Matthew 25 verses 1- 13. ´Preparing for the feast´, IREF Delft, 8 dec. ‘13
(shortened version sermon)
The parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins is very known. When you think deeper about it, several questions arise nevertheless.
- Why this bridegroom waits for so long? Isn’t it strange to start a wedding feast in the midst of the night?
- Why these virgins who took extra oil with themselves don’t give anything to the others? Isn’t it egoistic? What kind of girls are they not wanting to share and leaving the others with their problems?
- Why the door of the banquet is closed and stays closed when the five come back? Isn’t it against all rules of hospitality? Those girls did their best and they wanted to enter, didn’t they?
I will use these questions to explain more about the parable, but let us first try to understand why Jesus told it. The most important conclusion is mentioned at the end of this passage: ‘Keep watch, because you don’t know the day and the hour’. Several manuscripts add the following words (which are important for the explanation): ‘in which the Son of Man will come’.
In the previous chapter we hear Jesus saying what happens in the world when He comes back. People are busy with their daily affairs: eating, drinking and marrying. Like in the time of Noah, when he prepared the arch. They were so occupied with their daily life, that they didn’t consider the approaching judgment. In this chapter however, it is a bit different. It is not about people who are indifferent. The ten girls in the story were friends of the bride presumably. They all had good intentions. They all took lamps, a sort of oil candles, with them. The lamps helped the bridegroom to find the way toward the house of the bride on the dark road full of pits and holes. The girls waited for him at the outskirts of the village or the city. They all fell asleep finally. They all woke up as soon as the bridegroom appeared. There is no difference between the girls so far. To understand the story of Jesus we have to go back to the first word that He mentions, the word ‘then’. ‘Then the Kingdom of heaven will be compared to..’ The heavenly Kingdom will be like this, Jesus says. When the Son of Men comes back, thén the difference will be clear. That is shocking. When Jesus returns, when the great wedding starts, the separation will come forward. Half of the people will stay behind because they weren’t prepared.
Why the bridegroom has waited so long?
The bridegroom is sovereign, he has a royal behaviour, you cannot control him. He seems to have delayed his coming by purpose. His delay reveals something that wasn’t clear in the beginning at all. They all seem to know him. But half of them heard: ‘I don’t know you!’ What a terrible failure, mind you! You prepare for a feast, and at the entrance of the banquet you hear: ‘Who are you? We don’t know you. You should rather go away!’
Why the five wise virgins couldn’t help the others?
To what refers the (extra) oil that the wise girls took with them? Some explainers say: the Holy Spirit. Others: love, and also: conversion. We shouldn’t apply the details too far. We have to take the parable as a whole. The key can be found in these words: ’I don’t know you’. That does not mean: I don’t know who you are, but rather: we don’t have a relationship any longer. It is over between us. What we actually hear in the word of the bridegroom at the door: ‘I have waited for you for a long time, I have looked out for you, but I noticed that there is no place for me in your life.’
In case of real love, you can persevere in waiting. Waiting is something we do often in our life and often we don’t like it. But it is much more easy when you wait for a beloved one. In that case waiting is accompanied with longing and yearning. Such a love is very personal. It is not exchangeable simply. It refers to a personal relation that has been established between the Lord and us by the Holy Spirit. It is not accidental that Jesus calls himself the Son of Men (vs. 13)? In that name the whole gospel has been summarized. The Gospel, the Good News that God let proclaim to us is the message that Jesus has come to this world to be born as a tiny child of men, that He has become the Son of men, while He was and is God’s Son. It is such a great mystery that He became man because of us and because of our sins. That He carried the unfathomable suffering; that He died at Golgotha. God loved the world so much! Jesus waited for us for such a long time!
Why the door was closed for the five who came later?
The door was closed. This closed door triggers us. Why these latecomers couldn’t enter still? We have to consider the possibility that love fails, that we carry on with our own will, against the longing of the Master, the bridegroom. With this parable Jesus refers to his Jews who didn’t like Him. It is possible to search for paradise, to pull the door of heaven severely, to do everything for our happiness, but to reject Him who created paradise and who is the source of happiness.
