Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon: Not Enough Oil

Matthew 25:1-13

If you have ever read a bible passage and had as many questions after reading as you did when you started, you aren’t alone. Today’s parable from Jesus can leave us with lots of questions. The thing with parables is that they are teaching tools, to start discussions – they are not meant to be exact replicas of reality. So there are always ways that the parable is going to be like the kingdom of God and ways that it isn’t.

For example, in the parable of the bridesmaids and the oil, the wise bridesmaids refuse to share, and because of that the foolish bridesmaids are locked out. Does that mean in the kingdom of God sharing is bad? No, of course not, in kindergarten we are taught to share with others. It is one of the most important things that we can do. And other places in scripture affirm that, even the parables that Jesus tells right near this one in the bible, but in this story something else is happening. The point isn’t about not sharing. So what is going on here?

One thing that might help is to know that the word bridesmaid is really deceptive, the actual word means a young unmarried woman. So what we have here are 10 young unmarried women waiting for the groom.

So this could be a story about competition between the women to see who would get to marry the groom. Which explains their unwillingness to share – The stingy one won’t share with one who didn’t plan well, because then she might not end up getting married. They are rivals for the affections of the groom.

But again that is not what the kingdom of God is like. We are not in a competition with each other for God’s attention. God isn’t going to pick just one of us, but invites a whole multitude. So why would Jesus compare people seeking God with a group of rival women competing for a husband? It sounds like a bad comparison.

One possible explanation is offered by the Jewish Annotated New Testament. It reminds us that in Jewish tradition, oil is often a metaphor for righteousness or good deeds.

So it may very well be that Jesus is telling us to make sure that we have filled the lamps of our lives with the oil of good deeds, so that when the groom comes we can show just how brightly our lives burned. But that still makes it sound like there is a competition in life and that some of us have done enough good deeds and others haven’t. I think it lends itself too easily into the mistaken idea that we must do a certain amount of good deeds in order to get into heaven. Plus, how many of Jesus listeners would have been able to catch that symbolism?

While I was thinking about all of this I ran into that interesting retelling of the parable, that was read for you; where the planners and the last minuters are attending a protest.

This retelling reminds us that it isn’t the idea of sharing or not, and it isn’t that there is a competition to see who can meet with the mayor – the issue is whether or not the people were prepared for the long haul. Were they ready for whatever the situation called for? Pure and simple. I think what Jesus was trying to get his listeners to be ready, they don’t know the day or hour when the bridegroom will come. That’s the point. Ignore the other stuff, it just gets in the way.

So I think Jesus is trying to get us to think of ourselves as young women, who very much want to impress a young man, and you don’t know when he is going to arrive. Clearly, the bridegroom is the Christ, the messiah, and Jesus is telling them, they never know when the Christ may come, and they should be ready. (The irony is that he was sitting there with them at that moment as he taught this – and some of them were clearly didn’t realize it). Consider what he must have been thinking and feeling as he said to them, “Keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.” Perhaps he smiled, perhaps he shook his head sadly as he thought, “Some of you don’t even realize the bridegroom is here. You aren’t ready, and soon it may be too late.”

In the little book, Laughter in Appalachia, Fred Park of Berea, Kentucky tells a story about a man named Quill. Quill lived way back in the woods where he hunted and fished all the time. Quill didn't pay any attention to the hunting seasons or laws or anything, and he knew the woods better than the game warden.

The game warden had been trying to catch Quill for a long time. Today was the day. He knew Quill would be up early to go fishing. So the game warden sneaked down there in the middle of the night and hid on top of Quill's house. This way he knew he had the jump on Quill. He'd let him head out and then he'd follow him. His plan was to hide in the woods until Quill had caught a large, illegal bunch of fish, and he'd catch him.

As it started to get a little bit of daylight, the game warden could hear Quill get up, start a fire, and put the coffee on. His stomach started growling at the smell of that coffee and those fresh smelling biscuits as they baked in the oven. He could hardly contain himself. Suddenly out walked Quill on the porch and hollered, "Come on down here and git some of this coffee and biscuits while they're hot! I know you're out there!" He went back in and shut the door.

The game warden could not believe it. He climbed down and walked up on the porch and into the house and exclaimed, "Well, how did you know I was out there?"

Quill said, "I didn't. I walk out there and say that ever morning, just in case ye are!" Quill may not have been a genius, but he knew enough to take precautions. He was ready![1] That is what Jesus is telling the people there sitting with him. “Come on down here. You should be looking every day for the Messiah, expecting him to be with you. Because you never know he might be out there in the woods, and if you aren’t ready you might be in a heap of trouble.”

But what does the story mean for us, who live in the days after Christ has come? Many think it is referring to Christ’s second coming, and being ready for that. But I wonder about that, because that certainly isn’t what he was thinking of when he shared it with the people sitting around him. He was there, then.

Rather, I think the message for us today has more to do with how we live our lives. Like young women wanting to impress the groom, our love for God should have a sense of eagerness of being in God’s presence, we should have a sense of striving our very best to please God.

After all, if you want to impress the handsomest hunk, you do everything possible to get ready. You don’t do it half-heartedly, and you certainly don’t wait until the last minute.

You still should be living every day with the expectation that you will meet the messiah, you might see him in the face of a person who is suffering, you might find yourself on your deathbed, perhaps he will come again in the clouds tomorrow, whatever the method of meeting him, you should be living with the expectation of it happening at any time. So you should be trying to impress God.

Here Jesus is not telling us to compete with our neighbors and try to keep them from getting into heaven, nor is he telling us that God is measuring the oil of our lives and will judge us based upon our works. No, it is more likely Jesus is telling us, be a like a young girl waiting for her boyfriend, be so in love with God that you are doing everything you can to show it, so that when the day comes that God calls you into heaven, your light is bright for all to see.

Of course, there is one other possibility. And I save this for last because it is so counter to our normal reading of the passage. What I am saying here will make more sense over the next couple of weeks as we look at the next two parables of Jesus.

But it is possible that Jesus is actually critiquing the women who won’t share their oil. The bridegroom has been sighted, he is right there before them. How much oil do their lamps need? Honestly, not much, just enough to burn for a short time. If they had shared their oil, everyone would have gotten in. Jesus may be critiquing those who are afraid to be generous, whose selfishness prevents others from getting to see the Christ. This is an interesting twist that Jesus may have hoped would come out in discussion as they talked about the kingdom of God. So I would add it as a second thing to consider, after first reading it as a reminder to prepare ourselves, read it also as a reminder to help others prepare themselves for God as well. They also need oil for their lamps, and quite honestly you have it. The message of God’s love is that oil, give it to them, so that they can enter in as well.

[1] Laughter in Appalachia by Fred Park

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