Foolish virgins

A sermon for the twenty second Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:1-13

This sermon was preached by Rachel Twigg Boyce

In agreeing to preach today I made a rookie mistake. I booked the date without checking the lectionary first.
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And having just heard these passages for yourselves I’m sure you can understand that when I discovered that today’s readings are filled with apocalyptic overtones, dire warnings, and foolish bridesmaids I was more than a little tempted to call Jamie and try to re-schedule.

When I’m trying to get to know someone better I sometimes ask them to tell me what they would change about the Bible if they were given the opportunity to do a little God-sanctioned editing. The answers are always revealing.

Our gospel reading tonight isn’t at the top of my list of passages to trim, but it is certainly on the list. I like themes of God’s abundance – here is a passage where 5 women refuse to share. I like themes of God’s grace – here is a story of 5 women who miss out on a party. I like things that seem to make sense – here are some rather confusing passages.

But since God hasn’t offered me the job of gospel editor, and since I didn’t ask Jamie to let me re-schedule, let’s work through this passage together.

The story of the 10 Bridesmaids is unique to Matthew –it doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels.

This story is, a story, a parable meant to make a point. Jesus isn’t reporting the events of an actual wedding he’d attended recently, he is making up a story in order to make a point.

It’s a story about a wedding. A wedding that has some different customs than the ones we are used to.

10 bridesmaids are invited to be a part of a wedding and as part of their role as bridesmaids they are expected to wait at a specific place with lit lamps with the bridegroom arrives.

And all 10 bridesmaids are ready to fulfill their role. They all show up at the appointed time and place with lamps filled with oil.

But something unexpected happens, the groom is delayed, he does not arrive on time and so the 10 women need to wait longer than expected, they need to wait long into the night for his arrival.

And here is where we find out what distinguishes the bridesmaids that Jesus describes as wise, from the ones Jesus describes as foolish.

5 of the women bring extra oil and Jesus says they were wise to do so and 5 don’t bring any extra oil. Jesus calls them foolish.

At first glance, it seems that the 5 women who bring the extra oil aren’t wise, they are lucky. Or even uptight. Even though the groom has taken much longer to arrive than anyone expected and they have been forced to wait for him late into the night – all the lamps are still burning, they are running out of oil, but they are still burning. This implies that under normal circumstances, the lamps held enough oil for the wedding procession. It wasn’t necessary to bring any extra along.

The women whose lamps are burning out ask the women with the extra oil to share with them but they refuse to help, so the foolish women leave to try and buy some oil.

And while they are out shopping, the groom arrives, and everyone heads into the wedding feast and they shut the door behind them.

The foolish women – who under normal circumstances would have had enough oil and would have had no need to leave to purchase more –are late to the party.

Now remember that Jesus is telling this story in order to explain something about the Kingdom of God.

When something is too large, too complicated, or too mysterious for us to comprehend, we often try to explain it by comparing it to something else. “My love is like a red, red rose…” for example. We know that my love is NOT a actually red rose, but rather there is something about our shared understanding of red roses that provides an insight into the nature of my love.

In the same way, when we read this parable we know that the kingdom of heaven must be like the wedding celebration Jesus is describing but it is not a one for one comparison. – the kingdom of heaven is NOT a wedding with 10 Bridesmaids, it is LIKE a wedding with 10 bridesmaids. The parable is meant to tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven but it doesn’t tell us everything about it.

A seminary professor of mine liked to say, “all metaphors limp.” Or in the case of today’s gospel passage, “all similes limp.” The nature of similes is that in order to highlight one element of the thing they mean to explain, they often hide or muddle other elements.

For example, my love may be like a red red rose in that it is beautiful like a rose or precious like a rose, but I probably don’t mean that my love is like a red, red rose – full of thorns that will make you bleed, and likely to die in a short period of time. If my goal is to swear my undying love to you then the simile about a rose is helpful, but it also limps.

So what element of the kingdom of heaven is this parable trying to highlight, and what elements of the kingdom of heaven is it obscuring?

It is likely that if I’m invited back in 3 years when this passage appears again in the cycle of readings I will see something else, but this week the thing that jumped out at me was the way this passage is trying to tell us to be prepared to be surprised.

10 women are invited to be part of a wedding and they all arrive at the appointed place with lamps filled with oil to fulfill their role as bridesmaids. 5 have a clear idea of how long a wedding is supposed to take and so they plan accordingly – filling their lamps with oil. 5 are prepared for the possibility that things may take much longer than expected, and bring extra oil.

