23rd Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Today’s Gospel is the quintessential parable about being ready.
Perhaps the only thing worse than a message of fear and threat, is a message that has lost its urgency — the loss of urgency for being ready that today’s parable is meant to convey. We read a parable such as the one today not just about Jesus returning someday but about being ready to respond the first time. This parable is among the last Jesus told before dying on the cross.
Jesus has tried to get his disciples ready, telling them no less than three times what was going to happen. But his disciples have been foolish bridesmaids. They will not be ready when Jesus comes. They will not be ready for a Messiah who comes to willingly suffer violence rather than dish it out. So they run off.
But here’s the incredible grace. Jesus came to change the world we live in now. Jesus came to change us. Going to heaven becomes a nice, restful interlude until the day of resurrection, when we will enjoy a whole creation renewed and fulfilled. But his coming the first time means that this project of renewal is already underway. It has begun!
And so you and I need to be ready not just for Jesus’ return but to fully embrace his coming that first time. We need to understand his means of launching the New Creation, the kingdom of heaven, by suffering violence rather than inflicting it. We need to receive the oil of the Holy Spirit that he brings for our lamps that we might ourselves become lights for a world still in darkness.
Today’s Gospel is the second of three parables Jesus tells just before his execution. You can hear his sense of urgency in all three. Just before telling these, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and a time of terrible disaster for his people. They refuse to listen to him and follow in his way of peace, so the Romans will crush them. That’s exactly what happened within a generation of Jesus’s prophecy.
Immediately after telling these parables, Jesus is delivered to evil. No one, not even his closest disciples, speak up on his behalf. He is whipped, humiliated, and executed as an insurrectionist. Jesus came to bring us God’s way of peace, but no one is willing to follow until after God’s Easter vindication and forgiveness.
It should not surprise us that Jesus’ parable is about servants who must act with urgency with the gifts given them. The servant who doesn’t suffers consequences: his master takes the gift and throws him out. We are tempted to see the master as God, and what will happen to us if we fail to use our gifts. But this parable is set in a context where hard taskmasters — the Romans — are in charge. Jesus knows his people will suffer dire consequences under the Romans if they do not respond to the gift given to them — God’s gift of a way of peace in Jesus. No one responds with a sense of urgency, not even his disciples.
The consequences will not be dire just for Jesus, they will also be earth-shattering for all Jews. Their Temple will be leveled and Jerusalem reduced to rubble. People will be slaughtered, and their leaders carried off to Rome in humiliation for execution. Their way of life as Jews will never be the same. Yes, there are consequences when God’s people fail to have a sense of urgency in standing up to evil — but it is not at the hands of God. This parable is not about what God will do to us if we don’t shape up. It’s about the very real consequences of what we do to each other if we don’t follow Jesus’ way of peace.
The story says that five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish. It does not say that five were good and five were bad. In fact, when it came to externals, there was no difference. They carried the same lamps; they wore the same dresses, they all drifted off to sleep. We are dealing with substance and not image. The oil represents inner resources ~ what we have in reserve when a crisis comes. The lamp is the outer form, but the oil is the inner fuel.
Other parables of Jesus have to do with how we serve and share with the neighbor. Dresses and lamps are things that can be exchanged. In this parable the oil represents spiritual resources of faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen which are not transferable. One does not extemporize love and loyalty to the bridegroom on the spot. When the account is overdrawn, when the lamp goes out, darkness falls and doors shut. Unfortunately, much of our modern life attests to the reality of depletion. The language gives us away ~ we are burned out, or stressed out. We are drained, empty, depressed and exhausted. Depleted stores of love and hope and purpose flicker and sometimes die.
Such depletion can happen in the service of the bridegroom.
The evidence is that for many today the supply of oil is low, and depletion and depression are realities for followers of the bridegroom. A culture of instant gratification, lacking inner spiritual resources, resorts to artificial, quick fixes to fan the flame.
Sometimes, it is necessary to let go if we are to let God. In a machine often the bearings need oil to reduce friction or they wear out and wear down. To get our bearings lubricated, we need the oil of God's grace to reduce friction in our lives.
In many ways we are used up as Christians ~ we are sent to be spent. There is depletion, but there is also replenishment. Drained, we can be refilled. We live our life in the world, but we draw our life from God. The grace of God is a renewable resource ~ and we receive that Grace at this table.
If your flame is burning low, listen again to the Master ~ "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" ~ refreshment ~ renewal ~ replenishment.
Jesus Christ not only gave himself for us, but he gives himself to us at every step of the journey. There is replenishment! And wise ones still trim their lamps with the oil of his grace.