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Prepared Or Not?

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Proper 27

Pentecost 24

Ordinary Time 32

12. Prepared Or Not?

Matthew 25:1-13

"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten

bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the

foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the

wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was

delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight

there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to

meet him.' 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their

lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil,

for our lamps are going out.' 9But the wise replied, 'No! there

will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the

dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10And while they went to

buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with

him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the

other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'

12But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13Keep

awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

Weddings are wonderful! That is an expression you may hear

frequently at the announcement of such an event. A lot of

planning and expense usually go into making the event a special

and joyous time. In our culture family and friends will travel

long distances to be present at the ceremony.

Almost every culture has extensive traditions and customs

surrounding a wedding. They underscore the importance of the


event. In our culture marriage is regulated by law. The state

assumes that it has a stake in the proper arrangements and

certification of a marriage. A wedding is an important and

joyful community event.

The parable for today draws on the wedding ceremony and the

traditions that surround it. Unhappy are those who for lack of

adequate preparation miss the wedding. So are those who miss the

kingdom of heaven and its joys.


Context of the Lectionary

The parable and the following two come toward the end of the

church year. It is fitting that the Gospel readings are three

parables dealing with eschatology. They are three of the most

familiar parables: the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins,

the parable of the Talents and the parable of the Separation of

the Sheep and Goats. Each of the parables deals with separation

between those rewarded or accepted into the kingdom and those who

are not.

Context of Matthew

The parable and the next two are placed in the last block of

teaching materials in Matthew before the account of the final

events of Jesus' life. They each give a likeness to the

consequences of persons' response to the kingdom. The parable of

the Wise and Foolish Virgins concludes with the rejection of

those who do not prepare adequately for the coming of final

events in history. The parable of the Talents speaks of wasted

use of opportunities to act for the kingdom. The third portrays

a final judgment between those who act on behalf of the kingdom

in this world and those who do not act in accord with its


Context of a Wedding

Jesus frequently compares the kingdom to a glorious feast


of the king or of a wedding. In a Jewish wedding the bride waits

at her father's house until the bridegroom comes to get her. She

then accompanies him to his house where the ceremony takes place.

On the way other participants in the wedding join the party and

accompany the bridegroom and the bride to the festivities.

The time when the bridegroom would arrive to claim his bride

was uncertain so that it would be a surprise. The bridegroom

would come at night, so lamps were needed. Lamps were small clay

vessels affixed to a staff. The vessels contained olive oil and

had a wick for the flame. The vessels would need to be refilled

from time to time as the people waited for the bridegroom to


Context of the Lectionary

The First Lesson. (Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25) The passage is

part of Joshua's farewell address to the people. He commits his

house to serve the Lord. When the people responded that they

will also, he warns them of what that means, especially if they

do not keep their commitment. He proceeds to make a covenant and

tells them the regulations that it implied.

The Second Lesson. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) The

Thessalonians were disturbed that some had died and would not be

alive for the second coming of Christ. Paul assures them that

those asleep would not be treated differently from those still

alive at Christ's return. The passage is related to today's

Gospel reading by looking at death as sleep and the maidens

sleeping while waiting for the bridegroom.

The Gospel. (Matthew 25:1-13) The parable tells of the

contrast of the five maidens who give thought beforehand to be

prepared. Five others are caught unprepared and miss the great


Psalm. (Psalm 78:1-7) The psalm underscores the need to

transmit the faith to coming generations. Each new generation

must remember what God has done and respond to him in obedience

to his commands.


Context of Related Scriptures

Psalm 45:14 Ä The virgins who are companions of the bride

follow her.

Psalm 119:105 Ä The word is a lamp for guidance.

Matthew 5:15-16 Ä The works of the members of the kingdom

are like a lamp that gives light to glorify the heavenly Father.

Mark 15:35-36 Ä An admonition to watch and not sleep.

2 Corinthians 11:2 Ä The church is described as a chaste

virgin to be presented to Christ.

2 Peter 1:19 Ä The prophetic message served as a lamp

shining in a dark place until the day dawns.

Revelation 19:7 Ä The marriage of the Lamb to the bride who

is ready.

Revelation 21:2 Ä The new Jerusalem as a bride adorned for

her husband.


Content of the Parable

The parable uses a similarity between a wedding celebration

and the kingdom of heaven. The point of the parable is the need

for constant preparedness for the kingdom to break into daily

existence. Some of the details of the parable lend themselves to

further interpretation.

The use of the figure of the bridegroom makes an evident

connection between the appearance of Jesus and the announcement

of the presence of the kingdom. The early church with its

expectation of an early return of Jesus to bring the kingdom to

fulfillment understood the parable to speak of that coming event.

