November 12, 2017
Matthew 25 is the last chapter before the Passover comes and Jesus enters his final week in Jerusalem. Jesus appears to get less “nice” the closer he gets to his death. In the previous chapter He delivers these dire predictions about the days to come and the end of the world. Here, where we might expect Jesus to gently remind the bridesmaids to share with each other because there will always be enough lamp oil in God’s Kingdom, he delivers a stark and harsh message. If you don’t prepare and make sure you have enough oil to last, you will be shut out of the Bridegroom’s banquet. We want Jesus to be all forgiving and welcoming; but here he is slamming the door in the faces of people who profess to love him, just because of their absentmindedness and forgetfulness. Why is he so mean?
Jesus reminds us here that grace isn’t cheap. He is indeed all about acceptance, welcome, mercy, and forgiveness. But Jesus is not going to adapt the laws of nature and God to accommodate us if we have not taken him seriously and engaged in a discipline of repentance, that is, if we haven’t sought with all our heart to see our way of thinking and acting change. There is a certain quality of receptivity which is required from us. The classic example is Mary, when she agrees to the angel’s plan that she bring the Messiah into the world.
The fact is that we can still block and obstruct the flow of God’s grace into our lives and into our world through us. One of the ways we do this is by reducing discipleship to a personal hobby we do on the side but which does not transform our whole life. It is very easy to forget the magnitude and significance of what faith is about, and fall back into a complacent, unconscious, clueless, carelessness.
In Jesus’ parable, we find 10 bridesmaids waiting together for the bridegroom. (They are probably accompanying the bride, but she is not mentioned.) In this case the wait is drawn out, night falls, and the bridesmaids all fall asleep. The bridegroom finally shows up in the middle of the night. The bridesmaids awake and get themselves ready to escort bride and groom to the wedding, but half of them don’t have enough oil in their lamps to light their way. The other 5 have enough oil, but not enough to share without risking all the oil running out before the get to the wedding. The other 5 have to resort to the market in the middle of the night and find someone willing to sell them some oil.
The bridesmaids, all 10 of them, represent us, the disciples, the followers of Jesus, the people of God. The long delay could be this time of our mortal existence in the faith, when we remain in the world, but know that Jesus is calling us not to be of it. It is when we are striving to live according to values and practices that are completely out of synch with what is considered normal in society. It is the time in which we await and seek to resonate in advance with the fullness of the Lord’s appearance and reality to us. In other words, the situation of the bridesmaids is the existence we lead now.
The falling asleep is the encroachment of normal sleep-walking existence we all undergo, even as believers. None of us are fully awake to the Presence of the Lord while we are in this mortal/temporal life. But this is not a problem. All the bridesmaids fall asleep.
How do we awaken to the Presence of the Bridegroom in our lives and in our world? When do we hear the voice calling us, “Look! Here is the Bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”? In other words, when do we realize the truth that Jesus Christ is here, in our lives, in our world, in creation, with us, among us, around us?
I think that realization can and does happen at any time. For it is not Christ who is absent; it is we who are not recognizing him. It is we who forget that he is always here, and so stop seeing him.
Part of the purpose of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is this remembering of Jesus. In the Sacrament we are to bring back into our minds this fundamental truth of the faith, which is that Jesus is here, all the time. We just have to open our eyes and wake up to his Presence, in the same way that we discern his Body in the Sacrament — in the bread and the cup, in the gathering of God’s people, in the words of Scripture, even in the world.
What we do in the Sacrament is supposed to give us the tools to extend that interior way of seeing and perceiving outward into the rest of our lives. The whole world and all our experience becomes sacramental when we realize that it’s not just about this few moments around this table, but it is really about taking this broadened awareness away with you so that you begin to be awake to Jesus’ saving Presence in everything.
The parable goes on to focus on our capacity to respond adequately to his Presence. Do we have enough oil in our lamps to take advantage of those peak moments when we do finally get it? Do we have enough resources to be able to tell the good news of God’s love?
The “oil” that Jesus is talking about is the fruit of repentance in our life. That is, it is the love, compassion, blessing, and peace that comes over us when we engage in the life of transformation in Christ by the Spirit. It is the ability to trust in Jesus with our whole lives.
Can we keep the light of faith burning brightly all the while? Did we cultivate all along the new way of thinking and acting that repentance is about, thus building up a kind of reserve in our hearts to fall back on when we need it? Are we in the habit of living forgiving, welcoming, accepting, liberating lives in Jesus’ Name? Are we enough in the habit of repentance and discipleship, that our peak experiences don’t just quickly dissipate into forgetfulness?
Or do we find ourselves not in the Presence of the Lord Jesus, but stuck on line in exactly the opposite place: the market, where we are trying desperately to buy from someone else what we could have been generating for ourselves by our own faithfulness?
We will see in a couple of weeks, with the magisterial culmination of chapter 25 in the parable of the Last Judgment, where Jesus says exactly where we find his living Presence among us. He says we will find himself in the needy, broken, lost, and hurting people around us. Serving them is serving him. Becoming one with them is becoming him. His whole ministry is bookended by the lifting up of poverty of spirit, humility, gentleness, and grief in the Beatitudes back at the beginning in chapter 5, and the lifting up of the poor and the suffering at the close of his ministry at the end of chapter 25.
This is how the Bridegroom shows up among us. We see him in the people in need whom we meet in the course of our day. We perceive him as well in our own inner places of raw pain, loss, weakness, and vulnerability. Here’s how we will know whether we have oil in our lamp: Are we able to bring God’s light into others’ darkness? Are we able to be the light illuminating the way for love to proceed into the world, and into the lives of people?
Or are we still stuck at the store trying to buy it… which is not how we acquire it anyway? This only reveals that we didn’t know what the oil really was to begin with. If we imagined it could be bought at all, we have missed the point. This oil does not come through the machinery of the secular economy. We do not acquire it from dealers. It is more like the living water Jesus talks about: it wells up from within us.
For the oil only runs out for us if we block it by our hardheartedness, carelessness, and forgetfulness. If we show judgment and condemnation, if we cave in to our anger and fear, if we reject and exclude, we block the light that wants to shine through us into the world. If we are lost in selfishness and greed, that only sees others as means to accomplish our self-serving agendas, then our spiritual fuel is completely depleted, and we are only stumbling around in the darkness.
But if we live lives of compassion, following Jesus in generosity, humility, gentleness, and empathy, that oil will continually refill within us like the bottle that belongs to the widow in the story about Elijah. You’ll always have more than enough to light the way to Jesus’ banquet; you’ll never have to go to the store to buy for lamp oil. This kind of oil the store doesn’t carry.
In the end the foolish and late bridesmaids show up at the wedding with store-bought oil fueling their lamps, and they are not admitted. The bridegroom says he doesn’t know them.
The moral of the story, Jesus says, is: “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” It is an odd ending since all the bridesmaids fell asleep, and had they all stayed awake it would not have changed the lamp-oil situation at all.
It is more like he means “stay prepared. I may show up in your life at any time. Keep on being the light of the world as I called you. Realize that the oil I give you keeps flowing and replenishing the more you use it. This is the oil of compassion and justice, peace and love.”
This is our calling while we are waiting for the Bridegroom. It is to shine his light into the world in his name, so that when we see him, he may see and recognize us, and welcome us into his wedding banquet. And may we see him soon. In the faces of friends and neighbors, in the face of the beautiful and abundant creation, and even deep within our own hearts. May we hear the call, and go out to meet him with joy!