When Will the Kingdom Come?
Scripture - Matthew 25:1-13
Listen for the Word of God & keep your lamps lit. Listen, hear, receive, & choose to let God in.
Ah, today’s text. It comes near both the end of Jesus’ ministry & of Matthew’s Gospel.
To understand Matthew 25, we have to consider chapter 24. Jesus & the disciples have finally arrived in Jerusalem. As they are leaving the temple, the disciples go to call Jesus’ attention to the temple’s buildings. Jesus responds by telling them that the temple is going to be destroyed; one stone will not be left on another.
When they get to the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down & the disciples ask him when all of this is going to happen. Jesus then launches into this sermon. He warns about false teachers & persecution, signs & unknown times & tells a series of parables. Today, the lectionary has us considering the parable of the 10 virgins. In the coming weeks, it will have us consider the parable of the talents or bags of gold & then the sheep & the goats that make up the rest of Matthew 25.
In first-century Palestine, marriages happened in 3 stages. The first stage was the engagement, which was basically the 2 fathers negotiating over the dowry & the details. Once that was settled, you moved into the betrothal. Now, for all intents & purposes, when you were betrothed, you were married. It took a divorce to break a betrothal. If the man died during the betrothal period, the woman was considered a widow. During this period, it was the job of the bridegroom to set up house. Sometimes this meant building his own home; but it commonly meant building an addition on to his parent’s home. When your father decided that you were done & the place was ready for you to bring your wife home to live with you, then the wedding began.
I am sorry to freak out some of the parents here today & those watching via video, but I did some research this week on weddings. The average cost of a wedding in the US last year was $33,900! I guess the ‘good news’ is that in NC it was ‘only’ $29,500. The dress is $1500, photography $2400 while videography another $1800. The cake is only $540, but then, after the reception you have nothing to show for it. The remaining cost is the venue, travel, tuxedos, flowers, & other sundry costs. $33,900 for a ceremony that, if you stick to the United Methodist Book of Worship, takes all of 10 minutes! I am not criticizing; I am just reporting the facts.
Back to our text. According to The ESV Study Bible, “It was the Jewish marriage custom for the groom & his friends to leave his home & proceed to the home of the bride, where the marriage ceremony was conducted, often at night. After this, the entire wedding party returned to the groom’s home for a celebratory banquet.” The virgins are awaiting this processional parade. Now, I know that some translations use the word virgins, but they are not making a statement about their sexual purity or virtue. They are saying these are young, unmarried women, so the assumption is that they have been chaste. The CEB says bridesmaids, even though that is a less literal interpretation. I think it better conveys the nature of who these ladies are.
There is just one problem with the bridesmaids—5 are wise & 5 are foolish. The Greek word here is moros, which is where we get our English word “morons.” So, half are wise & half are morons. In this story, there is an easy way to tell who is wise & who is a moron—the wise bring extra oil & the morons do not.
Now, when you picture these bridesmaid’s lamps in your mind, don’t think of the kerosene lamps or oil lamps your parents or grandparents may have had or even the clay little lamp jars that you’ve maybe seen on the History Channel. These lamps were torches. Small clay lamps would have been of little use in an outdoor procession. These torches consisted of a long pole with oil-drenched rags at the top & these torches required large amounts of oil in order to keep burning, so much that the oil had to be replenished about every 15 minutes.
It is this constant need to replenish the oil that causes the foolish virgins’ problems. The bridegroom took longer than they expected to come. He takes so long that they all fall asleep. Now, the problem is not that they fall asleep, because both the foolish & the wise fall asleep. The problem comes when they wake up. A cry comes out at midnight, “Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.” In Scripture, midnight can refer to the actual time in the middle of the night or it can just mean an unexpected time, which is probably the case here.
The cry wakes them all from their slumber & they start trimming their lamps & that is when the morons realize, “We don’t have enough oil to get us to the party.” They have several options. They could just see how far their own lamps get them & if they run out, try to make the last bit of the journey off the light from the lamps of the wise. They decided to ask the wise virgins if they can borrow some oil. The wise virgins refuse, saying that then, they might not have enough either, & if all of the torches go out, it will certainly ruin the processional. The point here is not to justify selfishness. In commenting on this passage, Roger Hahn, in A Commentary for Bible Students, writes, “Rather, the point is that being prepared is an individual responsibility. One cannot be prepared for someone else, only for oneself.”
Since they were not prepared, the moronic bridesmaids head off to try to get to the Walmart Supercenter before the bridegroom arrives. It is the only oil merchant open in the middle of the night. Actually, you know as well as I do, there were almost assuredly no oil merchants open in the middle of the night, so it takes a while before they get to the banquet. In the meantime, the wise virgins have gone into the banquet with the bridegroom & the door has been shut.
When the foolish virgins arrive, they start banging on the door, Lord, Lord, open the door for us! They receive a reply that shocks them: I tell you the truth, I don’t know you. It is too late to get into the party.
Hahn again writes, “The parable of the 10 virgins provides a most interesting lesson in readiness for the second coming. The problem of the 5 foolish virgins was not that the bridegroom came quickly; their problem was that he delayed & they became lackadaisical. Readiness for Christ’s return cannot be based on the nearness of that return. Disciples must be ready because they do not know & cannot know when the Messiah will come again.”
With the parable clear before us, it is easy to draw some conclusions. God may delay his coming longer than people expect just like the bridegroom. As you read the New Testament, you can see that clearly the first Christians believed that Christ would return in their lifetimes. Yet it has been 2000 years, & we are still waiting. If we are going to be like the wise bridesmaids as followers of Christ, we must be prepared for such a delay. On the flip side, Craig Blomberg, in The New American Commentary, writes that what’s most concerning is that “like the foolish bridesmaids, those who do not prepare adequately may discover a point beyond which there is no return—when the end comes it will be too late to undo the damage of neglect.”
Christians must live always prepared. There is no way for us to know if Jesus will come this afternoon or 2000 years from now. We could die tomorrow, or we could live to be 100 years old. We do not know when we will have to stand before the Creator of the universe. The question for us today is are you ready? Are you always prepared? But note: the question isn’t, Is my dad ready? Is Mom ready? Is my spouse ready? We already saw that you cannot be prepared for someone else & no one else can be prepared for you. Brothers & sisters, how prepared are you for that day?