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The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 preached by
The Revd Charles Royden
10th November 2002

Today is Remembrance Sunday and we remember those who gave their lives in two world wars and in more recent conflicts. 

  1. It is a day of tribute and thanksgiving as we remember their great sacrifice which won and preserved our freedom. 
  2. It is also a day of sharing as we stand alongside those who mourn not for one day but some for many years. They remember loved ones who paid the ultimate price and fought and laid down their lives for us.
  3. It is a day when we pay our respects and acknowledge our great and lasting debt to them and to all in our armed forces who serve the cause of freedom and who continue to shed their blood on battlefields across the world in the service of their country. 
  4. Today is a solemn day as we reflect upon a world where terror and human sin continue to threaten peace and do so in ways which we thought unimaginable. And we are all only too aware of the precarious situation in which we find ourselves, with the potential for terrible conflict edging ever closer.

Today I want us to think and share some thoughts about the reading from Matthew. Our liturgical seasons parallel what is going on in nature around us.

Some trees are still ablaze with leaves like autumn fire. It is a spectacular pyrotechnic show to rival any fireworks and for many this is the favourite time of year. The harsh cold of winter has not yet arrived; the cruel winds have not yet blown all of those leaves from the trees. But we know something else at this time. What is so glorious in nature - is also dying. The colour of the leaves means they are dying on their branches - they are falling to the ground, being raked from lawns and play grounds and carted off. Winter is surely coming, the end of the year.

The liturgical year is also coming to an end, we are now in the last three weeks before Advent. At this time our thoughts and prayers move to the end time. We are encouraged to think not only of our final end in death, but about all the endings we experience in life.

The scripture readings these last weeks encourage us to reflect on what is permanent and sure in our lives and what is passing, not worth the investment of our precious energies. 

  1. What's the focus of our lives? 
  2. What can be taken away? 
  3. What have we that will accompany us and sustain us through life's twists and sudden turns?

So we consider the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids

Introduction

Weddings are things which we look forward to. We know that there will be lots of different people coming that we have never met before, that is always interesting. There will be the drama of a public event and we can watch what happens and not have to worry too much because we don't have to say anything. It is always interesting to see how much attention weddings attract, people stop when a wedding is going on at church, just to 'have a look.' It is so very interesting to be a spectator at these events and join in the discussion about the suitability or otherwise of the bride's dress. Then of course we can move on to the dress sense of the mothers of the bride and groom.

This colour and excitement would also have been much appreciated in the time of Jesus. A wedding celebration brought feasting and celebration and a break in the monotony of people's lives.

Of course weddings are times of great preparation. Knowing that they are on show the key figures spend a great deal of time thinking through what they will wear. Careful planning takes place about what will happen, where the reception will be held, who will be invited.

However there are occasionally people who do not adequately face up to their responsibilities. When I conduct wedding rehearsals one of the things which I ask is 'are you having orders of service?' If the couple are, then I ask where they are and how they are going to get to the church. Frequently they are brought to the church by an usher and I have known several weddings where everybody is arriving and the usher has not shown up. Sometimes the orders of service are in the boot of a car at an unknown location. There are responsibilities at a time of a wedding and those who have the privilege of being invited have to take these responsibilities seriously.

So today in our reading, despite all the excitement of the wedding, in spite of the invitation which had been given to them to have a special role, despite all the expectations placed upon them, these bridesmaids sadly fail to live up to their responsibilities. They are given responsibility, they are expected to live up to that honour bestowed upon them, but they behave foolishly and let the groom down.

Foolishness - 'The wise man built his house ….'

Jesus uses this setting of a wedding to contrast wisdom and foolishness.

In chapter 7:24-27 Jesus had spoken about the wise man building on the rock and the foolish man building on sand. Now Jesus speaks about five wise bridesmaids and five foolish ones.

The wise virgins are different from the foolish virgins because they have the foresight to take flasks of oil to replenish their lamps. The wise virgins sleep, but first they prepare fully for the bridegroom's arrival. They have lamps and oil, so they are set to greet the bridegroom no matter when he might arrive. They are ready -- and readiness is the point of this parable.

Of course it is in the self-interest of the bridesmaids to be ready, because the bridegroom's coming will signal the beginning of a great and joyous festival and they would not want to miss it. The theme is to be prepared for a great and wonderful thing, not for the worst but for the best.

It is surely surprising therefore that five of them have not made essential preparations for this important occasion. But perhaps this should not surprise us.

I wonder if any of you have had the same experiences I have had of a tradesman calling at the house to perform some task. The plumber arrives and asks if you have a spanner, I had a man come to fix the chimney and ask to borrow a ladder, somebody who arrived to fix the computer asked for a screwdriver, the list goes on.

There were a great many funny goings on involving Mr Burrell, the Butler to Princess Diana. Some things which appear not so much funny but sinister and one wonders what on earth is going on in the echelons of power in our country. But one humorous item hidden away in the stories related to the occasion when the police went to search the home of Mr Burrell. Apparently the crack police team turned up from Scotland Yard to search his house in Cheshire and had to send out to the local police station, to ask for a torch.