If I got one message from all the commentaries I read on this passage this week it was that it’s very important to try and figure out what that oil is all about. The oil is the key to this parable.

Far be it from me to argue with all of those wise commentators – if you want to try and figure out what the oil is, then more power to you, but that’s not what I’m inviting us to consider this evening.

Rather lets wrestle with this question – why would some women bring

one lamp’s worth of oil and some other bring enough to refill their lamps.

I wonder, if the foolish women were foolish simply because they thought they had an understanding of how weddings were supposed to work, they thought they knew how long a wedding was supposed to take and they planned accordingly.

What is so foolish about that? What is foolish about having a good understanding of how a wedding is supposed to work and planning accordingly?

I wonder if the point that Jesus is trying to make is this – be prepared to be surprised. Don’t think you know how all of this is going to work out. Don’t make plans according to how you expect things will happen. Because things may not happen the way you expect them to, they may take longer than you think.

Be prepared to be surprised.

The bible is full of stories of people who are surpised by Jesus. People who think they know what a Messiah will be like.

And Jesus is not what they are expecting.

Some are willing to be surprised and they see Jesus for who he is. Some remain so locked in their preconceived notions of what a Messiah should be that they don’t recognize Jesus as all.

In Jesus’ day, as in ours, there are people who think they have the timeline figured out. They think they know what’s going to happen next.

And they are not prepared to be surprised.

This happened when Jesus was alive, and it happened in the time period when these gospel narratives were being written down and it continues to happen today.

In the time when the gospels were being written down, people were starting to realize that perhaps Jesus wasn’t going to return in the next couple of days and they might need to rethink a few things. They might need to start writing these stories about Jesus down before the people who remembered them were too old to keep telling them.

They might need to start doing some long term planning.

They might need to begin to settle in for the long haul of history.

They might need some extra oil.

They might need to be prepared to be surprised.


Now what are we going to do with those troubling final verses? The verses where the foolish women pound on the door crying, “Lord, lord, open to us” and the response they receive is, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Followed by Jesus’ warning in verse 13, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Verses like this make me squirm. They are some of the first I’d cut out of the bible if I could. When someone asked me how my sermon prep was coming earlier this week I admitted that I felt that I was stuck between offering up words that were either a “clobber or a cop out.”

You see I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in at a party I want to be at but haven’t been invited to. And I’m sure that many of you have had the same experience. It’s not a good feeling, and I don’t want to have any part if making other people feel that way if I can help it.

So I was feeling stuck, but then I remembered that the message which jumped out at me from this text was, “Be prepared to be surprised. Do not think you have it all figured out,” and I realized that sometimes the point is to wrestle with a text and to allow the process of wrestling to transform you without any need to wrap up the text in a neat little bow. And I also remembered that as soon as you think you have it wrapped up in a neat little bow you’re probably missing something, like the point of this story – you’re not prepared to be surprised.

So I tried to go back to the text holding the tension between wanting to figure out what to say to you this evening and the notion that I may need to be prepared to be surprised and bring a little extra oil.

And then I remembered that Jesus is using this story to try and explain something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven but it is not a stand-alone story. It needs to be read in context. It needs to be read in the context of stories where Jesus says God is like a shepherd who gets 99 sheep safely into the pen and is not content until he also goes and finds the one sheep that is still missing. (Matthew 18:12) And that God is like a women who hunts for a lost coin until she finds it and when she does, she wants to celebrate with everyone she knows.

And it needs to be read in the context of the communion table that we will all be invited to gather around shortly.

A table where we are all invited to eat and drink and get a taste of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven may be like a wedding with 10 bridesmaids, but it is also like the communion table.

So we can take a passage like today’s gospel text and wrestle with it and be prepared to be changed by the process of wrestling with it, not with the discovery of an easy answer.

We can be prepared to be surprised. We can pack a little extra oil for the journey.

And we can also remember that one of the things that Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s gospel reading is that the kingdom of heaven is like a party.

And may be messy and weird, and impossible to wrap into a simple neat explanation.

But it is also beautiful and worth being a part of and it would be such a shame if anyone for any reason thought they weren’t invited to the party.

Because we are all invited, and it’s a party worth attending.

So pack a little extra oil for the journey, and be prepared to be surprised along the way. Amen.


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