Saturday, 5 November 2011

Give me oil in my lamp

Very late posting this week - I have really had to wrestle with Matthew 25: 1-13!

So this Sunday is the 3rd before Advent, which means that Christmas is starting to loom on the horizon.
I don’t know about you, but I am simultaneously intrigued and frustrated by those little puzzles that you sometimes get as Christmas presents. I’m the sort of person who can’t really rest until the puzzle is solved. I might force myself to put it down from time to time, but I can’t stop myself from coming back to it to have another go at solving it. Christmas Day and Boxing Day can be seriously eaten into by the frustration of a puzzle which is difficult to solve.

A bit like a parable really. Especially this parable. All week I’ve been reading, re-reading – trying to solve the puzzle – what is the point of this parable? What is Jesus trying to teach us by telling it?
Matthew has Jesus conclude the parable with ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’.

I see how this fits with what Jesus has to say in the previous chapter, where Jesus talks about the end of time and concludes ‘Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’. After that teaching we are not surprised to hear Jesus say ‘keep awake’ - but it doesn’t really fit this parable.

All the bridesmaids fall asleep, even the wise ones. What makes them wise is not their wakefulness, but the fact that they are prepared for the ‘job’ they have to do when they are suddenly woken. If you wanted a 2 word summary of their wisdom, it wouldn’t be ‘keep awake’ it would be ‘be prepared’.

But be prepared for what? This chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 25, has Jesus telling three stories, all introduced with a single sentence ‘then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…’ .

First Jesus tells this parable of the bridesmaids; then the parable of the talents, in which the owner suddenly returns after a long absence to see what his servants have each done with the money he gave them; and then Jesus tells the story of the coming of the son of man and the separation of all people into sheep (who have done the right things in life) and goats (who have got it wrong).

All three stories speak of people being brought to account in some way – of being tested to see whether they have done the right thing. Are the bridesmaids ready to light their lamps and accompany the bridegroom? Have the servants invested what they were given wisely – or merely buried their talents? Have the people been like good sheep – sharing with the poor, the naked, the imprisoned?

The unifying question in the three stories seems to be ‘what have you done?’. So this parable, of the bridesmaids, is a warning to think about the task that has been given us and make sure that we are ready to act when the time comes.

And ‘the time’ is the end of time – whether that is the end of our personal time, the end of our life, or the end of all time, a time when God will finally call this whole experiment of life on earth to a halt. We do not know when that time will be – we may even doze while we wait – but when it comes we need to be ready to light our lamps and accompany the bridegroom into the feast.

But the puzzle of the parable is still not entirely solved, is it? Because if we take this parable with the story at the other end of the same chapter, we might feel we have another problem.
The story of the sheep and the goats contains these words to the ‘righteous’, the good people
“I was hungry & you gave me food, I was thirsty & you gave me something to drink… I was naked & you gave me clothing.”
What might Jesus say to those who are faced with foolish bridesmaids who have run out of oil? “I was short of oil and.. you told me to get off to the dealers and buy some for myself.” .

Why doesn’t the Jesus who exhorts us to share with the poor tell a story in which the bridesmaids share between themselves & are all welcomed into the wedding feast?
Because this is a parable about being ready for heaven and not a story about how to keep lamps lit. The ‘oil’ of the parable is not a physical commodity which can be shared between the bridesmaids – ‘having oil’ is a metaphor for ‘being ready’.
And whatever that readiness means for each of us, it isn’t something that can be shared. We can ask one another if we are ready, but only in your own heart can that readiness really be there.
Being ready for Jesus to come to us isn’t a physical matter of being busy, or being good, or even being awake. Being ready is a spiritual matter.
So how can we be ready? One way is to acknowledge that the end will come. We cannot live our lives as if they will go on forever – as if this is all there is, as if the world we know is all that should concern us.
Our physical needs have to be met – and Jesus is clear in the story of the sheep and the goats that we also need to think about the physical needs of others.

But in the end our lives are not merely about the physical, but about the spiritual and eternal. The purpose of the bridesmaid is to be prepared to shine her light; the purpose of the servant is to invest what the Lord has given; the purpose of the righteous people is to care for the weak.
Our purpose is to love. We are made to be in a loving relationship with God. The ‘oil’ that cannot be shared is our readiness, our capacity to respond to God’s love, in this world and the next. So thanks be to God for this meal, in which we meet God & are invited to know & share his love & be fitted for heaven. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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