Today is another wedding story. Our cast of characters today is an interesting bunch centered on two groups of bridesmaids, half are called out as wise and half called out as foolish. The wise bridesmaids have brought their lamps with extra oil to meet the bridegroom and the foolish have brought their lamps but with no spare oil.
Now, as with most weddings there is a delay. We don’t know what or why but it is no real surprise that there is a delay. Weddings are often like that. And thus begins our plotline. And it is almost a comedy plotline. It makes me wonder of Matthew was a humorist at times.[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/254823-be-prepared-or-what.mp3]
It is funny to me because in waiting for the bridegroom, all the bridesmaids fall asleep. No big deal there. But then when they wake up you can pretty much hear the chaos and pandemonium that happens when something turns up missing in the middle of getting ready for a wedding. In this case half of the bridesmaids have plenty of oil for their lamps and the other half are running around looking for more oil. And before we get sexist about this I’ve seen similar chaos and pandemonium with groomsmen, too.
Then the story takes a turn that isn’t so humorous. The foolish bridesmaids get booted out of the gathering to go look for some oil. In the middle of the night. And when they return empty handed, the door is locked to them.
One of the ways this parable gets used is to say that those keep prepared and have their lamps filled with oil, that is to say those who do the right things, will be known by Jesus when we come knocking at heaven’s door. Those who do not keep their lamps filled with oil, that is to say those who have not done the right things will not be known by Jesus when we come knocking at heaven’s door.
I’m pretty sure that isn’t right. It certainly begs a few questions and wrestling with what scripture means is a good thing. And this series of parables that Jesus shared are some stories that don’t have easily wrapped up neatly answers.
I will be the first to admit that I can’t get my head around today’s parable. I can’t get my head around this parable not lining up with not only what I think but what Jesus says in other places. It sounds like he is saying, “Be prepared and do the right things and I’ll know you later. Don’t do the right things and I won’t.”
That doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it?
It certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus earlier in Matthew, like in chapter 5 where in the sermon on the mount he declares “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” or in chapter 6 where Jesus cautions storing up treasures on earth.
In the first place, there has to be some cultural time and distance thing going on. I’m pretty sure saying ‘Heaven is like’ and then adding pre-wedding activities is not a one to one match for people today. Weddings are good things and all, don’t get me wrong, but if heaven is like what goes on in wedding preparation we may need to rethink this whole heaven gig.
In the second place, the so-called wise bridesmaids withhold what they have from the so-called foolish bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids have brought extra oil for their lamps and when the foolish bridesmaids realize they don’t have enough oil for their lamps the wise bridesmaids choose not to share what they have. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus stories I normally hear in the Bible. You know, the ones that feed the hungry and house the homeless s stories.
My fear is simply this and why I hammer on it so frequently. Too many people can articulate the Lutheran theology of being saved by grace through our faith and not by works but still rely on the idea that they’ve got to be good for God to love them and to get into heaven. The trouble with trying to be good is that we can never be good enough and then we’re left feeling not good enough for God’s love. And that’s a horrible place to be and completely untrue.
It is fair to say that there does come a judgment day. We affirm that in both the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. I’m not certain how this judgment thing works but I will say that it exists. But I can say with reasonable certainty we’ll all be judged and we’ll all fail. We’ll all have that moment where God says I don’t recognize you. And then God will say But I recognize the Jesus in which you have been claimed and forgiven.
As Luther would phrase it, we’re all saints and we’re all sinners. All at the same time. We are the wise bridesmaids who have been prepared and we are the foolish bridesmaids who let things slip. It is both/and for us, not either or.
We are the wise bridesmaids who are prepared and our lamps are filled with oil and with that oil we shine Christ’s light. We are the foolish bridesmaids who aren’t always prepared and sometimes our lamps run dry and we don’t shine Christ’s light.
When all is said and done, our faith isn’t about what we have done but what Christ has done for us. And for that we thank God.