Let us pray:
In the divine silence of our souls, help us, O Lord to discern the calling of your voice, that we may be obedient to your will for us in this time and place, now, in the midst of the ongoing genesis of your Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.
One of several accepted strategies for analyzing Matthew’s Gospel is to separate it into five main discourses, or teachings, that Jesus presents. As we prepare to wrap up this year’s focus on the Gospel of Matthew, lectionary passages for the next three Sundays focus on material from the fifth discourse: concluding with Christ the King Sunday, November 23rd.
In the three-year revised common lectionary cycle, during these last Sundays exploring the Gospel of Matthew, the organizers have chosen to focus on the Kingdom of Heaven yet to come; thematically these Sundays are called the Reign of Christ. I’m curious about another question, however. What was it the writer of Matthew wanted to share with his original readers with this fifth discourse? Matthew wrote with intentional organization, presenting select apocalyptic material concerning Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us. I confess, it is somewhat troubling to me as Jesus speaks of the end times and his eventual return.
Let me take you back to the first section of the fifth discourse to set today’s passage in context. We find in 24:1-3, the following conversation:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
That sets the stage for the fifth discourse, a second “sermon on the mount” of sorts, where Jesus teaches his disciples in private what some of those signs will be…most importantly, he teaches them time and time again to be watchful, for the actual time of his return is unknown even to himself.
In today’s passage he is still answering the same question. He begins, “The Kingdom of Heaven shall be like….” This is a different Greek phrase than what we have been hearing in parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. Many of the other parables Jesus spoke concerning the Kingdom begin with the phrase: “The Kingdom of Heaven IS like….”
Through the years, there have been many commentaries and commentators who have speculated on the nature of today’s parable, and why it begins with the future tense. Are the ten bridesmaids the ten tribes of Israel, minus two lost tribes? Are the ones with lamps and extra oil Christian believers and the ones with lamps but no oil others? Or, is it about gentile believers and Jewish believers? After all, if you recall, Matthew was written for a Jewish Christian community. There are still, to this day, Jewish brothers and sisters who are waiting for the Messiah to come.
All of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe in the Messiah, and that the Messiah will come, most Jews believe that arrival has not yet occurred, while Christians believe it was indeed Jesus who was the Messiah; and from this side of the last 2000 years, we interpret some NT scriptures about his coming to be about a Second Coming. Such is the case with this portion of the Gospel of Matthew. So here is our Lord Jesus, the one who will reign on high, telling us about the end of the age and the new age to come where he will come again as king to claim his own and rule over us with love and light, justice and might, turning our weeping into joy and our emptiness into fullness – after all, isn’t that what wedding banquets are all about?
Isn’t that good news! Indeed it is; but there is a warning here as well; we would be wise to take the part of the bridesmaids who brought their extra jars of oil: For the waiting may be extended, and our King may be delayed in coming. Do we lounge about and wait doing nothing? By no means! Both in today’s lesson and the next two lessons to come, the underlying urgency is not about the content of the parables, in this case bridesmaids and the bridegroom, but the meaning behind what happens with those who are prepared and those who are not.
We would be wise if we were to be prepared; there is troubling symbolism embedded in this parable for those who are not prepared: a shut door. While I don’t want to take analysis of every aspect of the parable too far, I do want to draw your attention to what the shut door could represent. When the foolish bridesmaids are sent off to get more oil, the others who have been prepared remain. We know what happens in the story: while the foolish are gone the bridegroom arrives…and shuts the door, leaving those on their errand for extra oil out in the dark!
They do return, but the wedding feast has begun and no others are admitted, even if they were originally a part of the wedding party. This is confirmed with the bridegroom’s troubling response when the foolish ones knock and ask to be admitted. He calls through the shut door, “Truly I tell you I do not know you.”
Let me turn this parable around, upside down, and on its head just for one speculative moment. I wonder, if through the eyes of a Rabbi, the bridesmaids who have left actually might be Christians, and the ones who stayed waiting and prepared might actually be the Jews, still waiting for their Messiah to come? That is a frightening thought. Have we, as Christians, been unprepared all these years for the coming of the Messiah? What would that mean for us when he comes?
However we interpret this parable, I know one thing for sure. I would not want to be one of those shut out; especially if we are talking about a Heavenly Kingdom; one that will extend forever and ever and have no end. The shut door troubles me, and I would hope troubles you as well. Isn’t God about love? Isn’t our God a God of a second chance? Isn’t Jesus the one who lived, died, and rose again for us, that we might rise out of our lifelessness to live again with him? Yes, O Holy God I pray, yes! Then why this warning? And what does it mean to be prepared for the wait? What does being prepared for that delay look like? Does today’s text gain authority or lose it as we enter a third millennium of waiting?
Friends, here is a kernel of hope. Studying the Gospel of Matthew this year, we heard parables that began with “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” and now we have heard a parable that begins with “The Kingdom of Heaven shall be like.” What I hope we can learn form this is that the Kingdom of Heaven is both now and yet to be fully realized. We are living in that time between the times; which means there is still time to make ready and be prepared, no matter who we are. As Commentator Mark Douglas points out, the text is asking readers to wait, yes, but also to avoid assuming that we already have enough oil in our lamps: oil of knowledge, faith, love, kindness and compassion. He writes:
Against claims that there will be nothing new under the sun, that we live in the last age, and that from this time forward it is only a matter of our working out the niceties of how to live in the kingdom that is already here, the text reminds us that this is not as good as it gets, … that the party will not really start until he arrives. It asks us to live in hope for what has been promised and what will be but is not yet. It reminds us that knowledge, faith, and love are tools for living in the time before eternity, not tools to gain entrance into it. [After all] there is already more than enough light at the banquet. 
May the winds of the Holy Spirit kindle the embers of our hearts into flame, and may all glory be unto God and unto the one who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).