Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Pararble of the wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)...Until the End of the World (part 3)

I first met this couple while I was closing up the Eskdale church in the Hawkes bay.  They drove up in this beaten up old Bedford Camper Van. The van stopped in a puff of smoke and the graunch of gears. Out piled the kids and initially I thought they had simply broken down on their way up the Napier-Taupo Highway, I walked over to see if I could help. It turned out I could because they were out scouting a place to get married. So a month or two later I officiated at their wedding ceremony.

Now when I take a wedding I normally tell the bride to be about ten minutes late. It gives guests who have had to struggle getting kids or their husbands dressed and into the car and struggled through traffic to arrive before the bride. Also it builds up the tension for that grand entrance into the church …And let’s face it… Brides are worth waiting for …right ladies… so they’re worth waiting for…. But in this case Forty minutes after the service was due to start I was still nervously standing outside the church waiting for the bride to arrive. Thinking all those things you think at that time. Maybe my imagination was shaped by a diet of bad TV shows and rom com movies… was this going to be my first no show? Had she got cold feet? Had something tragic happened?

 But it seems I was the only one who was nervous. Firstly everyone knew that the bride didn’t need an invitation to be late that was her natural state, so they, even the groom were relaxed. Secondly they were using that old camper van as a bridal car… and it had to coaxed across town at a stately dawdle, I think it had to stop a couple of times or it would have overheated. Besides they were all txting her and keeping track of her progress.

Almost an hour late the bride turned up. I breathed a sigh of relief, walked into the church, let the groom know he needed to put his jacket back on and then invited people to stand… we were now ready for the bride.

Jesus uses a similar situation from the wedding traditions of his day to encourage his disciples to be watchful, because you don’t know the hour. Matthew has included it as part of a longer block of teaching which we call the Olivet discourse. A section of teaching that Jesus gives in response to his disciples questions about his comment that  the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and their confusion about when Jesus would come as king.

 Jesus had started byworking his way through a list of signs that would happen before these eventstook place, like birth pangs, but says Jesus no one will know the hour or theday of his arrival, the important thing was to remain watchful and ready. He articulates that in four parables that we are working our way through.

While we may be tempted to fall into the same mind set as Jesus disciples wanting to know when things will happen, David Turner is right when he says ‘Jesus teaching on the unknowable hour and day makes this a folly, eschatological (the study of the last days) correctness is ultimately about ethics, how we live, rather than speculation.’

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is quite strange to our ears because we are not used to the etiquette and wedding customs of Jesus day.  We are used to waiting for the bride, where as in the ancient near east and in many cultures today the groom comes in a procession to the bride’s house.  He comes to claim his bride; A New Testament image used of Jesus and the church. As in all of these parables there is a delay. We are not told why he is delayed maybe it was a normal occurrence in those days. There may have been stops along the way to various family members and important people and hospitality was an important part of this culture at the time, and people would want to celebrate with the groom on this wonderful occasion, and it was hard to get away.

The ten virgins are brides maids, the brides attendants and it seems that part of their role was to welcome the groom to the house and they needed lamps because the procession could come at night. They would have had clay oil lamps, with them that would need to be refilled every so often to keep them burning, so part of their duty and role for the wedding would to be ready. People used to carry a small vile of olive oil attached to their figure for such an eventuality.

The foolish virgins therefore find themselves unprepared and there isn’t enough oil to share and well what olive oil merchant is going to open at midnight, remember this is before 24hr shopping. It may seem that the punishment that these girls face is rather severe being shut out from the marriage feast, not recognised by the groom. But some of you are probably used to a culture where there are high expectations that people will perform culturally mandated tasks at such events and if they don’t they are shunned. It would be like the modern day bestman actually forgetting the rings. While a playful slap dance pretending to have forgotten them is permissible and a tension relieving gag, to forget the rings would be an unforgivable faux par.

This says Jesus is supposed to be a warning and encouragement for us to be watchful.

What are we to make of this parable? How are we to interpret it? How does it help us today as we endeavour to follow Jesus, through world changing times, until the end of the world?

Firstly, Jesus starts off by saying ‘At that time the kingdom of God will be like…’ There is a sense that Jesus uses this whole wedding scenario to make the one point that the reality is we won’t know who the wise and foolish are until the bridegroom comes. Jesus told a similar parable in Matthew 13 about weeds being sown by the enemy in a field of wheat. The only time that the weeds could be identified and removed without damaging the wheat was at the harvest time. The wheat would produce its crop and the weeds would then be gathered up and burned.

