This morning the sun rose and brightly shined through your window, halting the production and circulation of the hormone melatonin in your blood stream signaling you to wake up. Subsequently, the level of melatonin in your blood will remain almost undetectable throughout the rest of the day; that is until the sun goes down and darkness falls upon us as it does every night. And as it does every night, the darkness will trigger the production of melatonin in your body, making you drowsy, ultimately leading to what we hope will be a good night’s rest.
Doctors recommend an average of 8hrs of sleep per night, but let’s be honest, although that’s the recommendation most of us fall short of that mark and some of us even exceed it. Science has identified a small sect of the human population that just naturally functions off of less sleep, but majority of us don’t fall in that category and we should strive for the recommended 8hrs.
There are those of us who believe there just aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done, so we exchange sleeping hours for waking ones. Some of the world’s most successful people are self-proclaimed workaholics who only sleep an average of 4-6hrs a night and credit their work ethic to their material success. I personally slept only about 3-4hrs a night when I was in school but find I need at least 6 now to not be totally miserable the next day.
Then there’s the growing number of people who would like to sleep 8hrs a night but just can’t do so whether it’s biological, or you haven’t quite figured out your sleep number on your mattress, or you’ve just got a racing mind that you don’t know how to shut down at night without some assistance. Oh this group of people, doctors love to see coming! By the end of 2012 sleep medicine had become a 32 billion dollar a year industry with no signs of slowing down.
Then there’re those of us who are on the other end of the sleep spectrum. Oh you know who I’m talking to: the ones who get 8hrs a night and still have a hard time rolling out of bed. The ones who will sleep through a marching band even if they performed a halftime show right there in the bedroom. I dated a young lady in college who could literally sleep 12hrs straight without interruption and then would have the nerve to get an attitude if you called to check on her and woke her up in the process. “Well excuse me, I was just making sure you were alive.”
Nonetheless no matter how much or how little sleep you need to survive, we all have to sleep at some point. And if you think about it in the grand scheme of things, no matter how much or how little sleep you get, on average we all sleep about 1/3 of our lives away. Just to put that in perspective if you’re 75 years old you’ve probably spent somewhere between 18-25yrs asleep. Now you’re probably thinking, “My my, that’s a lot of sleep! Oh what I could do with an additional 20yrs of wakening.” I can see some of you now are gonna go home and try to stay up past your bedtime tonight like, “Oooh child I’ve been sleep for 20yrs I need to stay up.” Which is fine but don’t be mad at me when you’re sleepy at work tomorrow!
Fact is, much of society has adopted the attitude that “sleeping” whether literally or figuratively, is a bad thing; especially here in America where we measure our life’s value by our productivity. Less than 2 weeks ago the ABC news program 20/20 did a segment about people “sleeping on the job.” And while you never want to be caught sleeping on the job, most of the employees negatively profiled were people who are probably overworked, underpaid, and sleep deprived. But none of that matters in today’s society. Sleeping on the job is a sign of weakness. Falling asleep at the wheel is a metaphor for being unaware, unready, and unprepared.
Our text this morning, is yet another Matthean tale where the setting is a banquet, and Jesus teaches a lesson like only Jesus can, through a parable about the consequences of sleeping on the job; about the penalty for falling asleep at the wheel; about the repercussions of being unprepared for the coming of the Lord. The gospel reads thusly,
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Nestled in what is sometimes called Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46), the parable of the bridesmaids stands second in a series of four distinctly Matthean parables, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting (24:43-25:46). The entire section of eschatological teaching is addressed to the disciples in private as they sit with Jesus on the Mount of Olives (24:3) in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy that the LORD will stand on the Mount of Olives and be recognized as king over all the earth (14:9, 16-17).
Immediately preceding these four parables at Matthew 24:42 stands Jesus’ instruction, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” The coming of this day is certain, and this parable illustrates this certainty with the coming of the bridegroom.
This particular one discriminates between wise and foolish virgins (translated “bridesmaids” in the NRSV), half of whom miss out on the party on account of their unpreparedness because the door has been shut while they were seeking oil (25:10).
The scene involves delay, evoking the delay of the Lord’s return, along with the motifs of sleeping and being ready. Early Christians reminded one another that Jesus’ return might happen suddenly, so that alertness is necessary.
The parable opens with a familiar phrase, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” The kingdom is like the whole scene portrayed by this parable where some bridesmaids are prepared for the groom and enjoy the banquet and others are excluded by their own lack of preparation.
This is the only distinction between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. It characterizes five as wise because they bring extra oil, and it renders five as foolish for failing to do so. Otherwise, all the virgins act the same. They arrive on time. They wait. And due to the delay of the groom and the late hour they all tire and fall asleep. (early Christian discourse typically regards falling asleep as a bad thing, when it comes to Jesus’ return, as often seen in scripture (Matthew 24:42, Mark 13:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:6.) However, their sleepiness is not the problem because they wake up at the same time, and in time to trim their lamps. But when the bridegroom arrives, the foolish virgins find their oil going out. The five wise virgins, claiming they have only enough oil for themselves, will not share. So the foolish five go out for more oil, finding the door shut upon their return. They knocked on the door of the house, but their entrance to the wedding banquet was denied by the groom and they miss out. Preparation marks the only distinction between the virgins.