No mention is made of the bride. From the context a bride

is self-evident. Who then are the ten maidens who waited for the

coming of the wedding party? Were they the contemporary parties?

The wise maidens might be the disciples who were prepared to

answer the call of Jesus and follow him. The foolish maidens


could be the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees who

expected a messiah to come and deliver Israel from its oppressors

yet they were not prepared to respond either to John the Baptist

or Jesus when they proclaimed the presence of the kingdom of God.

The joy of the wedding feast is contrasted with those who

were left on the outside in the dark looking into the house where

the festivities were in process.

Precis of the Parable

A wedding ceremony is anticipated. A group of ten maidens

were awaiting the event, expecting to be part of the wedding

party. They had their lamps chasing away the darkness of the

night. The bridegroom lingered. Finally about midnight the word

is spread that the bridegroom and bride are about to arrive.

Half of the five maidens suddenly realize that their lamps

are flickering low and are about to die out. They are without

oil to keep the lamps burning. They turn in desperation to the

other five and want them to share the oil they have in reserve

for just such a contingency. But the five who had come prepared

for a long wait know that if they share their supply, all the

lamps will be extinguished before they arrive at the house of the

bridegroom. That would certainly dampen the atmosphere of

celebration. So while they may regret it, they feel compelled to

refuse the request.

The five who did not bring a reserve scurry about to find

more oil. Since it is night the shops are closed. By the time

they succeed in finding a new supply and return, the wedding

party has already entered the house of the bridegroom and the

ceremony is underway. When the five maidens arrive and knock on

the door, their entrance would be an intrusion and disrupt the

gay proceedings. They are denied entrance with the rather harsh

reply that they are unknown to the bridegroom.

The parable ends with the admonition to keep awake and be in

constant readiness, for the time of the coming of the kingdom is



Thesis: Prepare for the crisis of the kingdom which may

come unexpectedly.

Theme: Seize the day!

Key Words in the Parable

1. "Ten." (v. 1) Numbers in Israel had more of a

qualitative meaning than a quantitative designation. Ten was a

number of completeness, such as the ten tribes of Israel, the ten

commandments and the prescription that where ten adult Jewish

males were present in one place, a synagogue should be organized.

2. "Lamps." (v. 1) In biblical imagery lamps are usually

identified with the word of God or the witness of the faithful

which illuminates and shows direction for life.

3. "Bridegroom." (v. 1) The bridegroom is symbolic in this

parable of Jesus. The advent of the kingdom in some special

sense was identified with the coming of Jesus, both in his

initial appearance in the flesh and in his expected second


4. "Five...foolish; five wise." (v. 2) The indication of

half who were wise and half who were foolish probably suggested

the incompleteness of the kingdom's manifestation in history.

Even in Judaism, and later in the church, not everyone who

professed to be obedient to God was really prepared to do so.

5. "Midnight." (v. 6) Midnight is symbolic of the darkest

hour, halfway between sundown (6 p.m.) and sunrise (6 a.m.)

6. "Trimmed Their Lamps." (v. 7) The clay lamps had a

cotton wick. As the oil was depleted the wick would burn and

become black. It had to be trimmed so that it would only burn

the oil. Otherwise the lamp would give a dull yellow flame

instead of a bright blue flame.


7. "Lord, Lord." (v. 11) Again the euphemism for the name

of God is used. It is reminiscent of the vain use of the name by

those who mouthed it but were not ready to submit themselves in

obedience to the Lord.

8. "I do not Know You." (v. 12) A typical Aramaic

expression. It means that I will not have anything to do with


9. "Keep Awake." (v. 13) The admonition to keep awake is

given just prior to the arrest and trial of Jesus. The disciples

slept in the Garden of Gethsemane and consequently were

unprepared for the events that followed. They fled and betrayed

Jesus. Matthew no doubt was intentional in placing this parable

in close proximity to the Garden of Gethsemane events.



1. Uncertainty. The parable deals with the uncertainty of

an event. Uncertainty is one of the chief causes of temptation.

So often we can rise to meet a crisis. It is during the time

when nothing seems to be happening that we become lax and succumb

to temptation. Our fears of anticipation may also be worse than

the consequence of the event itself.

2. Apathy. A great enemy of the church is apathy. Many

churches have a lot of so-called dead wood. They are people who

are on the membership list but do not attend except possibly on

the high holy days of Christmas and Easter, or for such events as

weddings, baptisms and funerals. They do not contribute more

than token amounts to keep their name on the roll. They do not

assume any responsibilities for the program of the church. A

continuing challenge is to find some way to shout, "Look! Here is

the bridegroom. Come out and meet him."

