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"Be Ready"

Gathering on the Mount of Olives is important. The prophet Zechariah looks forward to a day when the LORD will stand on the Mount of Olives and be recognized as king over all the earth.[1] Those who knew their scriptures would have been waiting for that day, hoping for that day, counting on that day … and now it seems to have arrived!


Two chairs with the word 'Render' above it

Matthew 25:1-13

November 12, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


The scene has shifted. After weeks of texts that found Jesus at the Temple being grilled by the religious leaders, today we find him on the Mount of Olives. The previous chapter records him preparing his disciples for what will happen at the end of the week.


He says it will feel like the end of the world. He says there will be suffering. He says they will need to be watchful; to be ready. He tries to explain with a parable.


They are not ready to hear any of it.


They are still hoping that he will be the Messiah that generations of God’s people have yearned for, someone to deliver them from their oppressors.


You can’t blame them. God has made promises. So have the prophets. And they have been patient, waiting for deliverance from one foreign power after another.


Gathering on the Mount of Olives is important. The prophet Zechariah looks forward to a day when the LORD will stand on the Mount of Olives and be recognized as king over all the earth.[1]


Those who knew their scriptures would have been waiting for that day, hoping for that day, counting on that day … and now it seems to have arrived!


But Jesus does not talk of victory of Israel’s enemies. Instead, he tells another parable: the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom.


It is a strange story. The team looking at these texts all agreed on that.


We no longer expect bridesmaids to escort the wedding party with oil lamps.


Stranger still, we expect the story to be full of grace. But it is not.


Instead, it seems to be saying that admission to the party is linked to having enough oil – even if that means not sharing with others.


Anna Carter Florence tries to square this text with the rest of Matthew and cannot do it:


“[Earlier Jesus says,] ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven …,’ although [based on this parable he must mean] to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven.


Or ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear.’ [Wait. I guess he really means to say,] Worry about your oil; that's the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem.


Or ‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,’ … unless of course you're late [like in this parable] and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it.


Or ‘In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ In everything, that is, except oil, which changes all the rules.”[2]

 

So how do we make sense of this passage? Three observations:


First, this is not a parable about oil. I know that sounds strange because it seems as if the whole thing hinges on whether the bridesmaids do or don’t have enough. No, the point of the parable is about waiting when the bridegroom is delayed.


That’s important for Matthew audience who had been waiting for decades for Jesus to come back. It’s important for us, who have been waiting even longer.


It’s important because how we wait matters.


Let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about waiting in the traffic on MacCorkle going to Kroger’s, or to hear back from the doctor, or to get a text from someone you love, but the kind voiced by the psalmist: “Make haste to help me, Lord!” That waiting stirs up deep feelings you cannot control: a sense of powerlessness, a fear of the unknown, a worry that you are not ready to face what is coming, a soul-deep anxiety that God is absent and all your prayers are like spitting into the wind.


In the face of all of that, Kimberly Wagner prescribes the gospel spiritual “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Buring”. “Originally sung by African Americans suffering under the horrendously oppressive conditions of slavery.”[3]


For them the wait was long – as long as the wait for a Messiah – but they were encouraged to not give up hope. We all need to hear that. As the version in our hymnal, repeats, “Sisters don’t grow weary; brothers don’t grow weary; children don’t grow weary, for the time is drawing nigh.”[4]


In the meantime, live as Jesus directed: as salt and light, as those who love their enemies, as people who build their houses on the rock and are prepared to face the storms of life.


Matthew Skinner takes it further. He says, “We [Christians] forgive one another's sins, study scriptures, baptize people into a new identity, and share a meal to recognize the sustenance God provides. These things aren't mere rituals or time-fillers. They sustain us in Jesus' absence. They promote readiness.”[5]

 

Second, I think it is important that Jesus tells this parable during his own waiting period.


He has walked from Galilee to Jerusalem.


He has gathered disciples and taught, healed and inspired. Crowds welcomed him!


Others have opposed him at every step. Some are even plotting to kill him.


It will culminate in a few days after one last meal with his disciples.


But right now, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus is in the eye of the hurricane, waiting.


He knows all the steps that have brought him to this point.


He knows what will come. In fact, he has been trying to warn the others.


He knows that his heavenly Father will be faithful.


Still, in this time between times, his emotions must have been churning, at one moment wishing he could turn back the clock and at others, ready for it to all be done.


And it is in this moment that he tells this parable about waiting … and being ready.

 

Third, I want to caution you that this parable is not the end of the story.


The parable may not end the way you wish – full of grace and welcome and hospitality.


But I think Matthew spends the rest of his gospel revisiting and reworking the parable.


In the next chapter, after a final meal, Jesus takes his disciples to a garden to pray. He asks Peter and James and John to stay awake with him.


They fall asleep. (Just like the ten bridesmaids.) Worse, they fall asleep three times!


In the next chapter, after the trial and crucifixion, Jesus is placed in a tomb and the door is closed. (Just like in the parable.) It is final; it is foreboding; and nothing can fix it.


Unless you have been listening for the grace that is always there!


For in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel God opens the door and Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there to witness it! So never doubt that we serve a God who is full of grace.

 

For the kingdom of heaven is like this: ten, no eleven, disciples gathered in Galilee, hoping to meet the bridegroom. They did not have to wait long … though it seemed like they had been waiting all their lives. When Jesus appeared, just as the women reported he would, the disciples worshipped him, but some doubted. (It sounds like some were wise and some were foolish.) But Jesus told them all how to live the kingdom life and promised that he would be with them always.


And that’s how the story ends – with grace! Are you ready? Amen.


[1] See Zechariah 14:1-21, especially verse 4
[2] See Matthew 6:19ff, Matthew 6:25ff, Matthew 7:7ff, and Matthew 7:12ff
[3] From her commentary on the text for workingpreacher.org, 3/19/23
[4] See number 350 in Glory to God
[5] From his sermon “Since we have to wait, we’d better get to work” for the HuffPost Contributor platform, 11/4/14
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