Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:1-13

Weary in Waiting 

Last Sunday we made the church the theme of our meditation. We made the point that the church is composed of two groups. The first group is called the church militant. That refers to the church here on earth. The second is called the church triumphant. That refers to the church in heaven. We noted that the first group is engaged in the battle. Indeed, that is implied in the very word “militant,” which is related to our word “military.” On this note, after the Second World War, hospitals diagnosed a disorder in returning veterans they called “combat fatigue.”


This is an apt term that we can apply to many among us in the church militant. We enlisted for the battle; we committed to the struggle. But after a few skirmishes, after sustaining a few losses, after suffering a few wounds, we suffer from combat fatigue. We are weary in the battle. The battle has proved to be more ferocious than we anticipated, and we doubt we can stay in it much longer. And that was before COVID. The pandemic is like a 105 mm howitzer shell exploding in the camp of the wounded. And we won’t even mention this past election season.  


If that is where we are; indeed, if that is where we have been for longer than we care to remember, then the gospel lesson designated for this Sunday has a message for us. Let us then for these next few moments listen carefully to understand and receive that message.  


The scene is a wedding, which is ironic in view of what we’ve been saying, because a wedding is as far from a battle in human experience as can be. If in a battle there is strife and pain and mourning, in a wedding there is joy and life and celebration.


This is especially the case in ancient Jewish weddings. The wedding began late at night. We don’t know exactly why, but this was common custom. The groom and his friends began the feast at the groom’s house. We can perhaps compare it to an extended bachelor party. The bride and her bridesmaids waited at her house. Perhaps this too was the ancient equivalent to a bachelorette party. Eventually, the groom and his friends went out to announce his claim to the bride. Then the whole group formed a joyful procession back to the groom’s house to celebrate. It was not unusual for the celebration to last seven days.


But we see there is a wrinkle in the proceedings. There is a delay. To be sure, a certain period of delay was allowed. No one wants the bachelor party to end too soon. But the delay in this instance is long enough to be a concern to the wedding party. We can imagine them asking one another: “Has something happened to the bridegroom?” “Did her parents fail to negotiate the dowry price with his parents?” “Will the wedding be canceled?”  


Have we not wondered the same in our walk with Christ, in our work in the church? We began expectantly, eagerly anticipating the blessings to come. But then there was a delay, a long delay. How do we remain in a state of readiness for those blessings when they fail to materialize?


I played baseball when I was young. Because I had a strong arm, the coach played me at third base. Those of you familiar with baseball will know that this is the hot corner. Because especially right-handed hitters can rip pitches down the third base line, the third baseman has to be in a constant state of readiness. It was not easy for me. I did not know if or when a ball would come to me. What I did know is that if or when it did, it was likely to be a rocket. If I relaxed, I would no longer be in a position to react quickly. But if the ball got by me and stayed fair, I would let down my team due to my lack of readiness. 


At one level, none of the ten bridesmaids remains in a state of readiness; they all fall asleep. But no praise or blame is ascribed to them for this fact; it’s only a narrative detail that heightens the tension in the drama. Then suddenly, at midnight there is a shout: “Here is the bridegroom!” Startled awake, the ten realize they need to replenish their lamps with the oil that fuels the flame. It’s here that the distinction emerges between the two groups: the five wise ones bring oil not only in their lamps but also in separate containers, while the five foolish ones have only the oil in their lamps, which are now going out. What will they do?


This is a good place to stop to consider the image of oil. No doubt the reference here is to olive oil, which had many uses in the ancient Near East. In the Old Testament, olive oil is associated with joy (Isa. 61:3), the olive shoot with God’s blessing (Ps. 128:3-6), and the olive tree with God’s favor (Ps. 52:8-9). In the New Testament, oil is associated with healing. James tells us that the elders are to pray for the sick, anointing them with oil (James 5:14). 


Parenthetically, for those among us who have been wounded in the battle, the association of oil with healing is certainly a welcome, even preferred one. The longer the Lord delays, the longer we in the church must battle. And the longer we battle, the more likely we are to be wounded, for which we need this healing oil.


