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Ready to Serve

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

November 8, 2020

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Matthew 25:1–13 (ESV)

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Last week we discussed the concept of staying focused and remembering. John was and is the disciple that Jesus loved, which is funny because Jesus clearly had close friendships with all the disciples. But there was something about John that exceeded the relationship of the others, it was set apart from the others, and it was unique to such a degree that the when the works of the apostles were brought together to compile what we know as scripture, no one thought it was odd that John was known in this manner. I have a theory as to why this is the case. I believe that John, who was the youngest of all the disciples, did not have as many distractions and opinions concerning life and lifestyle already developed prior to meeting Jesus. John was in all likelihood just coming into the age of majority, or just becoming a social adult when he was called by Jesus so the training and instruction that he received from the religious leaders in interpretation of scripture would have come not from the established religious orders, but came from Jesus.

The other gospel writers were attempting to provide a testimony of authenticity to people from a Jewish or Gentile perspective. There are several theories concerning the how and when the gospels were written. The one most scholars accept is that Mark was written first, then Matthew, then Luke, and finally John. When they make this proposal because most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke, so they assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a reference, but then there are things not included in Mark that are in the other Gospels where do these things come from? This has led the scholars to seek after a different gospel source that is not included in our cannon of scripture, a document known in academia as Q. The problem with Q is that people are looking at documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, which is clearly something that was written in support of Gnostic belief, and some over look things that are clearly not supported in the other Gospels with the hope that they would be the one to find Q. Maybe they will find it eventually, but there are other theories that can be considered.

Tradition gives a different perspective one that I think we should not discount. Tradition tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel account from a position like a scribe of the disciples, basically Matthew was the recording clerk. This means that church tradition suggests that Matthew wrote aspects of the gospel while Jesus was still walking among them and complied his notes together to form the Gospel message we read today. As the gospel of Christ was being shared to people outside the Jewish tradition of faith, Paul encouraged Luke to write the second gospel. This was written to give a broader testimony of Christ to those that did not fully understand the traditions of the Hebrew people. Now there were two gospel accounts being shared among the church. People were wondering, which was most accurate, so they asked to Peter to provide leadership and a decree. Tradition holds that Peter was the leader of the early church, that Peter was regarded as the first Pope. Peter looks at the writings of Matthew and Luke and begins to share his testimony of Jesus while he teaches out of both Matthew and Luke. This testimony is thought to have been a single sermon and Mark is thought to have taken a transcription of that sermon. Mark’s gospel account portrays Jesus as being constantly moving, because Peter was providing as many highlights as he could during one session of teaching.

This perspective leads us to consider Mark as a bridge between Matthew and Luke instead of the source material between the two. This also could answer why Mark does not go into much detail of the events after the resurrection because Peter felt that both Matthew and Luke together presented them fully. This bridge concept is why the Gospels are in the order they are in in scripture, if Mark were written first it would or should have been placed in the first position, but Matthew is placed first. This fourfold gospel theory says that Matthew is the first gospel, Mark is the bridge, then Luke.

Matthew was written to people of Hebrew influence, Luke was written to those more influenced by the Gentile world views, Mark was written to bring the two groups together. But what of John? John was not focused on the things that the others were focused on. He was not concerned with convincing people of different backgrounds; he was focused on Jesus because that was all he knew. And that is why the Gospel according to John has such a different tone than the others.

John encourages us to remember Jesus. Remember his life and what he taught. Remember his suffering and death. And most of all remember the hope that is given through his resurrection. All the gospels do this in their own perspective. They all tell us about Jesus’s life, suffering and resurrection. And that is what we have presented in today’s passage. Last week John encouraged us to abide, to stay undistracted, and to remain in the purity of Christ. And Matthew presents that same message in the teachings of Christ.

There were ten virgins, or bridesmaids, that took their lamps and waited for the bridegroom. We do not really understand much about the first century customs surrounding marriage. Often when we try to understand marriage customs through our own traditions and this skews our understanding. This is a problem because there are not many similarities between our marriage customs today in America and that of the ancient peoples. The first thing that comes to mind is that today we do not have dowries negotiated and paid, so at best we often see this as a wedding procession. If we were to study cultures that have dowries, we might have a greater understanding. In those cultures, the groom’s family will have a representative visit the bride’s family and this representative will negotiate for the groom. This process could take a great deal of time, and while those negotiations were happening, the bride and the groom were separated from one another in their proper houses waiting.

When the negotiations were finalized the families would make the proper transactions, and the groom would then call for his bride to be brought. He would send his men to the bridesmaids who were attending the bride and making sure she was cared for during the period of negotiation. The bride’s maids would then call the bride’s family together and they would then make their way to the groom’s house where the feasting and celebration would begin. The entire family would participate in this procession and once the doors were closed, they would not be opened again until the celebration had ended. This might sound odd to us that the gates would be locked and sealed, so to speak, but marriages were a big deal. Everyone wanted to participate in the festivities so they would secure the gate so that they could enjoy themselves without interruption.

I do not know if this is exactly what is going on in this story but there are aspects of this occurring in the story. And we do not really know how long these sorts of negotiations last, but once they start a union between the families happens directly afterward. There was not months of wedding planning, because that had already been taken care of during the negotiations.

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like this. I do not necessarily think that Jesus is saying that these property transactions are occurring or are proper in marriage, but I think he is using this process to illustrate the value God has for the world. This passage is often considered to being a testimony of the future second coming of Christ. And by thinking of it in that perspective it would explain why that second coming remains a future event. God is yet negotiating for the bride of Christ. The largest portion has already been paid, but some fine details remain. God values the bride as does the bride’s parents, so the process will continue until all is set.