Although these bridesmaids were chosen to accompany the bride and groom, their role as bridesmaids did not guarantee them a place at the banquet. They had initially played the part of wedding attendants. They had waited with lamps lit, for a while, but they did not plan for the long dark time of waiting. As a result, they were shut out of the banquet. The maids’ plea (25:11) recalls Jesus’ warning in (7:21-23) that not everyone who cries “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Our discomfort with the parable of the virgins likely arises from self-awareness. Most of us know ourselves as wise in some contexts and foolish in others. On an imaginary scale of wilderness readiness, some people are more likely to prepare for every eventuality, but most of us vary from context to context. Preparation seems an arbitrary distinction.
The parable of the virgins isn’t necessarily arbitrary, but it is challenging. It calls Jesus’ disciples to a state of constant alertness, of perpetual openness to God’s dramatic future.
The parable is summed up in verse 13. The imperative often translated as “keep awake” might best be rendered, “be vigilant.” In this parable, the bridegroom’s arrival was certain but the uncertainty of the timing illustrates the need for constant vigilance. The earliest readers of this Gospel have already entered the dark days after the crucifixion and resurrection and have begun waiting for Christ’s return. This parable teaches all would-be followers of Jesus the importance of vigilance in an uncertain time and challenges them to “endure to the end” (24:13), living in anticipation of the Lord’s coming.
Someone might argue that this parable discloses exactly one thing, the importance of being “ready” for the Lord’s return even if it is delayed. According to this line of thinking the metaphor stops there. But this parable about preparedness also connotes a message about judgment.
This parable, along with the other “watchful” parables in the preceding chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, challenge our quickly made assumptions about judgment, grace and the end times. It would be too easy, as we have witnessed in the history of interpretation, to allegorize the characters in this parable in terms of simply good and bad. The definitions we give “good” and “bad” have always reflected our own prejudices more than they have faithfully represented Gospel truth. Even the oil in the lamps has been denominationally interpreted as works (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without good works) or faith (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without faith). We are challenged to move beyond these simplistic bipolarities.
You see what is striking in this parable, is that while preparation marks the only distinction between the bridesmaids, judgment denotes the only distinction between the braidsmaids and bridegroom; the confinement of judgment is to one character — the bridegroom. Judgment is reserved to the only one who can judge (see Romans 14 but also Matthew 7). Even the wise young women do not judge the foolish one; they merely refuse to share their oil and send the foolish women to the shopkeepers. The history of interpretation, of course, has not remained faithful to this reserve. It has quickly assigned qualities to the foolish and the wise and lifted these qualities up as virtues and vices. In other words, the tradition has continually judged who is good and bad.
The young women were all waiting for the bridegroom. They all belonged to the same community, the same group of friends. They all fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. Within the community, it is impossible to tell who has enough oil in their lamps, who has been more faithful. This is not for us to see or to judge. The church remains always a mixed community and making the center of interpretation the issue of foolish or wise would miss the point of the parable.
You see living or waiting or maybe even sleeping with enough oil in our lamps, when set in the context of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven, suggests that it is the spirit of the beatitudes that, above all else, characterizes those who recognize the bridegroom, the Lord. This spirit is the spirit of the cross that disrupts all of our categories, all of our judgmental predispositions. The life into which the beatitudes invite us is a life not centered on our works, not on our faith, but on the cross and how God is glorified through our lives.
The holy possession of the cross is not really a possession at all, as if we “owned” the cross or some special access to God. It is a life that is characterized by choices that make it clear God is the actor and the giver of life.
Those who are enduring misfortune, even poverty, for Christ’s sake are not the ones who will be quick to judge others. You know who I’m speaking of: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Judgment is purely reserved for God who alone knows or recognizes each individual. Grace is in the cross that lets shine forth a light, a light so unique that people do not praise our good works but rather praise God who is acting and giving life in the midst of suffering, life in the midst of death, opening the door to those who have engaged the way of the cross, who have engaged the way of death. The world cannot understand this way. It does not recognize the Lord though it continually cries out, “Lord, Lord!”
The coming of Christ therefore becomes not a one-time event at some “end point” but rather a continuous event that involves us, the community of Christ, in our baptismal vocation: living in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment. Being vigilant. Staying woke! To live in vigilance means for the disciples to do the tasks that they have been appointed to do in preparation for the Master’s coming. So you ask well preacher what are these magic tasks that I need to prepare for the coming of the lord, I wanna be invited into the banquet too! Well Jesus explains right here in Matthew’s Gospel:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Those tasks include bearing witness to God’s kingdom by welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned (25:31-46), and making disciples in all the world (28:19-20) without judgement.
“Wake Up Everybody”
Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed so very much from what it used to be
So there is so much hatred war an’ poverty
Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
‘Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children, teach ’em the very best you can
The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me