Returning to the parable, we see that the oil sustains the five wise bridesmaids in the time of delay, in the time of their waiting. It keeps their lamps burning; it enables them to keep their light shining before others.


In this regard, there’s another image associated with oil that gives us deeper insight here. In Psalm 104, the Psalmist praises God for the gift of oil, which makes the face shine (15). I’m sure most of us have heard the phrases: “her face was glowing” or “his face was beaming.” What explains this kind of appearance? The source comes from deep within the person. The face reflects the heart. “A glad heart makes the face cheerful” (Prov. 15:13). Joy and inner contentment from within irradiate outward, so that we can see it in a person’s face, and even in his or her body.


I remember watching a YouTube video in which a young man was sharing how he came to faith in Christ. He came home from college between semesters. His sister was there, and he noticed her face. It was open and relaxed. There was something different about her, and he could see it in her face. Curious, he asked her about what had been going on with her. He found out that she came to faith in Christ. What he saw in her led him also to put his faith in Christ.


We should not underestimate what our face, what our body, communicates to others. They can betray our words. For example, if I share good news with someone while my face is harsh and rigid, it is unlikely that this person will receive what I am saying as good news. But if I share this same good news while my face is open and relaxed, it is more likely that this same person will pay attention to me. That’s the power of what’s been called “nonverbal communication.”


Joy and inner contentment come from faith in Christ. More exactly, it comes from the Spirit of Christ who lives within us, within those who have faith in Christ. The Spirit of Christ is the source of joy and blessing and favor. He is the oil that keeps our lamps burning, that keeps our light shining before others.  And this source is inexhaustible. There is no chance that this supply will ever run out.  


When the foolish ones see that their flame is going out, they turn to the wise ones to ask them to share some of their oil. The wise ones refuse. Instead of sharing, they hoard their reserves, forcing the foolish ones to go on a futile search for an oil shop that is still open at midnight.


We may react with indignation to this: “Why wouldn’t they share?” Shouldn’t we help others, even if the predicament in which we find them is their own fault? Yes, we should. But that’s not what’s at issue here. Consider this: I cannot give to another what only he can receive as a gift from God. If God is the giver, then he must himself go to God to ask for God’s gift. I can show him by my own life, by my own love, that the gift is desirable, that it ought to be sought after. But beyond that, I cannot help him receive the gift, which he himself must ask God for and receive from God.


The foolish ones return later. Whether or not they succeeded in finding an oil shop open in the middle of the night or had slowly to return to the wedding banquet in the dark, we do not know. The point is that they are too late. They will not share in the joy and the celebration which they anticipated with the five wise bridesmaids. These five prepared for the delay, while they did not. The day and the hour are decisive; no amount of pleading will coax the bridegroom to open the door into the wedding banquet. Instead he denies ever knowing them.


The parable ends on an ominous note. Jesus address his disciples directly to drive home the lesson of the parable. “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” 


It’s interesting for our purposes that the command “keep watch” conjures up images of battle. The word translated here as “keep watch” occurs in the Old Testament in this connection. For example, Nehemiah 7 tells how Nehemiah posted guards at the gates of Jerusalem to keep watch, because the enemies of God’s people opposed the rebuilding of the city.


So we return here to where we began. We are still in the battle for as long as we have to wait. The wedding banquet has not yet arrived; we have to keep our sight set on it. “Between the church of the earth and the church in heaven there exists an intimate union which shall one day become perfect,” according to the Belgian liturgical scholar Lambert Beauduin. But in the meanwhile, we have to keep watch.


We get tired. It’s inevitable. The wise as well as the foolish bridesmaids got tired. But the difference lies in this. The wise were aware of the source of their joy and contentment, of their strength and power, and that kept them in the fight. And they drew on it when their own ran out. Let’s too be aware of this source. When we feel that our weariness is about to take us out of the fight, let’s draw deeply from the Spirit who lives within us. He is the source of our joy and contentment. “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” we read in Nehemiah 8. The prophet Isaiah tells the returning exiles that this God gives “strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isaiah 40:29). And the Apostle Paul was so confident in this God that he exclaimed: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). May we also find this to be true. Amen.


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