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Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:1-13

James T. Batchelor

Pentecost 23, Proper 27, series A
Saint Paul Lutheran Church  
Manito, IL

view DOC file

Sun, Nov 12, 2017 

On the first few Sundays in October, we joined Jesus as He taught in the temple just a few days before He died on the cross.  Two weeks ago, we broke away from the temple as we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses.  Last week, we observed the Feast of All Saints.  Today, we return to the teachings of Jesus on that day.

The teaching we just heard happened later in the day.  Jesus finished His debates with the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees.  Then He condemned their hypocrisy.  Finally, He and His disciples left the temple.  As the disciples looked at the temple, they remarked on its majesty and beauty.  Jesus used their remarks to warn them about the future destruction of Jerusalem.  When they returned to their camp on the Mount of Olives, Jesus continued to teach about the end of Jerusalem, the end of life, and the end of time.  The Gospel we heard this morning is one of the parables He used to illustrate the end.

Earlier in the day, when Jesus was still in the temple, He compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a royal wedding banquet.  In today's Gospel, we heard Him use the more common community wedding celebration as the background for His parable.  Since we are talking about peasant farmers, the customs were not as lavish as the royal wedding.  Still, there are differences between wedding customs back then and the wedding customs of our culture.  I've shared some of these differences with you in the past, but a quick review won't hurt.

Marriages in first century Jewish culture began with two ceremonies.  One ceremony began a time called the betrothal.  The second came when the groom and the bride began living together as husband and wife.

During the betrothal ceremony, the groom and the bride officially became husband and wife, but they did not begin living together.  Instead, they began a time of preparation.  The husband built and decorated a home for his bride.  The wife gathered together the things she needed to set up housekeeping with her groom.  This period of betrothal could last more than a year.

After everything was ready, there would be a second ceremony and a great community celebration as the groom and the bride began to live together as husband and wife.  The ceremony began at the groom's home.  He would send out a messenger to let the bride know that everything was ready.  Then, he would call together his family and friends and form a procession.  The procession would then proceed to the bride's home celebrating along the way.  If the groom and the bride lived in the same town, this procession would be over quickly.  On the other hand, if they lived in different towns, the procession could be quite an adventure.

Travel was not as reliable back then as it is today.  There were no planes, trains, or automobiles.  While the groom and a few others might ride an animal or use a cart, most of the procession went on foot.  They might encounter obstacles on the way.  There was no telling when they might arrive at the bride's house.  It could be at any time of the day or night.

In the meantime, the messenger would arrive at the bride's home.  He would let the family know that the groom was on his way.  Soon all the neighbors would help the bride get ready to travel.  The anticipation would build.  Everything would be ready and waiting.

Ordinarily, the watchmen on the walls would be looking for danger approaching the city, but now they had the joyful duty of watching for the groom.  Day and night, they would scan the horizon looking for his procession.  Eventually, the shout would go up, "The groom is here!" Then the bride's family and friends would join the procession.

Now the process is reversed.  Once the groom arrived and the bride was ready, the entire community would accompany them in grand procession to their new home.  There they would celebrate the beginning of this new family for about a week.  No one in the community would miss it.

This is the culture into which Jesus told the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins.  All ten women were part of the community who wished to celebrate the beginning of a new family.  At first, all ten of them were ready for the arrival of the groom.  But then, Jesus said that the groom was delayed.  As I said earlier, travel was unpredictable, and delays were the rule rather than the exception.

The delay separated the wise from the foolish.  The wise were prepared.  They had extra oil.  The foolish ran out.  The wise virgins joined the community in grand procession to the new home and the wedding feast.  The foolish were not ready and so they missed out.

Jesus gave many warnings on that day.  Earlier in the day, back at the temple, He had warned about the wicked tenants who killed, not only the servants, but even the son of the landowner.  He warned of the wedding guest who refused to wear the clothing provided by the king.  He warned of an evil son who promised to work in the vineyard, but did not.  These parables illustrate the warning.  God offered His gift of salvation and the people who should have known better rejected it.

The psalmist says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm 111:10) He also says, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 53:1) Within the parable, the wise were those who took the simple precaution of extra fuel for their lamps.  The fools were those who thought the fuel in their lamp would last long enough.

In real life, the wise are those who fear the Lord.  They examine their lives in light of the Ten Commandments and find themselves lacking.  The serious nature of their sin terrifies them.  They know that they do not have enough in themselves to work their own salvation.  They know that their only hope for salvation must come from elsewhere.  It must come from God.

The fools believe that they are sufficient to themselves.  Salvation lies within.  Self-esteem, confidence, positive thinking … these are the things that bring salvation.  These are all things that we can produce in ourselves.  We need nothing extra.  We need nothing outside of ourselves.  A little bit of self-improvement … a little bit of elbow-grease … that's all it takes.  We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We can be winners.

Even those who follow false religions still rely on themselves.  The Buddhist must walk the eight-fold path and follow the middle way.  The Moslem must keep the five pillars.  The Baal worshipers of the Old Testament drew their own blood to get the attention of their false god.  Even when you believe in a false god, that god gives you things to do to earn salvation.  Your salvation still depends on you.  You are still a fool.

The wise one believes in the God who loved the world by giving his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) The wise believes in the God who earns salvation Himself and then gives it freely.  The wise one has salvation that does not come from within.  Instead, the wise one has salvation that comes from God in the person of Jesus Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of reality.  It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) At the time of death, the wise one trusts the God who took on humanity and died on the cross.  The wise one knows that the God who died also rose from the dead and lives forever.  The promise of that God is certain.  The wise one is ready.

The fool suddenly becomes wise when death strikes, but by then it is too late.  The fool suddenly realizes he has nothing.  At death, the fool learns who the true God is, but by then the door is closed.  There is no entry to eternal life.  The fool is lost forever.

What about you?  When you do a good work, does it flow out of confidence in and thankfulness for your salvation?  Does it flow out of love for your neighbor?  OR does a little part of you think that God is a little more kindly disposed toward you because of your good deeds.

The wise one rests in God.  God sends the Holy Spirit to fill us with the Gospel … the Gospel that we hear … the wet Gospel of Holy Baptism … The Gospel consumed in the body and blood of Jesus.  It is by these Means of Grace that God keeps us ready.  It is by the Means of Grace that we are like the wise virgins who had the oil they needed.

The devil, the world, and even our own sinful flesh use us up … empty us out.  If we rely on the flame within, we rely on nothing.  Instead, the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith.  In this way, He supplies us with all we need for eternal life.  We are like those who were ready [and] went in with [the groom] to the marriage feast. (Matthew 25:10) Amen

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