Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 and Amos 5:18-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Several years ago, amid the endless prelude to the 2012 presidential election, President Obama committed a memorable gaffe during a speech in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The president was expounding on the principles of our democracy’s social contract: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help…Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Some argued that Mr. Obama’s point was that public infrastructure, which is supported and “built” by all taxpayers, allows business to thrive. Others, however, suggested that the president was denigrating the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of job creators.
Now, I’m not even remotely interested in determining what the president meant when he said this two years ago. Rather, I bring this up because it demonstrates how defensive we can be about our work ethic. In 2012, the mere implication that business owners didn’t do the work required to make their business successful was enough to send people into a tailspin of recrimination. I think that this is because one of the great assumptions about our culture is that natural talent and birth can only take you so far; in the American dream merit and hard work are the true arbiters of success. We are proud of how hard we work, and this invariably leads us to feel limited sympathy for those who haven’t worked as hard to achieve success. The American narrative celebrates success and assumes that those who are unsuccessful simply are not prepared and not dedicated to the task set before them.
Though this celebration of success and disdain for those who have fallen short is part of the American narrative, it is not generally what we expect from the gospel. Nevertheless, we heard a gospel story this morning that seems to consider hard work and preparation more important than compassion. This story about the wise and foolish maidens is one of Jesus’ “hard teachings,” so called because it challenges some of our fundamental assumptions about Jesus. Nothing about this story lines up with our expectations about Jesus. For instance, while we may be preoccupied with success, Jesus is supposed to look out for the little guy; after all, even the chronically lazy are given a break in the parable of the day laborers. And while we may selfishly hoard our possessions, Jesus is supposed to encourage sharing; he’s pretty clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” But in the midst of this parable about the wise and foolish maidens Jesus sounds less like the Jesus we have come to know and more like Ebenezer Scrooge, implying that the wise maidens are wise because they are miserly. When the unprepared bridesmaids ask their wise counterparts to lend them some oil, the wise maidens balk, claiming that there is no way they could possibly share what they have. The wise maidens are celebrated for their careful preparation and their unwillingness to share, while the foolish maidens are sent into the night and ultimately excluded from the wedding banquet because of their failure to prepare accordingly. In spite of our usual lack of sympathy for the lazy and unprepared, I think there’s a level at which this doesn’t sit well with us. Are we really supposed to believe that the wise bridesmaids couldn’t spare even a little oil, just enough to tide over their companions until the bridegroom arrives? Moreover, doesn’t Jesus call us to give sacrificially even when we are not entirely sure we have enough for ourselves?
Part of the reason that this is such a challenging parable is that we tend to read it as a description rather than an illustration. We imagine that there is a group of five bridesmaids left out in the cold somewhere, vainly knocking at the door. When we think of this story as the account of an actual event, however, we fail to recognize the larger themes that Jesus is exploring in this section of Matthew’s gospel. Before the passage we read today, Jesus describes the apocalypse, the time when the kingdom of God will be fully revealed. This parable, which follows immediately, is the first in a series about being ready for the arrival of God’s kingdom. The theme that runs through this entire portion of Matthew’s gospel, in other words, is that the day of the Lord will come when we do not expect it, that we must always be ready for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Now, some Christian traditions suggest that the way to prepare for coming of God’s kingdom is essentially to wait patiently for Christ’s return, taking care not to do much of anything in the meantime so as not jeopardize our salvation. This approach, however, is far too static for the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. It assumes that we can anticipate exactly what the day of the Lord will look like, a notion that is entirely inconsistent with the biblical witness. In Scripture, God’s action is dynamic and surprising.
The prophet Amos wrote to a group of people who thought they could predict what the day of the Lord would look like. Amos corrects this notion with the line that concludes the passage we read this morning: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” In English, the sense we get is that God’s justice and righteousness are going to come down in torrents from heaven. While this is technically correct, the Hebrew word Amos uses is more specific; it’s basically the term for a gully washer. For Amos, in other words, God’s justice flows like a flash flood: suddenly, dramatically, and unexpectedly. It’s not something for which we can specifically plan. If you think about it, there is no way to avoid or prepare completely for a flash flood; one can only be ready for the possibility, ready to swim when the water comes. Ultimately, this is why the wise bridesmaids cannot help their foolish counterparts in our gospel reading. It’s not that wise bridesmaids are more prepared; it’s that they are more spiritually ready. This is a crucial distinction. If all the wise bridesmaids had done was stock up on oil, they could have shared what they had without any problem. Spiritual readiness, however, is a state of being, which by definition cannot be imparted to anyone else. It would be like trying to share one’s ability to swim with someone else. When it comes to spiritual readiness, there is no quick fix; one must put in the time required to be spiritually ready.
In some ways, it would be easier if we could predict how and when Christ will return. We could become spiritual survivalists, hoarding lamp oil, stocking up on spiritual supplies, and cowering in our bunkers as we await the day of the Lord. We could be satisfied in the knowledge that we have worked hard and made appropriate preparations, in contrast to our lazy brothers and sisters. But the reality is that spiritual readiness is less about hoarding supplies and more about risking what we value most. Spiritual readiness requires us to give something of ourselves. It requires us to give up part of our precious schedule to nurture our relationship with God through prayer, Sabbath, and worship. It requires us to give up those parts of our life that draw us away from an awareness of God’s love. It requires us to invest our time and energy in helping others become spiritually ready. Though we cannot specifically plan for Christ’s return, we can be spiritually ready to participate in the kingdom we didn’t build, but are privileged to share.