Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
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“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the maidens woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The maidens who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:1-13)
Our reading this week offers me an opportunity to share something that has been on my heart for some time now.
The parable in our reading this week is unique compared to other parables in Matthew’s gospel in both subject and the language it uses. Absent from this parable is Jesus’ usual humor and hyperbole. The parable doesn’t critique those in power in the prophetic way most of his other parables do. There is no plot twist or surprise ending to leave listeners scratching their heads. The lesson is pretty straightforward and obvious: Be prepared. Those who are prepared go in. Those who aren’t prepared are left out.
This lesson repeats common universal wisdom, and it’s also quite apocalyptic. It sounds a lot more like it’s addressing issues existing in the Jesus community when the gospel of Matthew was written down than when the events in the story were taking place. In Mark, for example, when Jesus is approaching his trial and death, he tells his followers he will leave them and calls them to participate with him in the speaking out that will eventually get him killed. In Matthew, these closing parables beginning in chapter 24 are about being ready when Jesus returns after his departure, and it closes with the same words found at the end of the parable in Matthew 24:42:
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:42)
This apocalyptic theme reflects more the concerns of the Jesus community after Jesus’ death than it does the teachings of Jesus before his unjust execution.
This impacts how Christians follow Jesus, today. We’ll continue unpacking this and its implications for us in our context, next.
(Read Part 2)