3. State of Readiness. It is hard to maintain a constant


state of readiness. Life calls for a rhythm between activity and

rest. All ten maidens slept while they waited. Sleeping is not

denigrated. In fact, adequate sleep is necessary for readiness.

Studies show that people who are sleep deprived over an extended

period of time are more prone to accidents and illness, are less

efficient in their work and are more irritable. Sleep can,

however, be used as an escape from responsibility. Sleep can be

interrupted or postponed on occasion for special demands without

ill effects.

4. The Unexpected. History is full of surprises. We may

see cause and effect in retrospect. It is hard to see the

effects of many things in prospect, especially in complex

relationships where many factors affect the outcome. One of the

most indeterminate factors is the freedom of human responses.

The consequences of Jesus' death and resurrection are easier to

see with hindsight. How and when the kingdom may break into

history in powerful ways in the future cannot be fully

anticipated. Therefore it is important to watch and be prepared.

The signs of the kingdom's coming into our personal lives or into

larger social movements cannot always be perceived in advance to

those who are attentive and receptive to them.

5. No Borrowed Oil. The five unprepared maidens wanted the

other five to give them some of their oil. They could not do so

without running short themselves. One must be careful in pushing

details of a parable too hard to fit some notion. If we assume

that the oil for the lamps in the parable is symbolic of our

works which are the light which shows God's glory, as suggested

in Matthew 5:15-16, then the oil for our lamps is our works. The

doctrine of supererogation contends that Jesus and certain other

persons have earned more merit than they need for salvation.

Since salvation is not a matter of merit, but of grace, we do not

need to appropriate another's merit. Indeed, we need not and we

cannot borrow from another to light our lamps. It is a

responsibility we have to be prepared to accept for ourselves.


6. Recognized by the Bridegroom. The foolish maidens who

were tardy in arriving at the wedding were not recognized. If we

accept the assumption that it is our works that provide the fuel

for the light of our lamps, then that light cannot wait until the

last moment to be recognized. A time comes when it is too late.

If we are citizens of the kingdom, then our character should

manifest it. The beatitude says that it is the peacemaker who is

a child of God, that is, shares the divine characteristic that

demonstrates origin. Character is not acquired instantly. It is

the result of a process of actions that lead to recognition of

our true parentage.

Homily Hints

1. Oil for My Lamp. (v. 4) We can use a variety of

resources to keep our lamp lit.

A. Prayer and Meditation

B. Steeping Ourselves in Scripture

C. Regular Worship

D. Serving Other's Needs

2. The Bridegroom Comes. (v. 6) Christ comes in many ways

to awaken us and invites us to join the wedding banquet.

A. Through the Examples of Others

B. Through Events Around Us

C. Through Personal Failure

3. Trim Your Lamps. (v. 7) People need to rid their lives

of the debris that keeps the light from burning true and bright.

A. Habits of Commission

B. Habits of Omission

C. The Burden of Past Guilt

4. Knowing the Day and Hour. (v. 13) Some people are

always trying to develop a timetable for the future. They make

elaborate schemes purporting to know exactly how and when God

will deal with history and its outcome. They do a great deal of

mischief by raising false hopes which leads at times to bizarre


behavior. We should not fall prey to such false expectations.

We do so by being aware of steps to take in response to such


A. Do not Second Guess God

B. Do not Put God in a Straitjacket

C. Prepare for Any Eventuality

5. The Time is Now. (v. 13) Persons never know with

certainty when the time of accountability will come. It may

tarry until midnight. It may arrive sooner than we think. It

may come as a surprise. Therefore, be alert and ready at all


A. Be Awake!

B. Be Watchful!

C. Be at God's Work!


Points of Contact

1. Reading the Future. People try many ways to read the

future. Horoscopes in the daily papers attest to this desire to

know how things will happen to us. Tarot cards, fortune cookies,

Ouija boards and fortune tellers are some of the means people

consult to try to determine their futures. All of these

represent a lack of trust that God has the future in hand. For

those who are in God's care, the future is not something to fear,

but something to enter with confidence. People need to be

reassured of this truth.

2. Life as Celebration. People look forward to events which

give cause to celebrate Ä weddings, Christmas, Thanksgiving,

Easter, birthdays, anniversaries. People who have had near-death

experiences find their life priorities radically altered. Many

find the new lease on life a reason to celebrate each new day as

an opportunity that might have been lost. Jesus presented life

in the kingdom as a royal banquet or as a wedding feast.

Christians should not wait for the end of time Ä either

personally or as the Second Coming Ä to celebrate life. Each day

should start with a pause to celebrate the opportunities it

brings to live in the kingdom.


3. Lost Opportunity. Fiction writers of short stories,

novels, movies and TV programs often dwell on lost opportunities.

