Scripture readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Ps. 78:1-7; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13 Sermon by Linda Rex from Matthew 25:1-13
Join the Party!
Our Gospel reading in Matthew 25 tells us the story of “the unfaithful servant.” It’s been interpreted in several ways—often in terms of a particular end-time point of view. But let’s see what it says when we view it through the “lens” of Jesus—considering both who he is (as Son of God and son of man) and what he does (his mission and ministry).
The wicked servant
The context of the story includes Jesus’ story (beginning in Matt. 24:45) that tells of a wealthy master who charged his lead servant to care for the other servants while he was away on a long trip. As the story unfolds we learn that the master apparently stayed away longer than originally planned and the lead servant not only did not care for the other servants, he badly abused them. When the master returned and discovered what had happened, he was furious. Instead of being faithful to the master by being loving toward the other servants, the wicked lead servant had shown himself to be an irresponsible, self-centered abuser.
The ten virgins
With that illustration in mind concerning faithfulness to Christ, Matthew takes us to Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins (beginning in Matt. 25:1). Five were foolish (like the wicked lead servant in Matt. 24) and five were wise. The occasion is the bridegroom’s coming—perhaps Matthew wants us to connect that with the return of the master in the previous story. All ten virgins have all they need to take part in the forthcoming wedding—all have been invited and thus included. All that remains is for all of them to go out to meet the bridegroom. That, of course, is not what happens.
The wedding banquet
In reading this parable of the ten virgins, Matthew likely intends that we do so recalling Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet in Matt. 22:1-14. Everyone in that parable who enters the wedding banquet comes in wearing clothing given to them, a practice that was common in that culture. However, one man in Jesus’ parable refuses to wear the garment he had been given, and so is not allowed to enter the banquet room. The point seems to be that our passport into the fullness of God’s kingdom (symbolized by the wedding banquet) is not about what we bring to the banquet, but about what we are given to wear and what we then willingly put on. It’s about the Lord’s provision—his righteousness, not our own.
In Ephesians 5:26, also using the analogy of marriage, Paul speaks of God’s gift to us as “washing with water through the Word.” The message is about purity, our acceptability. Rather than being the result of what we have done or what we are, it is a gift from God, given through Christ, to the church (Christ’s bride). We can be part of this wedding party because God the Father has invited us in and has given us the proper clothing (Christ’s righteousness) at his expense.
Thus Jesus challenges us to understand that our acceptability to God—our inclusion in his love and life—is by grace, not our own works or our own merit. In Christ, through what he has done, God has reconciled all people to himself, thus including them in his love and life. Because of Christ they have a standing invitation to the party. All are welcome to enter. All they need do is put on the wedding garments that the gracious father of the bridegroom has provided.
Back now to the ten virgins. We are told that five are “foolish” and the other five are “wise” (meaning “prudent”). The foolish ones, noting that they are short on oil to light their lamps and thus provide safe passage in the dark, are distracted from their journey to welcome the bridegroom. I think what we are to understand here is that their problem is being fearful and distracted—of thinking they needed to take things into their own hands and “get their act together” before seeing the bridegroom Theirs is a failure to trust the one who had invited them to take part in the wedding. How ironic that their concern about a little lamp distracted them from pursuing the Light of Life! I think we see here a metaphor for an issue all of us face—the tendency to become distracted by our own concerns, including getting our religious stuff right, and so losing sight of our relationship with God himself.
I’m reminded of when the prophet Samuel was still a child being tutored by Eli the priest. Israel went to war against the Philistines, and overwhelmed by the size of the Philistine army, the Israelites decided they would bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle as a sort of good luck charm. What was wrong with that? Well, first of all, God didn’t tell them to go to war. Second, they didn’t ask God his opinion—they were more concerned about having the ark present than about having God with them.
Ironically, the ark ended up in the Philistine camp, where the Philistines, acting as though the ark was Israel’s God, placed it in their temple to prove their god’s superiority. Well, you know what happened—the Philistine god kept “bowing down” to the ark. Yet Israel kept putting their trust in something other than God. How foolish!
Five foolish virgins
Back now to the ten virgins. The five foolish ones lacked the faith to believe that the bridegroom would accept them just the way they were—without oil in their lamps. Instead of proceeding into the wedding party, they felt they had to take care of what they perceived to be a more pressing need in order to be acceptable to enter the wedding.
Perhaps the oil in the parable represents the Spirit, but remember, the Spirit is God’s gift—not something we go out and shop for, and certainly not something we earn or deserve. Also, the Holy Spirit is not a magical talisman that we wear around our necks. Unfortunately, as Christians we often go looking for such things—we think if we have just the right religious practices or programs, we’ll have more of God. But that thinking is exactly backward—it’s not about us getting more of God, it’s about God getting more of us!
What about us?
So how much of us does God have? Are we willing to trust that he loves us enough—that even if we don’t have oil for our lamps—even if we’re somehow lacking (at least in our own estimation), we can still go right into the wedding. Why? Because we’re already acceptable in God’s sight. Indeed, in Christ, God made us acceptable. It’s about his works, not ours.