Maybe after the parable of the two servants we may have been lured into thinking that we are saved by our ethical behaviour. But here Jesus goes beyond that. Because in this parable all ten bridesmaids were virtuous, they are virgins, it isn’t a matter of ethics that differentiates them. And all ten get sleepy and fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. It’s one of the problems with oil lamps, not only do they give off light but also make it a smokey environment. It wasn’t a matter that the wise virgins stayed awake and the foolish didn’t. The difference between the wise and foolish is that the wise have enough oil to trim their wicks and provide light too joyfully, and oil in the Old Testament is often connected to joy, greet the coming groom.  It begs the question for all of us in the midst of all that could go on, in the midst of the whirl and swirl of history, in the face of persecution even the challenge of keeping our faith alive and healthy even through the sameness of everyday life, what keeps our faith burning bright. I have meet many people who have had an encounter with God that has meant that it’s been like a fire has caught in their life, but as time goes on it dwindles away again. It is only living out of that saving relationship with God and investing into that that gives us the spiritual oil to keep on going to the end. That enables us to keep doing what Jesus has said for us to do.

One of the issues when it comes to Jesus parables is how to interpret them. Parables are stories that have one spiritual truth behind them.  Down through history  however people have treated them as allegories; some of the ones we have interpreted by Jesus for us have that feel. But we can go too far, wanting to identify this and that in the story with very specific things. I want to go out a limb here and focus on something that I believe is important, here. It would be easy to simply see the oil in terms of salvation, or religious fervour but If I may I want to focus on something else.

I want to use this parable to talk about the Holy Spirit. In scripture one of the symbols of the Spirit of God is oil. Just as priests and kings were anointed with oil for their position so it was that God would pour out his holy spirit on them.  He would presence himself with them. The Holy Spirit of course is the third person of the trinity. Matthew does not mention the Holy Spirit much but the gospel starts and finishes with the Spirit of God at work. In Matthew 1 we see that it is God’s Spirit that starts the incarnation, Mary becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit, while not mentioned by name it is the Holy Spirit that is behind the last verse of the gospel, where Jesus says behold I am with you to the end of the age. Again it is God’s Holy Spirit that makes Christ present in our lives.  In John’s Gospel that is articulated as Jesus speaks to his disciples at the last supper, ‘I will not leave you as orphans, rather when I go to the father, I will send another like me, the spirit of truth that will dwell within us. Luke of course is the only gospel that has a sequel to the story of Jesus life, and Luke tells of the coming of God’s Holy Spirit on those first disciples at Pentecost, which gives them the power to live and witness to the risen Jesus.

 It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to witness to Christs resurrection, It is the Holy spirit that gives us the gifts to minister to each other in love and service. It is the Holy Spirit working within us that grows Christ like fruit in our lives, it what stops our salvation being by works, rather it as we allow God’s spirit to guide our steps and we walk in relationship with the Spirit that we are changed to be like Christ and to love one another. It’s the spirit of God within us that shows us of our need for God, that opens the scriptures to us and brings change to our lives.


Down through the centuries the church has often forgotten that they need the Holy Spirit, we tend to think it depends on our won efforts or our own intelligence our own spiritual passion, but it is the Holy Spirit's  presence and power that enables us to be who God has called us to be, to follow Christ. Put crudely it’s the petrol for our tanks ore in terms of this parable it can be seen as the oil for our lamps.

Some people see it as an optional extra like leather upholstery or hands free blue tooth in a luxury car, or that it is for special people, but not for me. Of course the prophecy in Joel 2, quoted in Acts at Pentecost, that talked about the coming of the messianic age was that God would pour out his spirit on all people, on all who believed, despite their gender, age, socioeconomic standing or societal status. In John’s Gospel Jesus says if you love me you will keep my commandments, and I will give you an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be with you forever. Sadly some of the excesses of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements in the past have put people off. They equate it with weird stuff, yup, that happens but the Spirit is a gentle person and does not override our self… it’s being filled not possessed… The spirit ultimately brings shalom, peace and wholeness to us.

All the way through the service today we’ve had as our resting image, a picture of a lamp and Paul's words from Ephesians 5:18, be filled and because of the Greek tense of the verb, it also reads and keep on being filled, with the Holy Spirit. It’s a command to an on-going relationship with God’s Spirit in our lives. It’s why it wasn’t simply a matter at the end of the parable that the virgins without the oil could simply get some from someone else. It’s important that we continue to allow God’s spirit to fill us up. My friend Jim Wallace says when people ask him why he needs to keep on being filled he relpies because I leak. There are times when other things mussel in and take God’s place in our lives. We need to be asking God to continually fill us afresh with his spirit.

I resisted singing that children’s song today ‘Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning’ But that is the prayer I want to leave us with today. And we can pray that pray trusting God to answer it. Because as it says in Luke’s version of Jesus Knock, seek and ask saying that we encountered in the Sermon on the Mount… If we are evil and know how to give good gifts to our children how much more will our father give the spirit to those who ask him.

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