The Foolish and the Wise
Matthew 25:1-13 | 12 November 2017 | Dan McCoig
On one level today’s lesson, the parable of the ten bridesmaids, touches on what motivates us to do the right thing. Is it the stick or the carrot, the threat of hell or the promise of heaven, vinegar or honey? Do we do the right thing for a reward or do we do the right thing to avoid punishment? Hopefully, doing the right thing in due time becomes intrinsic. We do the right thing because doing the right thing is the right thing. It’s called having a moral compass.
Also, today’s lesson suggests that for us to do anything, whether it’s right or wrong, requires a deadline. We need to know so that we can plan properly or have some sense of when we should stop procrastinating and get to work.
Speaking of deadlines, today is stewardship consecration Sunday.
Our Christian gospels were written from the perspective that time and history as we know it will not go on forever and forever and always. Neither time nor history are infinite. They both have an expiration date. There will be a point when what is is no longer.
This idea comes from Jewish apocalypticism which influenced Jesus and the entire first generation of Christians, nearly all of whom were Jewish. When we read the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, we discover that they talk about a Day of the Lord.
The prophets point out the all too obvious fact that the world as it is is far from how God would have it be. Time and history stretch forward in the hopes that humanity will use the additional time and experiences to listen to God’s prophets, come to its senses, change its heart, and embrace and abide by the vision for humanity the prophets in God’s name have portrayed. But one day, the curtain comes down. No more time to get it right. No more history to get it right. We had our chance and blew it.
Micah’s vision, at least for me, is one of the most compelling. In the 8th century BCE, in an oracle of hope, he writes to Israel in the hopes that his people will change and avert the impending exile:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
Micah is pleading with Israel — using both carrot and stick — to change while there’s time and history. He pleads with them to change before it’s too late. He counsels wisdom.
On a personal and existential level we know that our own time and history are finite. Just as each one of us has a date of birth, each one of us also has a date of death. Just as there is a moment in time when each of us begins his or her life, there is also a moment in time when each of our lives — at least on this plane — comes to an end.
Granted medical science has gotten so sophisticated, for which by the way I am thankful, that even when people well into their 80s and 90s die we may be surprised and possibly even ask from what? This, of course, has not been the way it has always been. There was a time when most of one’s children did not make it to adulthood. And most adults did not make it into old age. This continues to be true in developing parts of the world.
In the Bible, there’s a reason life in the here and now is finite. A finite life should motivate us to make the absolute most of each and every moment and not squander a single moment. Psalm 90 poetically puts it this way. This couplet is an address to God: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart”. For the Psalmist, making the most of every moment involves gaining wisdom. For the Jesus follower, the God-inclined, wisdom and not foolishness is the direction in which life is headed.
In today’s lesson, Jesus tells a story of ten bridesmaids. The bridesmaids are to be ready for the bridegroom’s arrival at which time the door to the festivities will open for all to enter and celebrate. Those who are ready will enter the open door. Those who are not ready will miss the open door to find only a closed door. Jesus tells the story because he wants everyone who hears it to be ready and enter through door to the festivities while the door is still open.
Neither the wise nor the foolish bridesmaids knows when the bridegroom will appear. The foolish bridesmaids lamps are filled with oil. The wise bridesmaids’ lamps are also filled with oil, but they have additional oil at the ready just in case the bridegroom’s arrival is delayed. In other words, they are ready.
Obviously, Jesus’ story is about much more than who has the good sense to have extra oil on hand — the wise — and who doesn’t have the good sense to have extra oil on hand — the foolish. We have to reach all the way back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to better understand this parable.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identifies the community’s mission. He says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” [Matt. 5:14-16]
The lamps represent the community’s mission task — to be the world’s light. But lamps that have run out of oil don’t shine any light whatsoever.
Darkness descended in Texas last Sunday. It descended in the form of a deeply troubled, angry, violent young man with a weapon more suited to a battlefield than the streets of a small town in America. The man used his weapon to cowardly shoot and kill 26 persons as they worshipped in the sanctuary of their church.
Where was the light last Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas? I wasn’t there so I can’t know for sure. Amid the carnage, it was probably very hard to see. It was probably there in the first responders. It was there in the actions of ordinary citizens who confronted the shooter. It was there in the gentle words of those who comforted the dying and the grief-stricken.
Where will the light be in the days to come? How might Christians provide leadership to a national conversation on gun violence? The degree and frequency of gun violence in our culture seems to be a uniquely American problem. I read one statistic from a reputable source that pointed out that though Americans are only 4% of the world’s population we own 42% of the world’s guns. These numbers at one level reflect the fact that we are a wealthy nation. But something else seems to be in the numbers. If they’re true, they are troubling and suggest to me a spiritual problem — Idolatry, perhaps? In what or whom do we really trust? Fear, perhaps? Aren’t people of faith also people of hope?
Once again, I’m not sure what the answer may be — I’m just a preacher — but I am sure that the answer isn’t the status quo, that is more of the same. And, as a Christian, I’m confident that people of faith have a contribution to make toward the solution. We have light to share and light to shine. Light that illumines. Light that enlightens.
In Jesus’ parable, the wise bridesmaids have extra oil. The extra oil represents faithful, active, obedient discipleship. This is the reason they can’t share it with the foolish bridesmaids. I can no more borrow your discipleship than you can borrow mine. That’s about as possible as me asking you to undertake a fitness and diet regimen on my behalf and me genuinely expecting its benefits. That’s ludicrous. It doesn’t work that way.
Wisdom involves cultivating one’s Christian faith and practice day in and day out over the course of a lifetime so that it’s there when the days are ordinary and routine but it’s there as well and especially when the days are extraordinary and beyond belief, perhaps even dark and hellish.
Today is stewardship consecration Sunday. I hope you brought your completed pledge card. If not there are extras in the pews. Or you can bring with you next Sunday or send it in this week. Thank you.
Part of our being the world’s light is being the world’s light together as a community which takes people and buildings and money. Your generosity makes it all happen. And your generosity is no small piece of your stewardship. Giving is one way we act wisely as Christians.
Many a religious thinker, including Jesus, has pondered what external behavior is the best measure of a person’s internal disposition — that is his or her heart or spirit or soul. In other words, what outward thing provides a window into what’s going on within us. It’s generosity. It’s what we give and how we give and it’s to what we give.