Matthew chapter twenty-five, is for me, at least right now, the most frightening chapter in the entire Bible. It is a chapter that irritates us in the deepest parts of our souls. It is a chapter that we have desperately tried to ignore. It is a chapter that challenges us to engage ourselves with the most marginalized members of our society. It is a chapter that requires a loving response from us toward those whom we have so comfortably learned to hate. But the most frightening thing of all in this chapter, is that we, who too often see ourselves as being paragons of faithfulness, are warned that we might suddenly and irrevocably discover that we have indeed, miserably failed the test of faithfulness in this life. This test of faithfulness, in which we are all engaged, has serious and frightening consequences for the life that is yet to come.
At the end of this parable, the foolish bridesmaids are confronted by a bridegroom who utterly and completely rejects them. There is no hint of forgiveness for their sin of being foolish. There is no sympathy for these poor young ladies who’ve run out of oil, and who have had to scramble all over town in the middle of the night, in what may or may not have been a successful search. The only thing that they hear from the bridegroom is a straight-forward, non-negotiable, denial of relationship. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” How frightening is that?
This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. I suppose that just about everyone wants to go to heaven. But while it is true that most people want to go to heaven, it is also true that not everyone is willing to develop the relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that will allow them to go there. And that’s really what this parable is all about. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus. It’s about knowing Jesus and being known by him.
There are ten bridesmaids in this parable. And right away, as Jesus is telling it, we learn that while all ten of these ladies appear to be bridesmaids, and that all ten of them have expectations of participating in the wedding banquet, that there is something that distinguishes them one from the other. Five of the bridesmaids are wise, and five of them are foolish. The foolish bridesmaids are foolish because they’ve not done much planning. They’ve got their lamps with them, they are dressed in the uniform of a bridesmaid, but that’s about it.
In ancient wedding traditions, the wedding ceremony actually got its start at the home of the bridegroom. The bridegroom’s family and friends would gather there, and then those folks would parade over to where the bridesmaids were staying. The bridesmaids would then join the parade, and the whole group would set off to go to the home of the bride, to pick her up, and then everyone would go to the actual wedding location.
But, for some reason, unexplained in this parable, the groom is late. In all of the weddings that I have performed, this has never happened, ever. Brides have been late, but grooms are Johnny on the spot. I think that some of them would prefer to spend the night here, just to make sure that nothing would impede their promptness. In this parable, though, the groom is the one who is late. Really late. Unreasonably late. This is the kind of late where everyone is wondering if he is even going to show up at all.
But at midnight, there is a shout. Someone has seen the groom leave his house. Get up girls, wake up! Get yourselves primped and primed, because the bridegroom is on his way! But now, there’s another problem. The foolish bridesmaids, who did not plan ahead, are running out of oil for their lamps. And so they appeal to the wise bridesmaids. It seems that the wise bridesmaids have somehow anticipated a delay in the arrival of the groom, and they’ve not only brought their lamps, but they’ve also brought along some extra bottles of oil.
Now, what was it, that made these ladies anticipate a delay in the bridegroom’s arrival? I really don’t know. I haven’t a clue. Jesus doesn’t say; and because he doesn’t say, we are free then, to make something up! Perhaps the groom was the kind of guy that was late to everything, and the wise bridesmaids knew this. And they said to themselves, This guy’s gonna be late getting to his own wedding, and so we’d better bring along some extra oil to get us through the night, if need be.
But far better than making something up, let’s think about what we do know. We know that our bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ, is going to be delayed getting here. This is the whole reason why Jesus is telling this parable. And history shows us that Jesus has been late getting here for more than two thousand years. We need to be wise bridesmaids. We need to be prepared to be doing ministry, no matter what time, or life brings us. And we need to be prepared now, and engaged in ministry now.
What is absolutely frightening about this parable is that the wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids. We all know that sharing is good. We’ve been taught that from the beginning.
And the request that the foolish bridesmaids make, seems perfectly reasonable. And the response from the wise bridesmaids seems completely unreasonable. Surely there is enough to go around for everybody! There seems to be no reason for the wise bridesmaids to be so selfish and so stingy! That’s just plain nastiness. We don’t tolerate someone who won’t share.
But in this parable, the time for sharing has already come and gone. It is too late to share. And it is too late to share, because the shocking reality is that the foolish bridesmaids are not really bridesmaids at all. They are, instead, impostors. Oh, they may look like bridesmaids; they may act like bridesmaids. They are, after all, even camping out with the bridesmaids, and they are wearing the uniform of a bridesmaid, but they are not bridesmaids. They are something else entirely.
And so when the crisis comes, their foolish becomes all the more apparent. They are not at all who they have pretended to be. And with great horror, they are realizing that their pretense has been completely unsatisfactory. And here is where we realize that no amount of shared oil is going to get them into the wedding banquet. The foolish bridesmaids do not really lack oil. What they really lack is a relationship with the bridegroom. And without a relationship with the bridegroom, there is no entry into the wedding banquet. The wise bridesmaids cannot share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids, because the wise bridesmaids cannot be their savior. There is only one savior, and he is Jesus, and salvation comes not by mere pretense, but rather by relationship.
And so the bridegroom says to the foolish bridesmaids, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” But really, couldn’t it also be very easily switched around to the other way? Couldn’t the bridegroom have said to the foolish bridesmaids, with grief and with sorrow and with tears in his eyes, “you don’t know who I am, do you? You never spent time with me, you never made the effort to get to know me. You don’t love me. Instead you wasted your time pretending to prepare for a wedding that will never happen. You didn’t want to be with me before the wedding, why do you want to be with me now? I can’t let you in, because you really don’t want to come in.”
In our Call to Worship this morning, we shared these words: “Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great.”‘
Jesus invites us now, to delight in a relationship with him. Jesus invites us now, to rejoice and to be glad. Jesus invites us now to love him, and to love the salvation that he so freely offers. Let’s delight in our Lord.
Let’s love him and know him. Let’s take the time, now, while we have it, to nurture our faith. Let’s never be so foolish as to neglect so great a salvation. When the crisis came, those foolish bridesmaids didn’t make it into the wedding banquet, because really, they never intended to go in the first place. Let’s intend to be there.