A torch is standard equipment for a policeman off to search a house, having almost equal importance with the big hammer to persuade reluctant occupants to open the door to prevent it being removed.

The Bridesmaids had no torches, but they did have lamps and they were supposed to be able to provide light. In our parable today only half ensured that they were able to fulfil their responsibilities for this important occasion. The other half for whatever reason were ill prepared. Jesus tells in the story that the bridesmaids are waiting for the groom but he is delayed. All are prepared for the groom, but only the wise ones had the forethought to be think of the contingencies.

Being prepared and ready for our responsibilities

The boy scout motto is 'Be Prepared'

"Be prepared for what?" someone once asked Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, "Why, for any old thing." said Baden-Powell.

Baden-Powell wasn't thinking just of being ready for emergencies. His idea was that all Scouts should prepare themselves to become productive citizens and to give happiness to other people. He wanted each Scout to be ready in mind and body for any struggles, and to meet with a strong heart whatever challenges might lie ahead.

We Christians too must be prepared throughout our lives to live happily and without regret, knowing that we have all done our best. Being properly prepared is an important part of being a Christian. Just because the bridegroom was delayed did not mean he was not coming. They were to remain diligent and committed to their responsibilities.

Of course Matthew wrote his Gospel a half-century after the resurrection, and there would have been those who thought that it was all a hoax and they might as well give up. You can hear the pessimists

'Jesus isn't coming, we might as well give up.'

So Matthew recalls these words of Jesus to encourage the church to maintain its vigil, even though they are tiring of maintaining an "alert status." The parable is fairly clear about who is who in the story - 

  • We are the bridesmaids 
  • The Groom is Jesus 
  • The wedding feast is the great and joyous occasion in which Christ comes for his church -- the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).
  • The delay of the bridegroom corresponds to the delay of the Second Coming. 
  • The bridegroom's arrival in the dark of night is the Second Coming itself. 
  • The closing of the door is the final judgment.

But what is the oil ?

Perhaps to ask the question is to push allegory too far, but it is a legitimate question to ask how we should maintain our preparedness. If the thrust of this story is that we must be prepared with oil for Christ's coming, what is the oil? Luther said that it is faith. Others have identified it as piety, good works, a personal relationship with the Lord, or a host of other possibilities. 

  1. In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51), the faithful slave is the one found at work when the master returns. Being prepared -- having oil -- means working faithfully for the Lord.
  2. In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), the faithful slaves use wisely the resources entrusted to their care. Being prepared -- having oil -- means practicing good stewardship -- good ecological practices -- careful management of our time and money -- generosity to those in need -- proclamation of the Word -- the possibilities go on and on. 
  3. In the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), the Son of Man rewards those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner -- which corresponds nicely with what Jesus identified in this Gospel as the greatest commandment -- to love God and neighbour (22:37-40). Being prepared -- having oil -- means generosity to those in need. It is no good confessing Christ with our lips if we deny him with our works. Perhaps this fits very nicely when we consider that Jesus said "Let your works shine before men." [Matt 5:16] 
  4. In the wider context of this entire Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) gives us great insight into Christ's expectations. Being prepared -- having oil -- means obeying Jesus' teachings.

These are all different but they all entail seeking to faithfully live out the Christian faith day by day.

In the words of the baptism service being a Christian means that we must

'continue his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.'

The point of those words in the baptism service is simple. It is not good enough to become a Christian. Just because we become a Christian does not mean that we will be ready to greet Christ when he comes. No more than becoming a bridesmaid meant that those bridesmaids were ready. Becoming a Christian and recognising the importance of making a decision to follow Christ is important, but it requires a corresponding growth in discipleship.

It was wonderful to see Paula Radcliffe in the marathon in Chicago on Sunday October 13 2002. It was a breathtaking performance in which she obliterated the marathon world record and slashed 89 seconds off the old world record to win in 2:17.18

Paula Radcliffe said on BBC Radio Five Live that she had three stages in the race.

In the first five miles:

 "I hope to be feeling pretty comfortable, running within myself because there is still so far to go."

Halfway through the race: 

"Although I still hope to be feeling comfortable, I will be aware that this is the point where the race will start to be won.

At 20 miles: 

"I can start really pushing and give it everything I have got left." 

In effect what Paula was saying was that a good beginning is not yet a race well run. It requires that stickability that willingness to continue and see the thing through.

  1. On its own finding a pearl of great price is absolutely pointless. (13:44-46)
  2. Going on to declare the pearl to be the greatest pearl ever is not sufficient.
  3. It is only when we are prepared to see the thing through and go and sell everything in order to have it.

Matthew recognises that the Christian life is a life of tough discipleship, and just like the Marathon runner we must be prepared to see things through right to the very end. Like Paula we must be able to push hard right at the end with everything which we have left.

