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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 11/09/2014

We’ve got three Sundays left in this church year and we will end it with three final parables from Jesus, the parables that make up chapter 25 of Matthew. This last part of the church year always moves into themes of judgment and end times and the second coming, themes which then overlap into the first couple of weeks of the season of Advent. That overlap of the old year into the new one or of the new one back into the old is worth noting though as we look at these parables because remember, in Advent the color of the paraments changes to blue which is a color representing hope and that’s an indication that even as we look at texts like these end of the year parables that can be somewhat scary sounding, hope, not fear, is the underlying theme.

In today’s parable, ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom. If you want to know exactly what they were up to I can’t tell you. There isn’t a lot that’s known for sure about wedding customs of that time but as far as I can tell it seems to have something to do with the bridesmaids as escorts for the bride as she waits for the groom to come and take her in to the wedding banquet.

The relevant point is that all ten bridesmaids took lamps but only five took extra oil. When the groom was delayed all ten lamps went out and they all fell asleep until the groom arrived at midnight. At that point, the five who brought extra oil could re-light their lamps and go in to the banquet. The five without oil couldn’t go in. They pleaded with the five who had it to share it with them, but they wouldn’t so they had to go buy some but by the time they got back, the doors were shut and they were denied entrance to the banquet. The punch line then is, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the time nor the hour.”

At first glance it seems harsh, being left out of the banquet for being a little late; not much grace in that. It makes you want to jump to their defense saying that if this is about judgment isn’t the failure of the first five to share worse than the other five being late? Shouldn’t those who didn’t share be denied entrance and be thrown into the outer darkness for their failure to show a little compassion? It’s a case where this part of Matthew doesn’t seem to jive with other parts like “Don’t store up treasures for yourself here on earth.” With this parable you would have to add “but make sure you’ve got enough oil or else you’re not getting in.” And what about the good old golden rule from Matthew 7, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This seems to say “Take care of number one and the heck with the others; they’re not you’re problem.” All of which is an indication that the parable must be about something else. You can be pretty sure your interpretation of any gospel text is wrong if it goes against the prevailing teachings of Jesus and that’s what this one does.

Another take on this parable and the two that follow is that they are not so much about those things we’ve thought they were about, they’re not primarily about judgment and the end times, in particular they’re not about the delay in Jesus’ return to execute judgment. Instead, they’re more like wisdom stories that offer advice on how to live wisely and along with that, they also offer caution concerning the consequences of not doing so.

That would put these parables more in the category of what you get in Proverbs in the Old Testament, except these are proverbs expanded into little stories but still for the purpose of instruction. Seen that way, this parable of the bridesmaids could simply come down to the old Boy Scout slogan of “Be prepared.” Whatever you’re doing, that’s always good practical advice especially being prepared for unforeseen circumstances like the delay of the bridegroom. But while I think that is part of what this is about, even more than “Be prepared,” I think it’s about “Seize the day.”

Some of you perhaps remember the Dead Poets Society movie in which “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day” was what Robin Williams as a young teacher was urging his students to do. What he was trying to get across was, this is the day you’ve been given, so take it seriously and study hard; take advantage of the opportunities because they may not come your way again.

The main issue in this parable isn’t about sharing and the focus isn’t really on judgment although both of those things are part of it; it is more about the day not seized. The five bridesmaids without oil were unprepared, that’s true. They didn’t do anything terribly wrong, but the consequence for their lack of preparedness was that they let the moment slip away; the door was closed and who knew when it would open again?

It happens; it’s probably happened to all of us. At the time Matthew wrote his gospel it had happened in a big way. The majority of people didn’t recognize the crucial moment that Jesus represented. They didn’t see that he represented an alternative way. The result was that despite the efforts of those early apostles who did proclaim the way of Jesus, fanatics like the Zealots set the political and religious agenda for the next decades of Jewish history with a call for violence against the Roman occupiers. The result was the destruction of the temple and large parts of Jerusalem. Things could have been different but it was a moment not grasped, a day not seized, and the moment slipped away.

You compare that though to what Martin Luther did. I was thinking that this parable would actually be a good Reformation Day text because Martin Luther did seize the day. He wasn’t the first one to raise questions about the practices and teachings of the church but those who came before him weren’t prepared to follow through with their challenge. Luther did follow through though, and history was changed. He was and always will be a controversial figure, but for the sake of the truth of the gospel, at great personal risk, he acted in the moment and seized the day. He enabled some changes, changes that had to be made, even if part of what happened was a division in which some, like the five bridesmaids, were left behind.

Those are major historical moments concerning a day seized or not seized and such moments still occur. More relevant for many of us though may be those times that we’ve been the bridesmaids who failed to seize the day because we weren’t prepared. A couple of weeks ago, out of the blue I got an email from Joe, an old college friend who I hadn’t been in touch with since we graduated 40 years ago. It was really good to hear from him and reconnect and I suspect at some point, our paths will cross.

The funny thing was though, about a month before that I had pulled out an old Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead and played it and I thought about Joe because back in the day he was heavy into the Dead. As I played it I thought, I should find his email and tell him; but I didn’t. For me the moment slipped away. For whatever reason though, Joe apparently had a moment that called me to mind, but unlike me, he seized the day, he acted on it. It’s not a big deal, not a great historical moment, just something that brightened my day, but don’t we all appreciate those little things? Plus I found out he’s still listening to the Grateful Dead.

“I’ve been meaning to go visit so and so in the nursing home but I just haven’t got there.” I hear that quite frequently. You know what happens though. Such people aren’t there forever and the moment has passed and it’s too late. Or have you had a time you were talking to someone who you know doesn’t go to church and after the fact you realize, “I could have invited him,” but the moment is gone because you weren’t prepared for it and who knows when it will present itself again. Or for younger people maybe you’re at school and someone is being picked on and you don’t do anything but think later, “I could have stepped in, I should have stepped in,” but it’s too late, the moment is gone.

The bad news is that that particular moment is gone and you can’t get it back; the good news is that there will be others. As I said, there is hope in these texts. We are given these moments, these hours, these days, we’re given opportunities to be the love of Christ for others, if we’re prepared. You don’t know the day or the hour the moment will present itself, but if you’re prepared you can seize the day. When you do, one way or another, I think you’ll find that a banquet will be waiting.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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