Sunday, 6 November 2011


An address given at Portumna, Eyrecourt and Banagher on Sunday 6th November 2011, the 3rd before Advent.

I hope you are wise enough to check the oil level in your central heating tank regularly.
When I read through today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (25:1-13), I was prompted to rush to check my own tank, and I was very glad I did because there were only a few inches left.

It’s an awful pain when the oil runs out, as I know only too well, because it happens to me far too often. And I don’t just have problems with central heating oil, but other oil too. Patrick Towers teased me this week, advising me to check I had enough fuel in my car today of all days, lest I be shown up as a ‘foolish Diocesan Reader’. This struck a nerve because it reminded me of my mother, God bless her. She would always ask me as I drove away whether I had enough petrol, because she knew I’d run out twice in a fortnight years before – she never accepted my excuse that the fuel gauge was broken and I had to dip it with a stick to see if I needed a fill.

The bridesmaids in the Gospel story - or the virgins as older translations had it: the Greek word simply means an unmarried girl – needed oil for their lamps. The wise ones made sure they had enough, but the foolish ones didn’t. We would all like to think we are like the wise bridesmaids but I fear I’m often more like the foolish ones.

The story Jesus tells about the bridesmaids may seem a bit strange to us in Ireland in the 21st Century.
In our wedding tradition we don’t expect bridesmaids to have to wait up with oil lamps for the groom to turn up in the middle of the night. But those who heard the story from Jesus would have found it all quite familiar.

In Jesus’s time the tradition was for the bridegroom to go around the houses of his friends and relatives before the wedding so that they could congratulate him and rejoice with him – a bit like our stag-nights I suppose. And the bride’s unmarried friends – the bridesmaids – would gather to escort the bridegroom to the house where the marriage ceremony would take place, when he finally arrived with his friends. When they got there everyone would join in a big party – the wedding banquet - which might go on for several days. No one could be sure when the groom would arrive - perhaps the suspense of waiting added to the general excitement, or perhaps it was a bit of a game for the groom’s friends to see if they could catch the bride’s friends napping.

So in Jesus’ story the wise bridesmaids, who came prepared with extra oil for their lamps, get to join in the bride’s big day and enjoy the party. But the foolish bridesmaids, with no extra oil, not only have the shame of being late for their friend’s wedding, but they are shut out and miss the party too.

Jesus finishes by saying ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Those who heard him would have grasped the moral of the story straight away – it is to ‘Be prepared’, just like the Girl Guide’s motto. If you are wise you will be prepared. If you are not prepared you are foolish.

Jesus tells the story as a parable about the kingdom of heaven.
‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this’, he says. But what did he intend the parable to convey to those who heard him?

Since ancient times Christians have taken the parable as an allegory of the 2nd Coming of Christ in the end times. The bridegroom who is delayed stands for Christ, the time of whose coming we cannot know; he will judge between the faithful and the unfaithful – the wise and the foolish – in a Last Judgement; the wise bridesmaids stand for those faithful Christians who will receive their just reward in heaven - represented by the wedding banquet; and the foolish bridesmaids are those who are unfaithful - they will be excluded from the heavenly kingdom.

Matthew believed with all the earliest Christians that Jesus would return again within their lifetime to usher in the kingdom of God which he had preached. Earlier in his Gospel (16:27-28) he quotes Jesus saying, ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’.

As time passed, later Christians began to realise that Jesus wouldn’t necessarily return in their lifetimes - the first Christians had died. Jesus was delayed like the bridegroom. So they came to believe that Christ’s 2nd Coming would be at some indefinite future date, at the ‘end of time’.

I’m not convinced by this theology of the 2nd Coming – it smacks too much of a vengeful, not a loving God. I don’t think it is what Jesus meant to convey to those he spoke to.

But there is another way of looking at the parable, a way I prefer. Perhaps when Jesus refers to the undefined future coming of the bridegroom – or to the end times, because this parable is surrounded by other end-times parables - he is really talking metaphorically about a typical time, any old time. No one can know when that time will be, but perhaps Jesus is telling his disciples that each one of them should expect to personally encounter him again, during their lives not in the indefinite future. That is when they will be judged, depending on whether they are ready to greet him or not.

Looked at this way, the parable teaches us that Jesus’ disciples – like the bridesmaids – must prepare themselves to be ready to greet him – as the bridegroom – whenever he comes. And who are Jesus’s disciples today? – You and I, all of us, of course!

If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to recognise and respond when Jesus returns – though in truth he never really left us: ‘Remember’, Jesus says, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).

If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to hear and respond to the prompting of the Spirit – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything’, says Jesus, ‘and remind you of all I have said to you’ (John 14:26).

If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to discern that still small voice of the God Jesus calls his Father – to which we should respond as Eli advised Samuel to do: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1Samuel 3:9).

If on the other hand we are foolish, if we are unprepared, if we are not ready when the time comes, we will miss the opportunity our Trinity-shaped God freely offers to each and every one of us, the opportunity to share in the joy of his kingdom, the opportunity to share in the joy of doing what is right and just, simply because that is what God calls us to do.

Ultimately, if we cannot respond to God we condemn ourselves. That surely is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only sin that can never be forgiven.

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