Because of the development of the plot, the reader or viewer

knows before the actors do the tragedy of missing a chance for

something that could lead to fulfillment of a desire. In life it

is too often only after the event that we know we missed an

opportunity Ä a word not spoken that could have changed a

relationship, a bad choice at a critical moment, a wrong

direction taken at a juncture in life. Life confronts us with

choices and opportunities. None is more important than the

choices that affect our eternal destiny. People need to think

seriously about how they are prepared for the ultimate choice

about the meaning of their lives.

4. Wisdom and Intelligence. Wisdom is not directly

correlated with intelligence. Very smart people may not make any

better choices in life than those who have lesser intelligence.

A person with only marginal intelligence can show love to others

and engage in a life of service. The response to the grace of

forgiveness and empowerment to live in love, peace, joy,

compassion, generosity and other such values can be received by

anyone. The wisdom to be prepared to act according to the spirit

of Christ is more to be valued than great feats of intelligence

without these characteristics.

Points to Ponder

1. Absent Lord. This parable along with others in the

series has an absent lord. The bridegroom has not yet appeared.

People become atheists because they have no experience which they

identify as an experience of the presence of God or as an

encounter with Christ in their lives. The problem is to find

ways to help them recognize the reality of God. Sometimes it may

be an intellectual problem, such as a world view that does not

allow for the existence of spiritual realities. It may also be a

false conception of who God or Christ must be. It may also

result from a poor, distorted or inadequate modeling by those who

claim to know God in Christ Jesus. It may also be some ethical

or moral barrier in their own lives which will not let God into

their lives.


2. Awake or Asleep. The parable seems to have an internal

inconsistency. All ten maidens are asleep when the shout arises

that the bridegroom is coming. It makes no difference whether it

is the wise or the foolish maidens. Then in the final verse of

the pericope we find the admonition to be awake, as though the

point of the parable is not lack of preparedness but being asleep

when the Lord comes. Some commentators have suggested that this

concluding verse is not part of the original parable, but was

appended by Matthew or the early church. How do you harmonize

the two? Or do you need to press every detail of a parable for


3. Maidens and Virgins. In the New Testament it is

sometimes a question of how you translate the term which is

either maiden or virgin. At the time, the two were considered

identical. An unmarried young woman was automatically assumed to

be a virgin. In the American culture today, many young people

are active sexually at a very young age. It cannot be assumed

just on age that a young man or woman is a virgin. Indeed, a

growing problem is children having children when they are not

mature enough to care for them. They have no stable support

unless their parents or other adults provide the support. How

should the church address both the problem of early, extra-

marital sexual activity and the consequences in infants without

the family support needed for them?

Illustrative Materials

1. The End Times. How do you act in anticipation of the end

of the world and history as we know it? In the light of the long

delay in that end coming, one should prepare as though history

will continue for another 2000 years before the eschaton, but

should live as though it could happen today.

2. Scout Motto. The scout motto is a good one for

Christians also: "Be Prepared."


3. A State of Readiness. During the Cold War the U.S. and

the USSR lived in a constant state of readiness for the

possibility of a nuclear war. The U.S. Strategic Air Command had

planes circling in the air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to be

prepared to respond to a nuclear attack.

4. The Attraction of a Bride. A couple had a two-year-old

girl. They were taking her to a botanical garden. On the way

they passed a cathedral where a wedding party was evident since

the groom and his attendants were standing around in the parking

lot. The child was taken inside and saw the bride before the

ceremony began. She had no further interest in the botanical

garden. She kept wanting to go see the bride again. On the

return the doors to the cathedral were open. She was taken where

she could see the wedding in progress. Just then the priest

began praying and it came over the speakers very loudly. She was

somewhat frightened and so they left. She still wanted to see

the bride. As they went farther, they walked by the Hilton

Hotel. A limousine pulled up with a wedding couple in it. They

sat at the entrance without getting out for a while. The young

girl was taken over to the limo. The couple opened the window

and talked to her briefly. That was a highlight for the two-

year-old. She talked about it for a long time afterward.

5. Surprises in History. Malthus developed a theory that

the population growth would outstrip the growth of food,

resulting in mass death and chaos. Even India and China which

were earlier subject to periodic famines have stabilized food

production for a much larger population than Malthus would have

thought possible.


In the '60s the Club of Rome made some very pessimistic

projections about the depletion of oil reserves by the year 2000.

Approaching the year 2000 the known oil reserves now are greater

than when they made the predictions.


For years many people were expecting that South Africa would


only change the apartheid system as the result of a long and

bloody civil war. They did not expect it to happen until at

least the twenty-first century. The surprise is that the

transition took place through a process of political negotiation

and a relatively peaceful election.


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