Neither the day nor the hour

by David Baer, March 15, 2015

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Text: Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s story is about something going wrong at a wedding. Of course, this is clearly a wild exaggeration on Jesus’ part, because nothing ever goes wrong at real-life weddings, right? I mean, it’s unheard of for the wedding march to start before the bride is in the building, or for the groom to forget the wedding license in his hotel room. And it’s never the case that the caterer for the rehearsal dinner goes bankrupt after taking your deposit, and no one calls you to let you know. I’m sure nothing like that has ever happened to anyone you know… besides myself and Amy, who experienced all this and more. So you can clearly see that Jesus is really reaching with this story, because at real weddings, everything always goes according to plan, doesn’t it?

The excitement, the anxiety, the delays, and the miscues are part of what make today’s parable so endearing. Because in Jesus’ time, just like today, weddings were a big deal. They were exciting. There was a lot of planning and ceremony, and so much of it had to be performed by people who were experiencing all the emotions that come with weddings: joy, pride, wistfulness, nervousness, agitation, impatience, exhilaration, and much more. So things can and did go wrong. Remember the wedding Jesus attended where they ran out of wine? People loved these stories. I can only imagine that they served the same function that sitcoms serve for us. You can have a laugh at the expense of a hapless character where the stakes are really no bigger than that person’s sense of pride.

Paint the scene in your mind: a banquet hall where guests are gathering. It’s early in the evening, and the sun has just sunk below the horizon. The guests have begun to settle in, so it’s fortunate that there are earthenware jars brimming full of wine. The bride is seated at a place of honor, and there’s an empty spot next to her for her new husband. Ten young bridesmaids giggle and flutter around her, excited for their friend and eager to enjoy the party. The bride shoos them away, saying, “It’s almost time! Go out to the anteroom, and take your torches! We want this to be a grand entrance. You don’t want to miss him!” Eager to please, the ten girls snap up their torches and the fuel bags that came with them, and they set out for the entryway. Some of those bags are thicker and heavier than others. Five of the girls remembered to bring oil, and five didn’t. If the torch isn’t soaked in oil before it’s lit, it will flame out after a minute or two, and what is supposed to be a dramatic entrance will look like a joke. Sputtered out torches are not the image that the groom wants to greet his bride with on their wedding night—let’s just leave it at that!

So we know from the outset that the five foolish bridesmaids are doomed. It’s not that they weren’t prepared for a long wait for the bridegroom. It’s not that they needed more oil so their torches would last longer. The bridesmaids don’t even light their torches until the bridegroom is near. The problem is that the foolish bridesmaids weren’t prepared to do their job at all. And, when the bridegroom is delayed, when they get some extra bonus time they weren’t expecting, they don’t make use of that time to check their fuel supplies. They don’t take advantage of the opportunity to go buy oil before the groom arrives. If anything, the delay ought to have made things easier for them… but instead, they fall asleep with the others. It’s only when the decisive moment arrives, when the shout goes out—“He’s here!”—when they light their dry torches and see them begin to sputter and die, that they realize they’re not ready. And by then it’s too late. They miss the bridegroom, who enters the party not with sputtering torches, but with a retinue reduced in size. And he’s clearly resentful about it, because when they come knocking at the door later in the evening, he says, “Go away! I don’t even know you!”

Jesus tells this story, and he says that the kingdom of heaven is like this. Any time we see a story that has a decisive moment, where some are rewarded and some are punished or left out, we can be pretty sure we’re reading a story about judgment. This is a theme from the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus picked up and taught. When you look around at our world and see so many awful things happening, when you see militant extremists in the Middle East killing our fellow Christians and other religious minorities, when you hear closer-to-home stories about shootings, or industries polluting the land and water and air around us, and when our human responses to all these terrible things fall short or create new problems, and the imperfectly healed wounds your own body and spirit carry, you wonder whether all these things can ever be put right. The psalmists and prophets cried out to God about injustice and oppression, and they also perceived that God wasn’t going to let it go on forever, that there would be a day for setting everything right. Jesus believed that day was near, but he also told us, amazingly, that he didn’t know when it would be, that it was a mystery kept hidden away even from him.

The lesson Jesus offers us through this story is: “Keep awake.” I don’t think he’s talking about alertness. I don’t think the lesson is to stay on the lookout for signs that God’s judgment is imminent. That doesn’t really follow from the story. After all, that wouldn’t have helped the foolish bridesmaids. They would have been just as out-of-luck if they had stayed awake. Their problem wasn’t that they fell asleep. It was that they had no fuel for their torches. It wouldn’t have helped if they’d been extra watchful. The only way being awake would have helped them is if they had used the extra time to go to the store before the middle of the night.

What Jesus is telling us is that, until that moment comes, until the day and the hour that nobody knows, we continue to be responsible. There’s never a time where we can kick back and wait for the party. There’s never a time where we can be content to nod off, because it’s our job to be ready to meet the bridegroom, to meet Jesus, and give him a spectacular entrance into the feast. The next stories Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel help underline this point. The very next story he tells is the parable of the talents, where a master wants to see his servants accomplish something with the resources he’s left them. And in the story after that Jesus lets us know what he wants accomplished—feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. This is oil for the torches.

That’s not to say that we write our own invitation to the feast. This story presupposes that there’s a place for us there, that we get to accompany Jesus to the big party. That invitation, that place, is a generous gift from a God who wants us to be with us, glorified and enjoyed by us forever. But the way we live out our role as God’s guests—and more, God’s children—matters. I think of the Easter baskets the children are assembling today for the families served by the Center for Food Action, and the way they’ll bring joy to children on what should be a joyous day. I think of the work Debbie Murphy does with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for those who need a place to live. I think of the way I’ve seen you care for each other when you’re sick or grieving or down. I think of these things and I imagine them as fuel for a torch that lights Jesus’ steps to the banquet hall.

So keep awake. Keep awake in the hope that Jesus is on his way. Keep awake to the opportunities to light the night with kindness and generosity and justice. Keep awake in joy and gratitude for being part of God’s rich and lavish feast. You don’t know the day or the hour, but you know the trustworthiness and goodness of the one you’re waiting for. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.