Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2023
Matthew 25:1-13 Commentary
This parable is part of a series that looks at what’s to come when the King of Kings returns. Even though they are about the future, the point that each of the parables is focused squarely upon is the present lives of disciples—no matter when they find themselves living. As we close out Ordinary time, the lectionary leads us through three of them, underscoring the season after Pentecost’s focus on everyday discipleship.
In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, Jesus provides his eschatological aim at the very beginning, saying that the kingdom of heaven will be like this… When so many other parables about the kingdom have used the present tense, by using the future tense here we know to be looking forward, not just around.
These directions are important to distinguish while not separating. It’s not that what is to come doesn’t have present consequences—it’s the opposite, in fact. But in order to understand what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples about how their lives are impacted in the here and now, we have to get to it through what will happen in the future, and not the other way around.
Otherwise, the story of the bridesmaids might read like a moral lesson about how the selfish ones are the ones who come out ahead. Aren’t we told and have modeled for us throughout the Scriptures that we are to share our resources with one another? Yet here half the bridesmaids refuse to help the other half. That’s definitely not what Jesus wants us to take away from this story.
Instead, like the parables surrounding it, this story is an invitation to examine our own preparedness for God’s return. Even though Jesus hasn’t even left earth yet, he’s already pointing us to a new turning point on which to anchor our existence: his return.
We don’t know when it will be, and it will likely feel like it is delayed. How very true that must have felt to Matthew’s original audience. Forty years after Jesus’s death, among people who thought it would be in their lifetime. Now, two thousand years later, we may feel some malaise regarding how “delayed” Jesus’s second coming is, already so far removed from his first. And yet, the anchor for our presents lives remains in the future.
It’s like those chains for dogs in large yards. Anchored into the ground by a pole, the dog is put on a long leash, giving it a large circumference in which to roam. And each passing day, year, millennium increases the length of the chain, but no matter how long it gets, its anchor remains the same point.
So what does Jesus want us to know about this anchor point? For starters, we won’t know when it will occur. In the last story Jesus told, it was early; here it is delayed. Secondly, we are meaningfully involved in what happens. Like the bridesmaids’ assigned role in the wedding party to meet the bridegroom on his way to the bride’s home, we have a role to play in welcoming Christ at his return.
And, it turns out, that welcome is based on what we keep ourselves engaged in while we wait. It isn’t enough to volunteer to be part of the welcome party, what we might call “giving our hearts to Jesus” and coming to a moment of conversion in evangelical terms. No, we don’t just make a choice, we make many choices, over and over, about what it means that Jesus Christ will return. We do this by being prepared, living in preparation, for his return.
The foolish bridesmaids assented to being part of the party, but they were not committed to it: they had enough for the short-term, but not for the long, steady obedience. The wise bridesmaids, on the other hand, came prepared and brought supplies. They knew what they signed up for and saw their pledges through. The foolish bridesmaid are converts, but the wise bridesmaids are disciples.
As Anna Case-Winters points in her commentary part of the Belief series, Jesus harkens back to another one of his teaching moments, and to Hebrew Wisdom literature while warning about what will happen when he returns. In Matthew 7.21 Jesus cautions, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” There, like here, Jesus alludes to never knowing those who call upon him but do not live as though they really want to know him.
And in Proverbs 13.9, the same lamp imagery is used to depict doing the will of God: “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out.” Preparedness, then, is seen in how we choose to live according to God’s whole design for humans and the earth. Settling or letting ourselves be satisfied with proclaiming Jesus is Lord is not the magical secure-the-future-key we think it is; those who truly believe will seek to live as though it is already true by keeping their lamps burning.
The Christian tradition has always held belief and action together: we come to know Jesus and in some mysterious way, come to be known by God, by acting our faith. Whether that be through acts of inward devotion such as prayer, Scripture meditation, or participating in public and communal acts of worship, or through outward actions of loving and serving our neighbours. By living according to the whole will of God, which encompasses both the inward and outward, we shine the promise of Christ’s return, becoming part of the event that we have anchored and staked our lives upon.
There is no worry about being late to the party or missing our chance if we are taking the opportunities to live it that are constantly being presented to us. And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus included that little detail about how all of the bridesmaids fell asleep to remind us that we can be diligent without being overwhelmed and overworked. Yes, the invitations are many, but what we have done is less about the tally of actual good things we’ve performed and more about how we have tried to be as we waited—sleeping on the clock is not necessarily a sin, it can also an act of trust.
Because the bridegroom will show when he shows. And if we’re living as one who knows that is true, then we’ll have already shown through how we’re living that we are prepared to welcome him and will have plenty of fuel from the Spirit to light our wicks upon his return.
Balanced pairing was a common rhetorical technique. (In fact, it’s easy to trace the pattern of comparing two people or groups throughout Jesus’s parables.) Here we have five wise and five foolish bridesmaids. What some scholars emphasis in this case, however, is that the use of young women might have been an intentional move on Jesus’s part to universalise, or mark this lesson as being for all people. (Whereas the previous parable appears to be aimed at leaders.)
On a recent trip with some friends, we were reminiscing about some of the Christian music we grew up with—we’re children of the nineties, the heyday of Third Day, DC Talk and the Newsboys. One friend belted out the chorus to the Newsboys song, “Breakfast”: “When the toast has burned / And the milk has turned / And Captain Crunch is waving farewell / When the Big One finds you / May this song remind you / That they don’t serve breakfast in hell!” It’s oddly catchy and off-putting at the same time. The real problem, of course, is that this song, like so many other “Jesus is coming” warnings in modern evangelicalism, focuses on conversion as though the choice to say “Jesus is Lord” is enough. Even the foolish bridesmaids made the choice to go out with their lamps, thinking that was enough preparation.
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