November 12, 2017 – 23rd Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 25:1-13; Stewardship/Commitment
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Amy-Jill Levine, a prominent Jewish New Testament scholar, has recently written a book about the parables called “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.” She emphasizes the fact that Jesus’ parables are meant to do something in the minds, hearts, and lives of the people who hear them. Their job is to confront us, disturb us, provoke us, refine us, and remind us of truths about God and about life and about ourselves. The parables have many meanings, and we hear different messages in them, depending on what is happening in our lives and in the world around us. The parables are full of power, if we have ears to hear.
Let’s consider the Parable of the Bridesmaids. As you heard and read this familiar parable, what shocked you? Two aspects of this short story shocked me. First of all, I was shocked by the wise bridesmaids who refused to share their oil. But even more shocking was the bridegroom who shut the door of the banquet hall to the foolish bridesmaids with the awful words, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” And let’s not forget the shocking context of the parable itself, the words of Jesus that introduce the story: “The kingdom of heaven will be like this” and the warning he issues at the end of the story: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This parable occurs near the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem and the time of his death is near. He has had many confrontations with religious leaders, often beginning “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He has lamented over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” He teaches his disciples about the end of the age, the coming of the Son of Man at an unexpected hour, the final judgment of all people. The Parable of the Bridesmaids is one part of Jesus’ urgent warning to his followers. Wake up! Now!
I told you that I was shocked by the wise bridesmaids who refused to share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids kept what they had so that they would have enough to be ready for the bridegroom’s arrival. Were they wrong not to share? Doesn’t scripture teach us over and over again to share what we have with those who lack what we have? Doesn’t Jesus himself teach and model self-giving, even sacrificial behavior? Why does the bridegroom invite these bridesmaids who don’t share into the banquet hall and shut the door on the others?
Another point that Amy-Jill Levine makes about the short stories of Jesus is that we need to hear them with the ears of the original audience, as much as we can. That means learning and thinking about people who are different from us in many ways. Jesus’ audiences were Jewish people, familiar with the stories and teachings of the Hebrew Bible. They knew what we are unlikely to know, the fact that in the Hebrew Bible oil was sometimes a metaphor for righteousness or good deeds. For example, in this verse from Proverbs, a book of wisdom literature: “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out” (13:9).
In the Parable of the Bridesmaids oil is different from a valuable commodity that might be shared. Think instead of righteousness or good deeds. They can’t be shared. We either have them or we don’t. We either take the job of being prepared for the bridegroom seriously or we don’t. We either go about our lives with lamps that are full or empty. It is our choice. If we are wise, we will recognize the absolute importance of being prepared for the bridegroom, we will fill our lamps with oil, and we will be ready. If we are foolish, we will appear to be bridesmaids who are ready for the bridegroom, but because our lamps are empty of oil they will go out – darkness instead of light. Each bridesmaid decided how to behave in the time she had to prepare. When the bridegroom arrived, each bridesmaid then faced either an open door to the banquet hall or a door that was closed. I hope this parable makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me! It’s time to wake up, now!
In the life of our parish it is now the time to make a budget for 2018. The vestry will be sending you a letter and a pledge card soon. Our budget for next year must be based on the financial support you promise to give. Virtually all of our operating income comes from pledges. We receive some income from other gifts and from the fundraising we do, but we must base more than 90% of our budgeted operating expenses from the money you pledge to give. If pledges do not meet projected expenses, significant changes in how we operate will result.
Power has been on all of our minds recently, hasn’t it? Think of your time, your talent, and your treasure as being the sources of power for this church. I am totally convinced that there is enough power among you to keep the doors of this church open, to sustain the worship and activities here as we have them now, and even to grow, especially in what we offer to the community. There is enough power stored in each of you, the “power houses” of this parish. But – this is the urgent question before us now – are the power lines open or are the power lines down? If the lines are down, you and the Holy Spirit are the only ones who can do the repairs. I can encourage you and the vestry can help you understand how important your power is to the life of this place, but only you can be guided by the Spirit to do the work.
If you consider how you use your power at St. Giles in worldly terms, you can hold onto most of your power for your own use and still receive the benefits of the time, talent, and treasure given by others whose power lines are open to 72 Gardiner Road in Jefferson and to the people who gather here to be the church. You can worship at St. Giles on Sunday mornings, enjoy coffee hour, and be confident of having a priest and the services of the church available for you when you need them. All without giving much yourself, as long as others give enough.
Yes, in worldly terms, that will work for you. But this morning’s parable teaches us a different lesson, a lesson about God in contrast to the world. In this short story Jesus makes it clear that each of us needs to fill our lamps with the oil of righteousness and good deeds if we want to be ready to welcome the bridegroom with joy. If our lamps only appear to be filled with oil, they will yield darkness, not light. We will be like the hypocrites Jesus rebuked with such harshness. We may fool ourselves and hide the truth about ourselves to others, but the bridegroom – Christ – will not be fooled. Jesus teaches the same lesson over and over again: how we use our possessions and wealth shows how open or closed we are to God, how we serve others shows how truly we follow Jesus, our teacher and master.
In the stewardship mailing from the vestry you will find both a pledge card and a card listing the tasks we need volunteers for. Please honestly and prayerfully consider what you will give of your power – your time, talent, and treasure – to keep the doors of this church open. This is very important in a time when small churches like ours are facing serious challenges, when some of the doors of Episcopal churches in Maine have already closed. Two other doors are incomparably more important, though. The door of your heart: is it open to God and to the teaching of Jesus? And the door of the banquet hall of the bridegroom: will it be open to receive you, lighted by the lamp you bring, burning brightly with the oil you have prepared in the time you have been given? Please think and pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.