What are You Good For?
Thanks, Landon, for this sermon at The Kirk.
25“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.
Growing up as I did, a child of 1980s Charismatic Fundagelicalism, this section of the Gospel of Matthew was always haunting. Viewed through the lens of Tribulation and Rapture theology, chapters 24 and 25 paint a bleak picture for anyone who would be considered an “unbeliever.”
For context, this parable of the Ten Bridesmaids comes after a lengthy discourse by Jesus in the previous chapter where he answers a question about the sign of the “end of the age” by speaking of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famine, and pestilence. The land is going to be given over to tyranny, and the people of God should, literally, run for the hills. But God will save the people out of this horrible estate. To be clear: God will save the faithful ones.
Hence: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids…”
I was taught that this was a parable about being a radically committed Christian. A pious disciple without compare. Of being the one who would stand up for Jesus in the face of persecution.
And so it haunted me. It haunted me because it meant that I needed to be a different kind of person than everyone else. I needed to listen to different kinds of music, wear different kinds of clothes, live by a different code. I needed to make sure that the people I cared for knew and understood that Jesus wanted to be in their hearts, but also that I needed to fight for prayer in schools and against the dastardly “War on Christmas.” This world was becoming more and more secularized and it was my responsibility – all of our responsibilities – to hold the line against it. Katy, bar the door: The heathens will not win!
The text tells us that five of the bridesmaids were wise and five of them were foolish. As you would expect, we are supposed to want to emulate the wise and try to not be like the foolish. The Greek word we have as wise could also be translated “prudent” or “thoughtful.” But, as we know, it’s not the wise bridesmaids we’re really concerned about here, is it? No, the focus of Jesus’ (and our) attention is on the foolish bridesmaids. The point here is to learn a lesson at the expense of others’ failings (even if those “others” happen to be characters in a made up parable).
The word Matthew uses for foolish is the same word we find elsewhere in Matthew: Back in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is talking about Salt.
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
In this text from Matthew 5:13 the word for foolish is translated as “is no longer good for anything.” And think about that for a moment: Isn’t that true. If salt isn’t salty anymore, what good is it? Nothing. It’s good for nothing. It’s useless.
And salt doesn’t exist for it’s own sake. I mean, sure, some people like their food saltier than other people do, but the point of salt is not actually the salt, is it? Nope. No one takes a bite and says “Wow, that is some good salt.” It just doesn’t work like that. When salt is good and doing its job, we praise the flavor of the meat or pasta or vegetable. The salt is an afterthought. It’s only job was to open up our taste buds to taste the food itself. But if it’s lost its saltiness and can’t do that one simple task, then what good is it? Nothing. It’s good for nothing. It’s useless.
So back to the bridesmaids…
The bridesmaids in our story had one job: when the groom came, they were supposed to go out and meet him and lead him into the wedding party. No one knew when he was to arrive so they had to be prepared. He came later than anyone thought he would, and not everyone had brought enough lamp oil with them. And those who didn’t are called, here, foolish. They are referred to in the same way salt that has lost its saltiness is referred to.
These five bridesmaids are “no longer good for anything.” They were not vigilant. They did not stay prepared and have enough oil. They had one job to do and they didn’t do it. So you have to ask yourself: What good are they? No good. They were Good–for-Nothings. They were useless.
Jesus tells this parable after relating to the disciples that things in life are going to get very bad for a lot of people. Scholars aren’t entirely sure what this section of scary, horrible apocalyptic stuff is all about – it might be about the destruction of the Temple, it might be about persecutions in general – but what we do know is that along with a couple other parables Jesus seems to be saying that when things get really bad the Kingdom of Heaven is going to be like responsible bridesmaids who had a job to do, did it well, and did not become as useless as salt that had lost its flavor. He’s saying the Kingdom of God looks like people who are already prepared to take care of others when things get bad.
Disaster is going to strike. Sickness is going to come. Betrayal is going to occur. Death with take us all. Pain will visit sooner or later. These are things we are sure of.
But we are called to be like Salt. Just as salt’s purpose is to make food taste better, we are called to make life better. That’s why we are here. God has called and created us to make the world a better place. We are called to be like the Wise Bridesmaids who are prepared and have enough oil to do the one job they’ve been asked to do.
We don’t know when the Groom is coming, we don’t know when disaster and sickness and pain will strike, but we do know that we are to be those people who immediately bring the Love and Grace of Christ to whatever situation. Because we’ve been waiting for it. We’ve been expecting it. We’ve simply been looking for a reason to show love and care.
Our job, friends, is not to prop up some Christian worldview or establishment. Our job is to always be prepared to show the Love of God. So may we keep our lamps trimmed and burning for just such an occasion.
Amen. Thanks be to God.