Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The fairy tale ending we all hope for does not happen in this parable.

November 9, 2008

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Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13

The fairy tale ending we all hope for does not happen in this parable.

In fact, many of the parables contradict our hopes, our expectations, even our values. But surprisingly, they also contradict our deep-seated fears and insecurities. How much easier it would be to preach these Matthean parables if the Bridegroom or the Master were more generous and inviting. Attempts, of course, have been made to re-write the ending but that is not the preacher’s task.

This parable (part of the eschatological discourse), along with the other “watchful” parables in the preceding chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, challenge our quickly made assumptions about judgment, grace and the end times. It would be too easy, as we have witnessed in the history of interpretation, to allegorize the characters in this parable in terms of simply good and bad. The definitions we give “good” and “bad” have always reflected our own prejudices more than they have faithfully represented Gospel truth. Even the oil in the lamps has been denominationally (and unfortunately polemically) interpreted as works (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without good works) or faith (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without faith). We are challenged to move beyond these simplistic bipolarities.

The Matthean community is, of course, dealing with several issues — rupture from the synagogue, a delayed parousia, flagging vigilance. What is striking in this parable, which appears to focus on the severity of judgment, is the confinement of judgment to one character — the bridegroom. Judgment is reserved to the only one who can judge (see Romans 14 but also Matthew 7). Even the wise young women do not judge the foolish one; they merely refuse to share their oil and send the foolish women to the shopkeepers. The history of interpretation, of course, has not remained faithful to this reserve. It has quickly assigned qualities to the foolish and the wise and lifted these qualities up as virtues and vices. In other words, the tradition has continually judged who is good and bad.

The young women were all waiting for the bridegroom. They all belonged to the same community, the same group of friends. They all fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. Within the community, it is impossible to tell who has enough oil in their lamps, who has been more faithful. This is not for us to see or to judge. The church remains always a mixed community. Making the center of interpretation the issue of foolish or wise would miss the point of the parable. The so-called foolish young women also knew the bridegroom, calling out to him “Lord, Lord, open to us!” (v.11).

That they remain unrecognized by the bridegroom raises the question of knowledge in the parable. What is it to know the bridegroom? What is it to recognize the one called “Lord?”

The cry “Lord, Lord,” takes us back to the earlier chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21). And, of course, the lamps (or torches) recall other words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:16).

Living or waiting (maybe even sleeping) with enough oil in our lamps, when set in the context of these earlier chapters, suggests that it is the spirit of the beatitudes that, above all else, characterizes those who recognize the bridegroom, the Lord. This spirit is the spirit of the cross that disrupts all of our categories, all of our judgmental predispositions. The life into which the beatitudes invite us is a life not centered on our works, not on our faith, but on the cross and how God is glorified through our lives.

The holy possession of the cross (as Luther calls the seventh mark of the church) is not really a possession (as if we “owned” the cross or some special access to God). It is a life that is characterized by choices that make it clear God is the actor and the giver of life. In Luther’s words, a community that is characterized by the holy possession of the cross is a community that knows suffering: “They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.” This description hardly fits what we would imagine under the nomenclature “wise young women,” yet in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this is precisely the suggestion.

Those who are enduring misfortune, even poverty, for Christ’s sake are not the one who will be quick to judge others. Judgment is now purely reserved for God who alone knows or recognizes each individual. Grace is in the cross that lets shine forth a light, a light so unique that people do not praise our good works but rather praise God who is acting and giving life in the midst of suffering, life in the midst of death, opening the door to those who have engaged the way of the cross, who have engaged the way of death. The world cannot understand this way. It does not recognize the Lord though it continually cries out, “Lord, Lord!”

The parousia becomes not a one-time event at some “end point” but rather a continuous event that involves us, the community of Christ, in our baptismal vocation: living in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment. The feast to which we are invited is, in the words of Philipp Nicholai  (who used this parable as a primary metaphor in the hymn “Wake, Awake”), the “Abendmahl” — the Lord’s Supper. The parousia is now not about a far-off event but Christ’s continual presence with us through all of our waiting.