Have we ever really considered that aspect when thinking of the second coming of Christ? Have we ever really thought that there is a reason that it has not yet occurred, and that reason is not because God love the world so much that he will not settle for anything less than the best?

This bring us to the bride’s maids, or virgins as the English standard version translates. This is the same word that is used while describing Mary before the birth of Christ. It is true that in most cases this word is used to describe maidens, or young women that have yet to be married. The maiden translation is usually how the word is translated, but virgin is also accurate. These young women are the friends the bride, friends that are of the same age and most likely unwed, because if they were wed they would no long be able to attend the bride due to the fact they would have a household to manage.

These young women were brought in early in the negotiations. They had been there all day, and now the story says that the day has passed and night is upon them. This tells us that this marriage is important to all involved.

Jesus tells us that there were ten young women present, attending to the bride. Ten bride’s maids. I do not know if I even have ten friends that would be willing to attend to my needs during something like this. Five of these bride’s maid were foolish and five were wise. This tells us a bit about humanity. As I considered this passage in light of marriage negotiations, I personally would not consider any of these young ladies foolish in a human perspective. They probably made their way to the bride’s house at around dawn, meaning the sun was rising or already up when they left their house. And Jesus tells us that all ten had lamps. This tells me that they all fully anticipated that the negotiations would take an extended amount of time, and they all came prepared to have light just in case. But only five of the women thought enough in advance to bring extra oil for their lamps.

The bridegroom was delayed, the negotiations continued well into the night. The bride had clearly fallen asleep or the bridesmaids would be fussing over getting her snacks or making last minute adjustments to her attire. Everything has been taken care of on the bride’s maid front, and they fall asleep. Then in the middle of the night they hear the call. They hear the cry from the bridegroom, and the procession is about to happen. They all start to stir; the women find that the oil in the lamps are exhausted so the five wise women quickly refill the lamps so that they can safely escort their friend to the feast. But the five foolish women do not have any oil.

I have often thought that this was a terrible story. Why would Jesus present the kingdom in such an ungenerous fashion? If we look at most of his teachings Jesus is telling us to share all that we have, to go the extra mile, and to not even think twice about it. Why then would he say that the kingdom is like a bunch of selfish bride’s maids that would not share their oil?

I think there is more to this store than meets the eyes. An oil lamp functions because the wick is saturated with oil, and it is the oil burning that keeps the light bright not just the wick. If the wick is dry the lamps would give no light at all and would be smoldering. Often the picture that comes to mind is that these women were carrying around a jug of olive oil, but we forget that commodities like this were not as readily available in ancient times as they are now. When Jesus says that they brought extra oil, they did not bring an entire jug. If they brought the entire jug, how would their mothers manage the house? They only had a finite supply and that would need to be shared with the entire household, not just for their lamps but also for the cooking. These wise women had just enough oil to saturate the wick enough to make the journey. They could not share, because the most important thing at that moment was providing a light so that the bride would safely travel. And if they shared there would not be a light to walk by. The only option available was for the five foolish women to hurry to purchase or to procure oil in some other way.

We can pull a great deal out of this passage. Oil is often used to symbolize the Spirit of God. They used oil in the temple to keep the menorah lit and providing the ever-present light of God in the temple. It is the oil that is celebrated in the feast of dedication that we know as Hanukkah. The oil that should have only lasted a day lasted long enough for the priest to complete the temple dedication services and bless more oil. So, the oil has a great spiritual significance in this story, but the focus of the story. The bride’s maids are.

Scripture and church tradition often speak of the church as being the bride of Christ. The church is the bride that is at the center of this story. The church is who is being attended by these bride’s maids and it is the church that the bridegroom is seeking and having his representatives negotiate for. The church is the bride. Not the building, but all of us. We are all the church we are all the bride. But we are also the ones that serve and attend to the needs of the church. When there is someone in need within the church, we as the bride’s maids need to make sure that need is fulfilled in some way. Our ministry is to serve the church. But God so loved the world that he sent his son not to condemn the world, but to save it. The church might be the bride, but the entire world is involved in the negotiations. We as the church’s bride’s maids should not only be concerned with the needs of those in this building but also with those that have never stepped a foot in this building. We should be concerned and doing all that we can to help the marginalized, neglected, and hurting people throughout our society. It is a massive undertaking. There is so much need right here in this community that it is more than we can bear, and yet God has his sights on the entire world how can we make any dent in that?

This is where the oil comes into play. We cannot give what we do not have, and we need to use what we have in service. There were five wise women and five foolish women. The five wise women had oil for their lamp, and the five foolish ones let their lamps go dry. The oil is the spirit, but it is also everything that we have available to us that can help share and spread the light of Christ in the darkness of the world around us. All ten of these women were friends of the bride, but when the bride needed them the most only five had something to offer.

We need the Spirit of God to fill the wicks of our lives, so that we can shine bright in the world around us. We need the Spirit of God to encourage and direct our lives, but we also need the willingness to move and serve. We need the willingness of each person within our community to do everything they can with what they have, to shine light, and this begins by slowing down and listening. Listening to what those around us are saying, listening to what God is saying, taking time to let the Spirit’s oil soak into our lives so we can bear light instead of holding out an empty dry shell of a lamp.

As we enter this time of open worship, I want us to consider our words and our actions. Have the words we have spoken during this past week been saturated with the light giving oil of God’s spirit or have we been distracted by the things of this world. As we listen to God’s spirit this morning, are we willing to do the things necessary in our lives to escort the bride of Christ to her bridegroom?

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