A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 12th November 2023.
Be ready … but for what?
[Reading: Matthew 25:1-13]
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The great value of our Lectionary is that it ensures that over a three-year period a broad, balanced view of Scripture will have been had; with each service allowing particular portions to be considered in depth. Valuable as that is, it is also important that such specific pieces of Scripture should also be taken in context of when and how they appear. So it happens that our gospel reading this morning merits consideration at both the specific level but also in terms of its context.
On the face of it the Parable of Ten Bridesmaids seems to reduce simply to a message of ‘Be ready’. Our reading tells us that five bridesmaids sensibly planned ahead by having enough oil on hand, while the other five failed that test. The punchline of the parable most easily seems to be:
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. [v14]
However, for my part, in terms of all the messages that Jesus chose to give to his disciples over his three years with them, the gospel writers chose to select surely only a fraction of all that Jesus had said to them. Given that the parable of the ten bridesmaids was one of that selected fraction, it would seem improbable therefore that its message should be no more than simply ‘Be ready’.
Notwithstanding the importance of such a message, I want to suggest there is a much more important message hidden in the text:
The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. [25:4]
The issue of oil in this parable had to do with what each of the bridesmaids were wanting to have at a critical moment – light. To highlight this point, let me quote from Proverbs:
The spirit of a person is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the depths of the inner depths of the heart. [Prov. 20:27]
Looking at our parable this morning through the lens of this proverb, we then have the situation that the bridesmaids were metaphorically seeking to show the light of their human spirit to the Lord; five had prepared for that by nourishing their human spirit (ie having enough oil on hand), while five had not. Rev Gordon McCulloch in a sermon he gave on this parable, has noted:
Oil in the Bible is always a reference to the Holy Spirit.
So then, the immediate take-out for us from the parable – for surely, all Scripture is supposed to touch upon our own spiritual journey – should be more than just ‘be prepared for you don’t know when the hour will come’ … a case of ‘Jesus is coming, look busy’. Our lesson should be whether we have stored up enough ‘oil’ of the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual lives. Often, when I lead prayers, I find myself praying that God’s ever-present Holy Spirit may ‘infuse and enthuse’ us. There are two key points to this prayer – the first is that, whether or not we are open to it, God’s Holy Spirit is indeed ‘ever-present’ – the choice being for each of us to decide whether we open up our hearts to that ever-presence, and thus let it in to infuse and enthuse us – in other words, lighten our own human spirit.
This then becomes an important specific message to be garnered from our text. However, as I said at the start, specific portions of Scripture need also to be considered in the context of surrounding scripture, not just taken in isolation.
So, what was the context of Jesus’ telling of the parable of the ten bridesmaids? This parable was given by Jesus to his disciples two days before that fateful Passover. He delivered it on the Mount of Olives [24:3]; it would be the last time that Matthew’s gospel recorded Jesus giving instruction to his disciples before his crucifixion. Importantly on that occasion, however, Jesus had not related this single parable in isolation, but had done so amidst a number of other important messages. Before, the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus had told his disciples that there would be persecutions of those who witnessed to the Good News [Matt 24:9-14]. He followed this by a bleak foretelling how the beginning of the end times would look [24:15-28] before his coming again [24:23-31].
After this apocalyptic introduction to his teaching to the disciples that day on the Mount of Olives, Jesus then proceeded to explain the implications of his apocalyptic message with parables. After emphasising the need for watchfulness [24:36-44], Jesus told the parable of the faithful or unfaithful servant [24:45-51]. Then came the parable from our reading this morning.
Following that, Jesus then related the parable of the Talents, and then concluded with what I refer to as the Inasmuch sermon [25:31-45] – where the key line was ‘inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.’
Thus, as meaningful as a specific reading of the parable of the ten bridesmaids might be, that day on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was giving his disciples a complex set of messages which required them to listen to all that he said that day. He wanted them to reflect on the way all the different elements might create a much deeper overarching understanding than each individual element might have suggested. Looking at it this way, given normal rhetorical practice, the conclusions of his message that day would surely have been the point to which all the earlier elements were leading.
The final conclusion of Jesus that day, two days before the Passover [26:2] by saying to his disciples, was:
The Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified. [26:2]
Jesus had spent three years with his disciples slowly bringing them to this point of crescendo – The Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.
There on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would seek solace from his Father only two days later, he foretold to them this dreadful imminent climax to his earthly ministry; but he did so in the context of two critical points. First, however dreadful the way in which this week was going to end, he would nevertheless be returning; furthermore, he would be returning as King. Secondly, his divine returning would be a time of calling all to account for how they had lived before his coming again.
The parable of the bridesmaids fitted in to this rhetorical schema of Jesus not just by warning about the risk of not being ready for that second coming, but also by being part of an examination of what ‘being ready’ implied. Had the ‘oil’ of the Holy Spirit been taken into the hearts of the bridesmaids or not? And what would such spiritual enrichment look like?
Immediately before Jesus had related the parable of today’s reading, he had spoken of the faithful and unfaithful servants. That parable too spoke of the risk of not being ready:
The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. [24:50]
But, more importantly, it also differentiated the difference between the faithful and unfaithful:
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of his household to give the other servants their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives. [24:45-46]
By contrast, the unfaithful servant had failed in such service to others. The result being that ‘there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ [24:51] on that servant’s part. In this discourse Jesus had with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, two days before Passover, his disciples would hear those exclusionary words again at the conclusion of the parable of the talents [25:30] and an equivalent version at the end of the Inasmuch sermon:
These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. [25:46]
How others should be treated was thus the hallmark of that final time of teaching by Jesus that day. By telling this particular mix of parables about readiness and the way lives were lived, Jesus would have been wanting his disciples to think more deeply about what he said just two days earlier, after his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. On that occasion he had been asked the question about the greatest commandment:
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ [22:37-40]
Do we fill the lamps of our own hearts with the oil of God’s Holy Spirit? Do we hear the words of the two greatest commandments through the perspective of Jesus’ penultimate conclusion that day on the Mount of Olives:
Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these you did it to me? [25:40]
 G McCulloch, The five foolish virgins weren’t ready to meet their maker, are you? sermon delivered on 27 January 2014.