November 9, 2012 Matthew 25:1-13
My favorite course this term (other than the I’m taking with Dr. Purves, of course) has been Introduction to Ethics. Christian Ethics asks Christians to think about how Christ is a part of the decisions they make every day. Christian Ethics insists that the fact that we are Christians matters when it comes to how we make decisions. Christian Ethics is not easy. This is a theme that we see reflected again and again in this morning’s parable.
Christian Ethics are at work in the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids because the text provides a positive, and a negative model of how the bridesmaids make their decisions about how they would prepare for the bridegroom’s delayed return. Both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids thought they were prepared to meet their bridegroom. The ethical question becomes how did the decisions the bridesmaids made before the wedding banquet affect whether or not they were prepared for the banquet?
The question of how our actions today impact whether or not we will be prepared for the future reminds me of one of my favorite TV Shows, Madame Secretary. The series explores the life of Elizabeth McCord as she prepares to make ethical decisions as the US Secretary of State. In the episode “The Operative,” Elizabeth tries to get her husband Henry, a Christian ethicist at Georgetown University, to change a student’s grade from a C to an A. She believes her preparations will save the life of one of her operatives because the student’s father is a powerful foreign national who could exert a lot of political pressure. Henry refuses to change the student’s grade.
Elizabeth and Henry’s dilemma is a good example of how Christian ethics are a part of the decisions Christians make every day. Elizabeth, like the foolish bridesmaids, is practicing situational ethics. Situational ethics asks us to make decisions based on the best possible immediate outcome in a given situation. The problem with situational ethics is that they only helps us prepare for present situations. That is exactly what made the foolish bridesmaids “foolish.” Their preparations for the bridegroom’s return were dependent upon a specific situation-him returning quickly. In preparing only for the present, Elizabeth, and the foolish bridesmaids, were unable to prepare for the future.
Henry, like the wise bridesmaids, is practicing Christian Ethics. Christian Ethics insists that the fact that we are Christians determines how we make decisions. Henry believes that Christ calls him to live a life of integrity. Maintaining his integrity is more important than a good outcome for Elizabeth’s immediate situation, because to be ethical is to follow Christ. Christian Ethics allows Henry to prepare for present and future situations in the same way that bringing extra oil allowed the wise bridesmaids to prepare for the imminent or delayed arrival of their bridegroom.
As you can see from Elizabeth and Henry’s dilemma, Christian Ethics is not easy. Asking Christians to see Christ at work in the decisions they make can sometimes make decision making more, not less complicated. In our parable, the foolish bridesmaids were foolish because they did not prepare enough oil to meet the bridegroom’s delayed return. The problem is not that the foolish bridesmaids were not prepared. The problem is that the foolish bridesmaids were not prepared enough. The complicated ethical question this parable encourages us to wrestle with is how do we prepare for the bridegroom’s delayed return?
This parable invites us to understand the 10 bridesmaids as Christians with different understandings of when Christ, the bridegroom will return. The foolish bridesmaids took no extra oil with them. In taking no oil with them, they were unprepared for the bridegroom’s delay. They missed his return because they were out buying oil when he returned. The wise bridesmaids took flasks of oil with them so that they would be prepared in case the bridegroom was late.
The text then tells us that since the bridegroom was delayed in meeting them, all of the bridesmaids became drowsy and slept. I’ve always wondered why all of the bridesmaids slept? Surely if the wise bridesmaids were wise enough to prepare extra oil for their lamps, they were wise enough to take a nap before the wedding? Augustine struggled with this question too. He concluded that we are to understand the sleep of the bridesmaids, not as sleep, but as death. He writes, “do you imagine that just because one is wise, she does not have to die? Whether the virgin is foolish or wise, all suffer equally the sleep of death.”
Augustine argues that one of the hidden meanings of this text is that the wedding banquet is a metaphor for the last judgment. Whether we are wise or foolish bridesmaids in our life here on Earth, we will all die. The text even suggests that we will all die before Christ comes again. But what separates the wise from the foolish bridesmaids is whether they believed their actions on earth prepared them for Jesus’ second coming.
The text also suggests that Christ, the bridegroom, will come again when we least expect it. The parable tells us that Christ came at midnight. I don’t know about you, but the only time of year I am awake at midnight is on New Year’s Eve- and even then, as my family will surely tell you, I’m in bed by 12:05. Midnight is the time of night when I am completely unaware of my surroundings. I do not think it was an accident that Christ returned for his bridesmaids at midnight. Christ came at a time when the bridesmaids were not expecting him to emphasize his theme of the importance of being prepared for his return.
We quickly see who was prepared and who was not when the bridesmaids awaken. The foolish ones ask the wise ones for some of their oil. The wise ones tell them that they do not have enough to share. While the foolish ones are out buying oil, the bridegroom returns. When the foolish ones return to the banquet with their oil, Christ tells them that he does not know them. Christ says he does not know them to emphasize how very important being prepared for Christ’s return really is.
In verse 13, the narrator reveals the moral of the parable: “keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This parable invites us to live awaked lives. Being awake at midnight means living lives full of anticipation and hope. Christian Ethics, teaches us that it is not enough for a Christian to be a “good person.” It teaches us that we live awakened lives when we allow Christ to be a part of the decisions we make every day. This parable also insists that it is not enough for a Christian to be a “good person.” I’m sure the foolish bridesmaids were “good people.” This parable teaches us that we can live awakened lives by preparing ourselves for Christ to come again.
This parable ends by encouraging us to figure out for ourselves how to stay prepared and how to stay awake. One of the things I find both beautiful and frustrating about this parable is that Jesus never tells us how to act. Instead he asks us questions about how our preparations either allow us to live lives of awakedness or drowsiness.
The good news is that we do not have to figure out how to stay awake on our own. As we live in the tension of trying to live Christian lives while not knowing when Christ will come again, God gave us tools to help us live awakened lives today. In daily prayer we invite God to prepare our hearts and minds for Christ to come again. In regular attendance in worship we prepare ourselves for what the Earth will be like when Christ gathers all things up into himself. In service to others we prepare to live out the gospel message of putting our neighbors needs above our own. And in living in Christian Community, we prepare our communities to live out lives of patience, humility, and self-sacrifice. It is through these Christian disciplines, daily prayer, regular attendance in worship, service to others, and living in Christian Community, that we prepare ourselves to keep awake at midnight.