Conclusion

The foolish virgins wanted to borrow oil from the wise ones. We might be tempted to call them selfish for not sharing, Surely that would be the Christian thing to do? The problem is that there was simply not enough oil to go round. If they were to share their oil it would quickly be gone, and the bridegroom will have no light for his party. So all that they can do is go and buy some more. It of course whilst they are off getting more that the groom appears.

What point is Jesus trying to make?

I think it is this, that when the bridegroom comes, at that time we have left it until too late to borrow oil - it is too late to rely on our neighbour -- too late to ask for prayer -- too late to get ready. We have to start taking responsibility now! Now is the time to start trimming our lamps.  

The point of this story is that we must be ready at all times for the Lord's coming, because his arrival will come at an unexpected hour (24:36). Once Christ has come, we will have missed our opportunity to offer our service.

The wise ones in the church are those who are prepared for the The wise virgins delay; who hold on to the faith deep into the night; who, even though they see no bridegroom coming, still serve and hope and pray and wait for the promised victory of God."

Readiness in Matthew is, of course, living the life of the kingdom, living the quality of life described in the Sermon on the Mount. Many can do this for a short while; but when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise.

We are now moving towards the time of the Christian year we know as Advent. It is about remembering that Jesus came as a baby, it is also about recognising that Jesus has promised that he will come again. Our task as Christians in the church is to be prepared.

We also have another duty. It may be that the wise bridesmaids said to the foolish ones that they did not have enough oil, and perhaps the foolish ones ignored the warning. But undoubtedly we have a responsibility to sound the warning to help people avoid finding themselves unprepared. Irrespective of whether they listen or not.

It is not those who start the Christian life, it is those who finish the Christian life, those who persevere in the Christian habit until the end. They will not be complacent, they will not rely on others, they will face up to their responsibilities and constantly trim their lamps.

How did we trim them? 

  1. We will not put off the word we should have spoken in love to some and forgiveness to others. 
  2. We will have sought to make honest and wise choices in life even if behaving with integrity meant that we couldn't take the easy way out. 
  3. People who know us well or briefly, will have experienced gestures of compassion from us. 
  4. People will remember that we sought to be there with a helping hand for others and we didn't just say like everybody else that we were too busy with our own affairs. 
  5. We smiled at people and made them feel welcome and we encouraged them with kind words and brought out their best as well as our own.

We are told in the parable that the door was locked. Not just closed, but locked.

We can all be preoccupied with the routines of work, school schedules and activities, rushed family meals, television, the news on the car radio, shopping, visiting elderly parents, friends and family, church services, etc. It can feel so predictable. But are we prepared for the routine to be shattered by the return of the groom?

We do not want to be left with the sound of slamming locked door which reminds us that it is too late and we haven't tended to our "oil" supply. We do not want those doors to remind us of neglect or missed opportunities.

But it's not too late. The parable's locked door hasn't happened yet. Jesus reminds us now that we still have time. God is available to us still now. In our service of remembrance we say those haunting words of Laurence Binyon as we recall the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow, 
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, 
They fell with their faces to the foe. 
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

We will remember them, how will we be remembered. Now is the time for us all to trim our lamps. 

Amen.


Additional notes

Aug.: Or, by the five virgins, is denoted a five-fold continence from the allurements of the flesh; for our appetite must be held from gratification of the eyes, ears, smell, taste, and touch. And as this continence may be done before God, to please Him in inward joy of the conscience, or before men only to gain applause of men, five are called wise, and five foolish. Both are virgins, because both these men exercise continence, though from different motives.

Jerome: The Jews have a tradition that Christ will come at midnight, in like manner as in that visitation of Egypt, when the Paschal feast is celebrated, and the destroyer comes, and the Lord passes over our dwellings, and the door posts of each man's countenance are hallowed by the blood of the Lamb. Hence, I suppose, has continued among us that apostolic tradition, [p. 847] that on the vigil of Easter the people should not be dismissed before midnight, in expectation of Christ's coming; but when that hour has past over, they may celebrate the feast in security; whence also the Psalmist says, "At midnight did I rise to praise thee." [Ps 119:62] [ed note, Easter vigil: This day was kept an universal fast over the whole Church. And they continued it not only till evening, but till cockcrowing in the morning. The night was spent in a Vigil, or Pernoctation, when they assembled together to perform all parts of Divine service. There is frequent mention made of this in ancient writers, Chrysostom, (Hom. 30. in Gen,) Epiphanius, (Exp. fid. n. 22.) and many others. Particularly Lactantius and S. Jerome tell us observed it on a double account. Lactantius, (vii. 19.) says, 'This is the night which we observe, with a pernoctation for the Advent of our King and God; of which there is a twofold reason to be given; because in this night our Lord was raised to life again after His Passion; and in the same He is expected to return to receive the kingdom of the world.' " Bingham's Antiquities, xxi. 1. 32.]

 

Bible Readings and Notes and Intercessions for 10th November 2002

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