we need to get the answer right repeatedly. Hear what the New Testament commentator Eugene Boring says:
Readiness in Matthew is, of course, living the life of the Kingdom, living the quality of life described in the Sermon on the Mount. Many can do this for a short while; but when the Kingdom is delayed, the problems arise. Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again, and the bridegroom is delayed. Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness.
So, it looks like we need to be patient, and we live in a cultural context in which the virtue of patience is not often highly regarded. Now this is starting to sound like the sort of sermon I really hate—“do more and try harder.” So I need to conclude by reminding us all, in the words of the collect from two weeks ago, that our only chance of being “continually given to good works” is if the grace of God “always precede(s) and follow(s) us,” and that such grace is available to us even now, in this celebration of the Eucharist.” Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.