C.S. Lewis, the famous British literary man – who died fifty years ago- describes it in a penetrating way in his book ‘The great divorce’. It is a story about a travelling fellowship. The destination is nothing less than heaven. On the go people talk a lot with one another about everything that occupies them. A bishop speaks about his books that he wrote and his theological insights that gave him a lot of praise. A lady boasts about her career, while she calls her husband a bag of coal because he didn’t want to get higher up in his career. But as the come closer to heaven (where they all want to go), the aversion begins to grow. They are so occupied with themselves that the idea that they must kneel in front of the One who waits for them there, evokes a big disgust. Here the great divorce takes place, because there are also people on this journey who become transparent more and more, who are illuminated more and more by the light of heaven that shines through them. They are full of awe and at the same time full of joy about the meeting that waits them. They say: we long for heaven, but heaven is not the most important, it is all about him for whom we look out with all our heart
Let us consider ourselves. How can we prepare for the feast? How do we know that we may belong to the wise girls? Jesus says: Keep watch! Four invitations/exhortations:
1. How to be watchful? Pray! In the context of the whole New Testament the word ‘watch’ is connected with ‘pray’ often. ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation’ (Matthew 26:38-41). ´Devote yourself to prayer, be watchful in it with thanksgiving’ (Col. 4: 2). How can we persevere in prayer? It is a special encouragement that the Holy Spirit himself prays, continues to sigh and to call for the return of the bridegroom. How could we persist in prayer if we didn’t know that Jesus himself prays at the right hand of his Father? How can we persevere if He had not said: ‘I have prayed for you so that your faith will not stop’? I want to invite you, encourage you to take a moment to pray every day. In the morning when you raise or in the evening before going to sleep. Or maybe in the middle of the day you want to break out of your work for a moment to speak with Him. He who comes, is already there. And He whom you search, has already searched for you!
2. How to be watchful? Stay on your post! At the Bible college where I was working in the past, several times the question was raised: ‘What should you do if you knew that Jesus came back next week?’ Some students said: I need to go to my parents, because I need to adjust something. Another said: I need to come to term with myself, because there is a sin that I cannot master. Another: I should explain the Gospel to my friend in a clearer way. Till now I have neglected it. So of course the most proper reaction to all these answers was: ‘ Why not doing it now, because you don’t know when Jesus comes back, or when you finish your life on earth?’ However, this parable belongs to a bigger context of three parables about being watchful. Right after this parable the one about the talents follows. How can you stay watchful? By using the talents that God gave you as well as possible. Thank Him for what you received from Him, and don’t store it somewhere in a cupboard. To wait for the coming of Christ it is not necessary to look after a position as a missionary or something like this. Most of us are called to do our work faithfully and with persistence and remain on our post. But because He is coming, we do it differently. Just like a lady who waits for her husband, who has been on a business trip for weeks. Just before his return she does the same things she usually does. Still she does it in a different mood. Flowers appear on the table. She bakes a cake. It all happens with extra love and care, because he is coming! So the congregation waits for her Beloved One, while she remains on her post faithfully.
3. How to be watchful? Seek the good for your brother and sister! At the end of this chapter we read again about a separation between people, when Jesus comes back. It is the recurring refrain. Who will be prepared? Who will pass the judgment? Who may enter? (Vs. 34, 35). The ones who have helped the least of the brothers and the sisters, when they were hungry, thirsty or when they were a stranger or a seeker for asylum. Let us not seek too far Maybe we should take more time for one another in our family and close our computer more often. Maybe it is the lonely neighbour or the worried colleague whom we invite for a meal. It could be the brother or sister who needs our forgiveness, or from whom we need forgiveness. How can I be prepared for the banquet of the Lamb, if there are obstacles between my neighbour and me still? Therefore the Holy Spirit encourages you to initiate that difficult step toward a talk about forgiveness and reconciliation with somebody else.
4.How to be watchful? Look out to the feast! All the parables in Matthew 25 refer to the divorce, the crisis, the judgment. However, to what the Lord invites us and to what the Christian church looks out is not a crisis, but a feast, the wedding of the lamb. God searches a bride in order to love her, in order to rejoice in her, to bring her into the joy of Himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the living God himself who enjoys us! That He loved us, even from the ages past, is a miracle. Even when we were his enemies. In what you may glory in your life? For children it might be Saint Nicolas day or later Christmas. (For me it should be a relaxed holiday with a couple of good books!) You notice their faces! You live toward a wedding party and people around you notice it. A little moment then the feast is there! Praise to Christ now and forever and from age to age!