The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, once observed ruefully, “Christ turned water into wine, but the Church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.”
I thought of that quote while pondering the three parables of Matthew 25 which will take us into the end of the Church Year. Jesus’ parables are very fine wine, created out of the simple, water-like elements of everyday life. Sometimes those parables only hint at the multitude of flavors within. Sometimes the parables resurrect one’s taste buds into a whole new existence!
But then, along come us preachers who turn Jesus’ wine into flavorless water by explaining the parable to death. It’s like explaining a joke; it kills the humor. So where Jesus is subtle, the preacher turns Him into the subtly of a Mack truck. Where Jesus is hard as a sledgehammer, the preacher softens Him to bland inoffensiveness. Where Jesus is hyperbolic, the preacher diminishes Him. And where Jesus refuses even to snuff out a smoldering wick, the preacher huffs and puffs and stomps that wick into oblivion!
The parables of Jesus are many things…but they are never dull. That they should ever be deemed so is often the handiwork of the preacher. So…having painted myself into a corner, what now?
Well, take our parable today, the first of the three in Matthew 25: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. And what do we zero in on most often? Those lamps and their oil…or lack thereof. Jesus tells a parable about wise and foolish virgins, and we preachers talk about oil. Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull!
Soon the preacher sounds like a mother talking to a child before a long trip in the car. “Did you use the bathroom? We’re not stopping along the way! Make sure you use the bathroom before we go!” “Make sure you have enough oil in your lamp before you die! You don’t want to depart this life without enough oil! It will be too late to get the oil when death knocks at your door!”
And…depending on the tradition of the preacher, that oil is faith or good works, or both, for good measure! “Make sure you have enough faith before you die!” “Make sure you have done enough good things before you die!” “Yeeeees mom…” And Jesus’ curious parable dies a thousand deaths.
This parable is not about the oil and the lamps, it’s about those girls. Ten of them, five are foolish and five are wise. And the parable is annoying!
Yes, five of those bridesmaids were wise enough to have the oil to keep their lamps burning, but where is the so-called sisterhood? “We are woman, hear us roar!” Aren’t women supposed to be more empathetic and relational, more inclined to share than their male counterparts? But the wise five turn on their foolish sisters. The wise are immediately more interested in protecting their own precarious social standing than in risking that standing by helping their foolish sisters.
And from experience, one can’t help but imagine that if those wise virgins have turned on their sisters, they’ll go on to get all catty and cruel. Not only do they refuse to share their oil with the other five, but you can imagine them going into the reception and dance laughing and gossiping about those other girls who were cast out into the darkness. And in the bright lights of that party they preen and dance away in the self-righteousness of their own virtue.
How could Jesus tell such a story? Well, male preachers might. After all, contrary to the Bible, men have spent millennia telling women how they should behave. But this is Jesus! Shouldn’t His parable have a better ending? We can help Him!
You know…the wise, in love for their sisters, share their oil. And, yes, then no one has enough, but the bridegroom (the Jesus character in the parable) welcomes them all anyway…because that’s the sort of thing Jesus always does! After all, the kingdom has no lack of anything, and everything gets multiplied in the kingdom when you share it with your neighbor.
In the kingdom the foolish become wise and the wise humble themselves to do the foolish thing, sharing their oil (as in the 3rd parable) with whoever needs it because they see the Bridegroom Christ in the face of their foolish sisters. After all, even though the others ran out of gas on the way to the reception, they know how to kick up their heels, so the Bridegroom tells them to stick around. Cue the music. Raise a glass. Happy kingdom of heaven ending! Except…that’s not the parable Jesus tells.
The parable that Jesus tells here is a warning…not to the world, but to us, His disciples. Oh, indeed, His parable is vastly more friendly and cast into a homier image compared to the prophet Amos. Amos thunders away, “Woe to you who desire the Day of the Lord! Why would you desire the Day of the Lord?” “OK…sorry I asked.”
But Jesus’ story is every bit as hard. It says two things. The Bridegroom is coming. But you can’t know when. So speculation is futile. Preparation is crucial. “Oy…here comes the oil!”
Au contraire mon chéri! Preparation is not something we do. It’s who we are…who we have become. It is sooo easy to turn the moral of this story and the next two into something like: Jesus is coming. Look busy. “Pump up that faith; pile up those good works!” But the preparation for this Bridegroom’s arrival is not busyness. It is crucial. “Crucial” from the Latin crucis…[of the] cross.
You can get busy and sing “Lord, Lord” while swaying to the strains of “Kumbaya”…but that doesn’t get you into the marriage feast. You can run around piling up good works faster than celebrities change spouses…but that doesn’t get you into the feast either.
It’s the Bridegroom who gets you in. The crucial Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Crucial. Which means…there is a cross to bear, there is time that must pass before the Easter feast…before the Bridegroom’s big day. And foolish are the bridesmaids…foolish are we…who underestimate the weight of that cross…who misjudge the length of the waiting.
So when in the parable Jesus says , “Watch,” He doesn’t mean “get busy”! His word invites, “Watch…Me!” Because after this parable comes the crucifixion. After the crucifixion comes the days of waiting. The foolish disciples, both the men and the women, woefully underestimated that cross. They all forgot what Jesus said about the waiting. Fear and suicide touched the fellowship. But then came the Day of Easter’s feast. The Bridegroom awakened, resurrected. Only then does the lamp go on for those disciples.
So Jesus’ parable is an important warning for us who are Bridesmaids of the Lamb, dressed in the white robes of His righteousness by Holy Baptism. It is a warning for us. By this parable Jesus asks us, “What did you think being Christian would be? Easy? No difficult decisions to make? Without moments of doubt or uncertainty? No troubles? A smooth, entertaining path to heaven?” “No!” He says. “Look at the cross. Look at the waiting days.” “But fear not,” He says as well. “Fear not, for I have overcome both the cross and time. And in Me, so too will you.” “In Me, so too will you.” Wise are they; wise are we who watch…who watch Him!