Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

This final chapter in Matthew prior to his account of the Passion is rather ominous. Tensions, as we have seen, have been building between Jesus and the religious authorities, and in our recent passages we have also been introduced to apocalyptic themes, whether of Jesus, Matthew, or the early church. Heavy reading!

In this chapter we receive three more parable, each with counsel on how to conduct ourselves while we await the return of our Lord. These parables come at an interesting time in the development of the early church. On the one hand, there is still some expectation that Jesus would return relatively soon. On the other hand, that expectation is neither as fervent or as wide-spread as it was, for instance, during the ministry of Paul. After all, it has been twenty years since Paul’s ministry and some forty years since Jesus’ own. Hence, the church is reckoning with the possibility that it will be a longer wait than they had imagined. And this shows up in both the injunctions to wait and to be prepared as well as in projecting Jesus’ return to a more distant time when he “comes in glory” as in 25:31.

Two thousand years later, it’s indeed been a far longer delay than anyone even in Matthew’s community could have possibly imagined, which means we need to think about how we hear, interpret, and incorporate these parable into our reading of Scripture and, more importantly, into our lives as Christians. This parable offers a great opportunity to do just that.

The typical interpretation is simply to hear it as a pretty stern warning to be prepared. To not let the delay catch us by surprise. To keep waiting and getting ready and to not miss Jesus’ return. All of which is delivered with an “or else” feel as the “foolish” bridesmaids are shut out from the final party by a peeved groom.

Fine, particularly when the delay of Jesus’ return is 40 years, not 2000. But given our situation, I’d like to ask some other questions. To be clear, I’m not saying these are Matthew’s questions, just that they make the passage at least more interesting and potentially useful for me. So… First, why won’t the “wise” bridesmaids share what they have? Must anxiety about the future really drive us to a scarcity mentality (“there won’t be enough”)? What might we do to wait and live with greater grace and generosity?

Second, I wonder if the actual act of foolishness was when those who didn’t bring extra oil listened to the others and ran out to look for more. Would it have been worse to greet the groom without oil or to miss him altogether while looking for oil? Obviously the preferred response is to bring enough and more than enough, but given that most of us living nearly 2000 years after this parable was written fall into the “foolish bridesmaid” category, this seems like a valuable question. Yes, there are ways we can prepare today, certainly and particularly by looking for the face of Jesus in the need of our neighbor (as we’ll read about soon), but might we also take some comfort in the promise that we are justified by grace, not by being prepared?

Just two questions as I seek to find in this parable words that shape my life today as well as give insight into the concerns of Christians two thousand years ago. I’d be interested in yours as well.

Prayer: Dear God, let us trust in your grace and love such that we can look to the future with confidence and share with our neighbors with generosity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.