In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus said eternal life is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Eternal life is thus about truly knowing the Father and the Son in intimate relationship. Isn’t it ironic from that perspective that Jesus says to those represented by the five foolish virgins: “I don’t know you” (Matt. 25:12)? If they had really known the bridegroom, they would have known they didn’t have to go shopping for oil. They would have known that the bridegroom was all they needed. But they were foolish, and while they were out shopping, the five wise virgins went into the party. They knew and trusted the bridegroom.
It’s interesting that the bridegroom delayed his arrival. Many times God delays so as to see where our relationship with him really is. He did that with Mary and Martha on the occasion of the death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus delayed going to them because he had something he wanted to show them about his glory. So he stayed behind as Lazarus died and the sisters grieved. But then Jesus went to them, met them in their grief and heard their testimony concerning his ability to raise the dead. Then, in accordance with that testimony of trust in Jesus, as imperfect as it was, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.
Jesus allows things to happen in our lives where it seems to us that he delays his coming—but Jesus’ timing is always perfect, always for our good. And this is true when the topic is the timing of his return in glory. Look at all that is going on in the world. Lord, why are you delaying? Is that our complaint? Or do we know Jesus, trust him, and rely upon him to do what is best for all at just the right time?
It’s about trusting Jesus. Will we be about his business as faithful servants even when it seems he is delaying his return, or will we, in despair and doubt, abandon the calling he’s given us?
What will our relationship with the bridegroom be when he does return? Will we know him? Will he know us? Are we trusting him no matter what occurs in our lives even now? Are we walking every minute as though he is here already? Indeed, he is—through the Spirit. We don’t have to live as though he is absent—far away in some other country. He invites us into the party now—to live every moment in intimate relationship with him, talking to him, listening to him in quiet meditation, hearing his voice speak through his word and by his Spirit—hearing him guide us as we make decisions when we’re not sure what to do.
Each of us needs to understand we are cherished—loved by God. Christ has already declared us to be his beautiful, beloved bride. Our privilege—our calling—is to practice his presence; to glow with his glory. We do so by loving others around us with the love by which God is loving us.
Jesus is here—go in!
Yes, Jesus, the Bridegroom, is here, and he comes to us whenever we need him. And one day he will return visibly, in all his glory. Only God knows when. But when Jesus does come in that final and full way, the question will be this: where are we? Will we be out shopping—trying to make ourselves more acceptable, trying to justify ourselves? Or will we be right there with him; trusting him and him alone?
If we are trusting him, there won’t be much of a transition—we’ll already be living the way we’re going to live for all eternity. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to fear—we already have the relationship. We can just step into the party—just run to meet him. “He’s here! Let’s go!”
What about the closed door?
Though there is some vagueness concerning the closed door in this parable, we know that it’s not about whether Christ came, and it’s not about whether he offered salvation. He did. It’s there. He has given us his perfected humanity. But there comes a point where he invites us to receive it, to rely upon it, to live into it.
It seems that the closed door is a metaphor for Jesus saying to us, “Thy will be done—I give you what you’ve decided you want. You don’t know me—you don’t want to know me—so I guess I don’t know you.” In essence, Jesus is begrudgingly agreeing with the decision some have made in saying “No” to his “Yes.” Some close the door and then lock it from their side.
Scripture declares that because of who Jesus is as the God-man, and because of what he has done on our behalf, all people are included in God’s love and life—all are loved, forgiven and accepted, and all are invited to respond to God’s invitation to participate in an intimate relationship with him through the ministry of the Spirit, who leads us to respond, but never forces us to do so. We can choose to turn away. We can choose to refuse to enter the party. We can choose to shut the door.
The key to entering is not our perfection—it’s not about us getting everything right. It’s about saying “Yes” to the “Yes” God has already spoken, in Christ, to everyone. Saying “Yes” to God is about trust, not perfection. Aren’t you glad?
By trusting, we participate. By trusting, we enter in and are able to enjoy the party. By trusting, we are not distracted or discouraged as the time leading up to Jesus’ return in glory continues. We are enjoying his presence now and we are actively sharing in his work now. It’s our relationship with Christ that is in view here and we need to get our minds around the fact that Jesus wants a personal relationship with each of us. We’ve got to get beyond any thought that it’s about our works, our achievements, our righteousness. Instead it’s about trusting Christ, resting in him, enjoying him, sharing in what he is doing. Joining in the party—his party.
Thank you, God, for giving us your Son, and for giving us hope that is beyond anything we can ask or imagine. Forgive us when we make it all out to be some sort of magic formula, believing somehow if we get it right, you’ll be kind and forgive us. Grant us the grace to live and walk in awareness of your presence, for in you we live and move and have our being. You are our Father, our Brother, our Spirit of life and truth, our Comfort and Peace. You give us hope, you give us joy, you give us family, you give us friends, you give us beauty in this life—so many things. Lord, let us live in the joy and peace you intended from the beginning so when you welcome us into eternity, it won’t be different from what we’ve been experiencing all along—just more of it. We thank you this is true and possible through Jesus our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.