Ready for anything?

Pentecost 21
Matthew 25:1-13
Marian Free

In the name of God in whose hands is the past, the present and the future. Amen.

Dennis Sanders could have read my mind when she stated that as a kid she didn’t like the parable of the foolish virgins, that she thought the wise virgins were selfish for not sharing and that the foolish virgins had been framed. (Christian Century, ‘Living by the Word’) I would go further and say that I haven’t liked the parable for much of my adulthood. One reason for this is that the parable of the ten virgins is very graphic. The reader/listener is drawn into the situation. We ,the readers, can picture the young women excitedly going out to escort the bridegroom to his home. We can sympathize with them as they fall asleep in exhaustion when the groom is delayed. We sense the anxiety of those whose lamps are going out and to some extent of those who are afraid to share their oil. Above all, we are drawn into the despair of those who are locked out because of their failure to be ready in time. Though it is the opposite of the author’s intention, our (my) sympathy lies with the ‘foolish’ virgins. I want to find some way of opening the door for them.

This parable occurs only in Matthew, as does the next but one about the sheep and the goats. It occurs in the context of Matthew’s sayings and parables about the end and about watchfulness. For that reason, it is often taken as a warning that believers should be ready (have their lamps trimmed) for the return of Christ. This may be true. It may be that some forty to fifty years after the death of Jesus that some believers were slipping into complacency. However, given Matthew’s context, it is equally possible that the parable is a part of the writer’s polemic against the Jews who did not believe in Jesus. That is, those who believed in Jesus did expect an apocalyptic end of the world and those who did not believe in Jesus did not believe that the world would come to an end. The parable, especially with the additional phrases about the need for watchfulness suggest that the Jesus’ believers will be ready and the others not.

If however, we take the parable on its own – without the added exhortation to readiness, it could well be a parable for our times. When a bridegroom went to meet his bride, one of the tasks was to negotiate the bridal contract with her father. There was no knowing how long this would take, no guarantee that he would return in a timely fashion. Knowing this, it would make sense for those who were to meet him to be prepared for a long wait and to have sufficient oil for such a situation. If that was not sufficient reason to have extra oil, then the realisation that the groom was delayed might have provided the clue that that might have been a good time to get more oil rather than fall asleep. The problem with the foolish virgins, is that they neither consider the possibility that the groom will be delayed, and when it is clear that he will be late, they still take no action. It is only when disaster is on their doorstep that they are finally moved to do something and by the. It is too late.

Sometimes the signs of impending doom are evident long before it is too late to take remedial action. This might be true of the church in many places.

For at least the past forty five years, I have been engaged in discussions about the fact that fewer and fewer people are attending church on a regular basis. The reasons have been many, but the signs have been obvious. During the successive years, the church has engaged specialists and trialled all kinds of programmes which might have slowed, but not halted the decline. My observation is that instead of drawing on the deep wells of our traditions and our faith, we have tinkered at the edges, trying new things that are not really related to the gospel – modern music, morning tea after church, shorter services and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of these if they are responses to changes in the life of the worshipping community, but if they are seen as “quick fixes” to what is a complex issue, they are not likely to achieve lasting change and those whom such changes attract may not stay.

I do not have a solution, but today’s parable makes me wonder whether we have been too long like the foolish virgins, looking for short-term, stop-gap solutions rather than taking the time to be ready for any situation that might present itself. It may not be too late. For two thousand years the oil of faith has kept the lamps of the church alight. Perhaps the parable is urging us, in today’s world, to stop for a minute to replenish our supplies, to ensure that we have sufficient oil (resilience, faithfulness, trust, courage, resourcefulness) to face any situation, to open doors into whatever future God might have prepared.

Readiness or lack of it, does not have to be about the end, about Jesus’ eventual return. It might just as well relate to the present. The parable may be urging us to live fully in the present, ready for anything.

Is our relationship with God such that we have reserves to draw on or are we always flying by the seat of our pants, hoping that there will be something to draw on, someone to help us out when our supplies run low?

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