A common theme in the various commentaries I looked at studying the parable or story in Matthew all suggested that this is not a fun passage to preach. It appears to be a rather harsh judgment of the young women who failed to bring extra oil for their lamps. Not to take away from the clear focus of the call to be prepared, I'm going to suggest there is room for more judgments of the characters in the story.
Ten young women were waiting for the bridegroom. They all fell asleep. They all started the evening with sufficient oil in their lamps. The “wise” attendants could've shared some of the extra oil they brought. And where would they go at midnight to buy more oil? And what about the groom; why was he delayed and if he came that late, couldn't he have waited for all the bridesmaids to join the banquet? Lots of questions that leave us wondering about the interpretation of this passage.
Another point to be made is that these wedding participants can represent the church, made up of all types of different people. The bridesmaids were a mixed community who's common connection was that they all knew the bride. We as the church are a mixed community; our common connection is that we all know the Lord. But, again, not the point of the story.
As we seek to find the point, I want to turn our attention to the Old Testament lesson from the book of Amos. We don't read much from Amos, and what we read today is not very hopeful; as I said about Matthew's story, not a fun passage. As the gospel passage suggests the coming day of the Lord, the day of judgment. Amos warns the people to not assume that will be a good day. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone... went into the house and ... was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” Wow, like the bridesmaids locked out of the party, Amos suggests rejection and not joy in welcoming the day of the Lord. The God to whom we turn for comfort and grace and peace now sounds like a menace and not a savior. Isn't this the same picture of God we see in the gospel locking the door to the bridesmaids who were not ready? Where in these passages do we find the grace that I love to preach about? And where in today's world do we find pictures of God's grace? It seems so much easier to find the darkness Amos spoke of. We see violence and division; fear and anger; hopelessness and despair. If we thought the election was going to bring the answer, we know that is not the answer. If we thought the stock market's climb is the path to security and peace, it's not. Are protests or court cases or elections ever going to bring in the day of the Lord? No. But does that mean all is hopelessness and meaninglessness? And I don't thing you'd be joining worship if you believed that.
So what are we to do with the “bad news” in today's readings? Why are such stories included in our lectionary? Because sometimes we can get complacent with our understanding of God's grace. The message of Amos is that God take sin very seriously. The message of Matthew's is that we are to take the Lord very seriously. We cannot take the love and care and grace and mercy of God for granted. In fact, that is the main point of today's readings. Complacency when waiting for the bridegroom caused the foolish women to be locked out of the party. Complacency by the worshipers in Amos' time caused God to bring those words of judgment.
Amos gave us God's thoughts on the worship of the people, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.” God did not want meaningless ritual, God wanted, God wants hearts of worship and lives of action. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Professor Layton Williams comments on the Matthew passage and these words are especially fitting in our current environment, “As the world continues to be upended and uncertain, we are left to muddle along as best we can, cycling through brief and bright moments of resilience and hope in between longer slogs of impatience and frustration. (The parable) seems far from the notions of grace and mercy and inclusion that are so often present in Jesus’ teachings. Certainly the last are not first in this story, and that makes it a hard one to wrestle with on a good day in a good season, much less in this pandemic year.”
But we are called to wrestle with it. What is the point of today's readings? It is not to judge the wise and the unwise. It is not that life is hopeless and God is a cruel judge. It is not that only those who have the proper supplies, proper doctrine, proper rules will be invited to the banquet. It is not that the Lord tarries in order to catch some unaware and charge them with eternal judgment. Jesus gives us the main point in the last line of his story. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And of course we realize he doesn't mean literally stay awake, but that we should be ready for the day of the Lord. And not just the day of the Lord as in judgment day. Be ready for how the day of the Lord can come in the ordinary, everyday things of life. Are your “lamps” filled? In other words, are you ready to serve when called upon, are you awake and aware of needs that you may encounter as you live your life? Williams gives us a better list than I'm coming up with: “Are we giving ourselves rest and care so that we have the energy to care for others? Are we continuing to develop and grow spiritually so that we are ready to do the work when opportunities arise? And how are we helping others store up and prepare as they need to? How can we wait together well?”
That's the main point of all this; be ready to serve as we live life in this in-between time. Jesus has established the kingdom, we are living in the day of the Lord; but we also wait for the great and glorious return of Jesus where he will establish his eternal rule in a kingdom of love and peace and joy. A world where justice and righteousness will prevail. But we don't wait passively. We wait expectantly and actively. We wait by showing others the grace and mercy we have received. We wait by serving others as Christ served. We wait by making our worship sincere and involved. And we wait in hope, because Jesus did bring us a message of grace, we are saved by grace and we trust God's word. Jesus calls us just as we are, but our message today is that we aren't to be complacent. We are to use this time waiting wisely; serving, loving, feeding, growing, sharing, worshiping. But with the driving motivation that all we do, we do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. For it is in him we have all hope, we build our faith on the solid rock which is Jesus. Amen!
Hymn: In Christ Alone