Weddings are interesting occasions, full of expectation and promise. A clash of family and friends, normally a joyous occasion. I have been privileged to witness many, many wedding banquets. My father owned a catering company and I began working for him when I nine. I worked for dad between the ages of nine and thirty and almost every Saturday night of the year I was at a wedding banquet.
For sure I was not a guest. I was working: setting tables, washing dishes, preparing food as I got older, I was a bus boy, server, bartender and eventually a catering manager. I saw a lot of weddings.
I witnessed some bizarre events from a variety of different cultures. Though nothing stands out like the bride and groom who ended up hand-cuffed together. I have to confess that in all the weddings I witnessed I never heard a story about a groom who was late. Not once in twenty years do I recall hearing about a groom who was late.
Which of course is the premise of our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus is talking to the disciples about the kingdom of heaven. It will be like this he says, ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom and to make a long story short they had to wait and when the bridegroom arrived five of those women found that they did not have enough oil in their lamps.
Keep awake Jesus tells the disciples, for you know neither the day or the hour.
Give me Oil – Audio
Now I don’t know about you but when I read this story I asked myself what does staying awake have to do with having enough oil?
Let’s take a look at this text and we will start by talking about what it is not about.
The text is not about remaining vigilant or scanning the Bible for evidence of when the kingdom will come. All ten women fall asleep in the story. Even though Jesus does say remain awake at the end, his words should not be read as vigilance. I believe that we should read this as imagery for being alive and dead. Alive in what you might ask? Well alive in Christ.
We should note that just as all ten women fall asleep all ten women also bring a lamp. Everyone, all ten of those women have a lamp. Which seems to me to be a strange thing to bring to a wedding, but they all have one. If we interpret the lamps as representing resources or giftedness then all ten provide their own gifts. So our text is not about being good enough, all ten have gifts and all ten are invited to the banquet feast which provides grace and shares in all that we will every need.
Everyone is patient. We are not supposed to read this text as a clue that we should be guessing when the kingdom will come. We should not be grasping at straws trying to interpret events in our world as representative of the end of the world. Jesus is stressing patience here, not exasperated, desperate searching for meaning.
Everyone knows the bridegroom. This text is not about separating those who know Jesus and those who do not. All ten of the women know Jesus. This text is not about insiders and outsiders; it is not about those who are saved and those who are not saved. It is not about the elect or the doctrine of election. In this story everyone knows Jesus.
The difference is the wise young women bring extra oil. That is it; that is what separates the five from each other. Five of the women who are described as wise bring extra oil and so they are prepared.
Which leads us to the most important question that this story asks of us: What does it mean to be prepared for the delay of the bridegroom?
So what does the oil symbolize? Why can’t it be shared? It seems a little selfish that those five women are unwilling to share the oil with the other five. Consider that it is Jesus who is telling this story; Jesus who asked the disciples to share their food to feed five thousand people. The same Jesus who healed people and ministered to them. And yet in our story today Jesus describes five women who won’t share with the other five. Jesus who says the first will be last and the last will be first and yet it is the women who won’t share who had the extra oil who come out ahead in this story.
It seems slightly out of character doesn’t it? Which means we need to ask questions about what is really going on here. If the story that Jesus is sharing does not match up with other aspects of his teaching, what is he trying to tell us.
Friends, I would suggest to you that the oil is not a physical thing. Yes, those five women brought extra flasks of oil, but we should read the story that those flasks of extra oil were their fuel. Not extra fuel for the lamp, but for themselves. The oil represents our fuel, it is our good works, our love and compassion, our faithfulness, our trust in God our Father.
We can share what that means and I would encourage you to do so. But we can’t love, trust and be faithful in God for someone else. We can pray for someone else, but they need to place their own trust in Christ themselves.
How does the hymn go? Choir perhaps you can give me a hand with this one. How does that hymn go, the one about oil and lamps?
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning…
Theologian Mark Douglas relates the oil in the text to faith, knowledge and love. He writes, “… that knowledge, faith, and love are tools for living in the time before eternity, not tools to gain entrance into it … While it is wise to fill our lamps with good things, we should remember that those things are for use this side of eternity. There is already more than enough light at the banquet.”
Why does Jesus tell us to be awake? What are we to be awake to?
To the knowledge of the love and great grace of God through Jesus Christ. To be faithful in our living, to cherish and follow the teaching of Christ. To have faith in the great promise of grace that is found in Jesus Christ. To love deeply, fully, richly, without compromise. To love God and to love our neighbours. These are the things we are to be awake to.
When the women fell asleep, they allowed their lamps to burn up the oil that was in them and some of those women had no reserves. When it became difficult they despaired because they want to go to that feast. But we need to wait for it to start and we must sustain ourselves during this period of waiting.
We must remain awake and aware, to always keep the knowledge of Christ, the love of Christ and Christ’s great faith in us before us. We must reflect those same values back into the world.
Theologian N.T. Wright puts it this way, “and in this new era, no less than in the unique time of Jesus and his first followers, we need as much as ever the warning that it’s easy to go slack on the job, to stop paying attention to God’s work and its demands, to be unprepared when the moment suddenly arrives.”
Friends, the moment may well be when the bridegroom arrives. However, it may also be when an issue arrives before us and we are called to respond. We run a soup kitchen here every Thursday as a part of the Neighbourlink initiative. It helps people, hungry people, perhaps even desperate people. Did you know that in many cities in the United States it is illegal to feed homeless people? Perhaps you’ve read about it in the news this week. Oh a soup kitchen is ok, but don’t buy an extra sandwich at the deli and give it to a homeless person. Don’t show up in the park with twenty prepared meals to hand out. That could land you in jail.
Friends, that’s wrong. That goes against everything the Jesus teaches us, which is contrary to the kingdom. And we must remain awake to this and other issues of justice that Jesus speaks about. We can’t say we love God, that we follow Jesus and then ignore what Jesus teaches us a, we can’t ignore what God loves. It just does not work that way.
If we don’t keep actively doing the work of the kingdom, then we will find ourselves like the five foolish women who don’t have enough oil. Our lights will have gone out and we cannot allow that to happen.
It’s hard sometimes isn’t it? It can be a struggle to keep that fire burning, to keep the torch lit. We are pulled in so many directions. We desire to be faithful, to live out what God through Jesus Christ has asked of us. We pray that the Spirit strengthen and enrich us, but it can be so difficult.
In their new album Songs of Innocence the band U2 speak to this very issue and I think they articulate the struggle beautifully. In the song Song for Someone we find the following:
If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light, don’t let it go out – Song for Someone, U2
These words capture the struggle we have to see the light of Christ in the world. The difficulty we face in being the kingdom, the recognition that within our very being we struggle to be faithful to God. But the recognition persists, that there is a light.
Friends, do not let that light go out. Keep the fire burning, ask God continually to refresh and renew you so that we can keep going to the break of day. Amen.
Text: Matthew 25: 1-13