The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s065g08 Sunday 32 9/11/08
'all became drowsy and slept' Matthew 25.5
It is interesting that the final public injunction of Jesus: 'Keep awake', obviously means something other than making a cardinal virtue of insomnia, for all ten of the bridesmaids slept, both the wise and the foolish. This injunction, being the last public saying of Jesus, is obviously important, for it is paralleled in Mark (13.37) and Luke (21.36) and in both accounts is followed by the plot to kill Jesus (Mk 14.1f and Luke 22.1f). The trilogy of parables of judgement in Matthew 25 are followed by the plot to kill Jesus (26.1). The sleeping bridesmaids are accepted, ordinary sleep is a normal part of life.
In the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11.11, Jesus uses the term to denote death, so the injunction to 'keep awake' could actually mean 'keep alive'. It is significant that the raising of Lazarus is followed by the plot to kill Jesus (11.45).
Sleep is one of the few things we do alone. We drift off into our own little world, and those who are sound asleep we say are 'dead to the world'. So if we are to be awake we are to be in this world, alive to and rejoicing in the existence of others. So if we go off on our own little religious journey, like the sheep that leaves the 99 to be by itself, we are asleep, we are dead to those God puts around us. And it is a bit hard to celebrate one's own existence by oneself. One doesn't need a lot of oil to light up the night when one isn't with others. But those who are awake to others fill their lamps regularly, for they don't want to miss any opportunity for a celebration. One gets oil by being a part of a community. It is a bit hard to get oil when one is alone in a self-imposed exile from society.
We come to the end of Jesus' public ministry of teaching with these three parables of the kingdom in Matthew 25. After this we turn to Advent and the narrative of the proclamation of John the Baptist, leading up to the celebration of the birth of the Saviour. But chronologically what followed Matthew 25 was the last week of Jesus' life (primarily with his disciples), his arrest, trial, death and resurrection.
As I looked again at the three parables, put together because we are meant to see the similarities and the differences between them, it struck me how each of the criteria for entry into the kingdom is what happens in this life.
In the first the wise bridesmaids have lived a life of being in the real world not secluded away. In the second, the servants have used their talents amongst others rather than hidden them away. In the third, the ones who are commended are those who have been charitable to those around them rather than ignoring the needs of others.
It seems Jesus might be at odds with St Paul's justification by faith and not by works!
And, as I have said before, there are three parables of the kingdom, not just one. So there is more than one way into the kingdom not just the Anglican way, or the Catholic way, or the Evangelical way, or the Charismatic way, or even the Via Media :-)!
We believe in a God who arranges for as many people to be commended and included as possible. This is a statement of faith and it defines how we live in this life. We do not believe in a god who criticises and excludes as many people as possible.
The foolish bridesmaids separated themselves from others in this life, because they thought that this is what would make them accepted over others. But status doesn't gain us acceptance into the kingdom. There are many who don't find a home in our worship who will welcome the marriage feast. In the second parable, the one who thought that the master was harsh, simply returned his talent to the master. He didn't use it. Isn't it interesting that the ones who proclaim a harsh god are the religious? They discourage people using their talents! Often I think some 'christians' want newcomers only to admire what already exists, not use their talents which will change something or even may eclipse **their** contributions. Most people, even those professing no faith, given the opportunity, try to use the talents they have been given for the mutual benefit of all. In the third parable, many people who don't profess any form of religion and faith still exercise charity towards those God puts around them. It was precisely the ones who knew what the 'King' looked like, and didn't see the King in their neighbours and so neglected to help them, that find themselves 'on the outer'.
It is precisely this acceptance of all that is (again) the scandal of the Cross.
And because it is about what happens in this life and no alteration is permitted in the next, we make heaven here on earth or not at all. We make heaven here on earth by acting like the wise bridesmaids who were always part of the real world; we make heaven here on earth using our talents in society; we make heaven here on earth by being charitable towards those around us. There is nothing in the next life to save ourselves up for. And none of these is about going to Church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or bible study. They are **all** about being part of this world, joyfully and happily, not separating ourselves off from it.
Some people, not unnaturally in these financially chaotic times, wonder if we are living in the 'end times' when all will be wound up. In one sense I don't know, for it is not given to anyone to know the times or the seasons. Yet as I thought about this, I was struck with the words of the wise bridesmaids to their foolish companions: 'you had better go to the dealers'. Clearly the dealers still existed, and were not at all 'out of reach' of those invited into the kingdom. There is no gulf between now and then. The words are strange, for the foolish are instructed not to go to Temple, synagogue, church, mosque or sacred space they had done enough of this in their lives already! They are instructed to go to the marketplace and avail themselves of the produce of often foreign and unclean traders! The 'end times' are no different from now or ever. The similarities between the three stories become even more stark. We make heaven here on earth by our association with others, foreign and unclean traders, next week in the hurly burley of commerce even to depositing money in order to receive interest, and then in the third week in our helping those around us whoever they are.
And I began to wonder at the initial request of the foolish bridesmaids: 'give us some of your oil'. At this particular stage they were unaware that their tardiness might mean their exclusion. They wanted others, they considered unclean (because they were used to regularly avail themselves of the often foreign and unclean traders) to share with them, so that they could remain untainted. But untainted they could not remain, and off they have to go.
So there are some things that we cannot share no matter how charitable we might be. This points to the reality that the oil is symbolic of a preparedness to live amongst others. The wise bridesmaids refuse to share their oil. They realise that giving of their stocks would mean that the foolish would not appreciate the joy of the kingdom, the living in the world with others. The foolish are those who have lived in their holy huddle excluding others with distain. Their request was another attempt to avoid joining in society as it really is.
So 'no one comes to the Father but by me' does not mean becoming a card carrying, baptised, confirmed, communicant 'christian' or else you will go to hell when your life is over; but joining Jesus among the ordinary people of this world, here and now. For as I say time and again, it is for this reason, those who separated themselves off from the world had him killed.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"