And while the foolish bridesmaids went to buy oil for their lamps, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.
To put this whole passage in context we need to go back to the previous chapter.
Jesus has just predicted the destruction of the temple and the disciples asked, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt 24:3) The whole section that follows is all about the “end of the age” with admonition to be watchful and ready.
The three parables in Matthew 25 all look at being watchful and ready. The Bridesmaids are waiting for the groom to arrive. The slaves investing talents of gold while their master is away, are waiting for his return. The faithful are caring for the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the homeless and those in prison although unaware that they minister to the Son of Man whom they were waiting for. We will come to the other two parables next week and the week after. But for now it is good to notice the slave who hides the gold and does nothing out of fear is punished. Those who do nothing for the hungry and thirsty are punished. And in our story today the Bridesmaids who are off buying more oil are left out in the darkness.
One scholar I read suggested we need to take a leaf out of the story of Jacob in Genesis (32:22-32) when we come to difficult passages of Scripture. Do we need to wrestle with God until God’s word becomes clear and changes us? God not only blessed Jacob but gave him a new name as a sign of the change in him. Hold onto that thought of wrestling with God until God blesses us even though we have run out of oil.
Let’s get a sense of the drain on our oil supply in 21st century faith. Each year we read these stories of watching and being ready in November which is also when Remembrance Day falls. It is probably great to have these things together. I can only imagine that during the WW1 people wondered if it was not the end of the world, the end of the age. Sadly, it was not the war to end all wars, we blundered into an equally catastrophic war just two decades later. If we fail to remember the horrific loss of life in those two world wars we will blunder into yet a third world war. We remember the deaths of millions of people and we also remember those who returned home so profoundly injured and scared bringing their nightmares home with them. We dare not forget. However new generations seem to forget.
I believe it is also good to remember the visions of hope that people had at the end of each war. Visions that were expressed first in the League of Nations and then the United Nations. The visions included a dream of equality for all, and prosperity for all. The visions recognized that it did not help to blame whole nations but to help rebuild those nations too. The memory of the horrific bloodshed and the dreams of peaceful equality spurred a whole generation to work hard rebuilding and working together with special compassion for the millions of displaced people. We codified in our laws notions of equality and special care for refugees.
The battles we face in the 21st century are against a microscopic virus and another “invisible” threat in the changing environment. These battles will prove to be much more significant than two world wars. Some will say both of these things are very visible and yet whole parts of the community struggle to see and perceive. Sometimes fear or greed become cataracts blocking our vision. Equally the people we listen to can colour our vision. Others are blinded by their own desire for power. Regardless of our capacity to see, the battles we face today make Remembrance Day even more important.
As we remember the lives lost in the world wars and other subsequent wars, we are reminded that prevention of war and catastrophe reduces the loss. The loss of life in the pandemic is easier to measure than the loss of life as the climate changes. Drought, wild fires, poor air quality and high competition for resources will causes many more deaths. But we can mitigate against these things. Australia is a perfect example of how effective mitigation is in the Pandemic. It is very costly. The second Lock Down in Victoria may take more than a decade to recover from. But other nations will take several decades to recover. In his latest Documentary David Attenborough offers serval stories of mitigation that has been going on to combat the change in the Climate. “We have the technology; we can rebuild it.” Mitigation of climate change will be costly, failure to do anything will leave rebuilding for several generations to come.
As I said, Remembrance Day hopefully includes remembering the vision and hope that came after the wars. It is possible, perhaps essential if we are to truly mitigate against this pandemic and future pandemics to hold a vision of peace, equality for all and prosperity for all. Peace in the sense that all are safe and well. Equality in the belief that if we don’t vaccinate 90% of the global population this virus will continue for years. Prosperity is only possible when all nations work to rebuild the nations most affected by the pandemic.
I believe this same vision seen clearly after the world wars will also stand us in good stead as we battle the changing climate. Central to that vision was a commitment to unity. It is great to see Attenborough’s examples of individual nations replanting forests in Costa Rica or increasing fish stocks in a Pacific nation by locking up half their fishing areas. Yet the biggest and most profound changes will happen when nations unit around a common vision.
It seems to me that people who have been conscious of the need to care for the earth for decades are growing tied. It is like the oil in their lamps of faith is running out. Where could they even go to get more oil. I can only imagine the oil in the lamps of many doctors and scientists in countries overwhelmed by the Pandemic are drying up. When will national leaders finally listen? Where can they go to replenish their stock of oil and hope.
Perhaps we can learn from Jacob wrestling with God. The people of Israel told and retold these stories because in them the learnt the how previous generations had entered deeper into the presence of God. They knew God was with Abraham as he journeyed to the land of promise; God was with Joseph in Pharaoh’s jail, God was speaking to Moses in the burning bush, leading them out of slavery. And yes God was with the conniving Jacob even after stealing his brothers birthright and his blessing. But it was only in wrestling with God in the darkness that Jacob became a man of God. Jacob’s greed and desire for power had blinded him to God’s grace.
So perhaps those among us who have good reason to feel overwhelmed by the chaos in our world might be ready to sit in the darkness waiting rather than run off to find oil. God is present even in the darkness, even when God seems to have left us to our own foolishness. Perhaps the invitation in this parable is wait and stay alert in the darkness. The bridegroom will come, and oil or no oil we will be embraced. The Bridegroom will bring healing, restoration, hope and a new vision even as we wait in the darkness. We might find ourselves changed and needing to rename our relationship with God. One lady I know who had been abused by her parents and subsequently struggled with mental illness changed her name as part of her recovery. She chose Irene which means peace.
So, this year as we come to Remembrance Day lets remember the lives lost in wars and the people who are scared spiritually and psychologically. Let’s stand alongside families when the nightmares of war turn families upside down. And let’s remember the vision of those who survived and regained their hope in the future. Let’s regain their vision of a fairer peaceful world, a world of prosperity for all. Let’s remember that vision calls for unity. And when we are struggling to regain that vision, let’s know that even in the darkness God is with us.