The waiting game – Matthew 25: 1-13

The women in this parable are waiting – and we know what that can be like. Waiting is never a comfortable time, and we seem to always be waiting for something; news, opportunity; relief; redemption. The church has been waiting for Jesus to return for 2000 years. The people of God have been waiting for God to intervene in their various circumstances since forever! And the kingdom of heaven is like…10 women waiting. What a surprise!

This particular parable comes in the middle of some pretty hard news; Matthew’s gospel is preparing readers for the end – not of Jesus earthly ministry; that’s old news by the time Matthew puts pen to paper – no, the end Matthew anticipates is the end of the old order; the end of the world as he knew it. That would also mean the beginning of the promised reign of God, so you better know whose side you were on – this prompts parables about faithful and unfaithful slaves / bridesmaids who are not fully prepared / and the parable of the talents (that’s next week..) The point? well, it seems that there is some question about the timing of all this ‘Kingdom coming’ stuff, so you just better be ready…so back to our bridesmaids.

This is a difficult image to begin with, for our culture doesn’t expect this sort of thing from bridesmaids. Typically, it is the bridesmaids that keep weddings from running on time! But times (and habits) were different then, and Jesus point was not about punctuality – it was about preparedness…among other things.

Over and over again, Matthew’s Jesus says things like ‘…but about the day or the hour, no one knows…only the Father…’ So the image of people waiting; lamps trimmed and oil at hand – this seems like a reasonable picture to paint…except that the groom is late – delayed – perhaps he is caught in traffic, or maybe he has had a change of heart; whatever might have happened, these otherwise sensible ladies are willing to wait him out. When the call comes, five have enough oil, and five are caught short, and the punishment for this minor transgression is…wait for it…COMPLETE REJECTION! is this really what the kingdom of heaven will be like?

Yes, says one school of thought. Heaven is a perfect place, and there is no room in it for error – especially our error. This sort of thinking is common enough, but it ignores the great gift of grace that God offered in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; the church has always taught that the whole point of Jesus death was to offer a “remedy for our sin” as the old hymn says; the notion that somehow the gates of the kingdom would be slammed shut in the face of those who made this error in timing (in judgement?) doesn’t work for me.

This is what the kingdom of heaven will be like; but why are lamps necessary – isn’t this the light of the world that these women are waiting for? What good are oil lamps in the presence of God? It makes me wonder if these women represent the plans we make about the kingdom we expect – but when the door is opened, our expectations will be left behind, won’t they? We wait in what we hope is perfect readiness, for something that even our wildest imaginations can’t conceive – and then (as Paul says) “when completeness comes” 1 all our plans (and all incompleteness) are quickly forgotten.

This idea started to take shape for me as I listened to a classical pianist was describing his concert preparations – “If the music is hard, well, that’s my problem” he says – what the audience sees is effortless playing; only the ‘perfection’ of the music matters – and I wonder if we have adopted a “performance art” approach to our faith. We must do all the hard work in preparation for our “perfect performance” – if it is hard, that is our problem. But when the moment comes; when God calls us home, or the Son returns in glory or whatever else may happen to usher in the kingdom of God – is it our perfection in the faith that will make the difference? Isn’t this supposed to be about the perfection of God? The golden streets and the jeweled walls are not the result of our achievement, or our preparation; this is God’s party, after all – any of our efforts will be lost in the splendour of who God is and what God is doing. Right?

There is a lesson in this parable, and I don’t think it has anything to do with our patient perfection. This is about the cost – the perils – of waiting. When Matthew’s gospel was written and distributed, the faithful had already been waiting for a lifetime. Nearly 100 years had passed since Jesus time on earth, and still, no Kingdom – no glorious return – no reward for faithful preparedness; what could that mean? Matthew remembers Jesus telling stories about the kingdom, and offers them all – and each of them say the same thing; you must wait. The timing is not to be known – you will fall weary, you will be challenged, you will likely be surprised – but you must wait.

The message is the same for us. The waiting continues, and while we wait, we consider all that Jesus did and said and asked of us. We try our best to apply his teaching to the world we live in – yes, we hope that our actions might “usher in the kingdom”, but really we want to make the most of our waiting. So we live as Jesus called us to live.

We offer love even to those who hate us; we seek justice and do mercy and walk humbly toward the day of God – we wait, not as hearers of the word, but doers2 – and trust that the mercy of God that has been shown to us in the love of Jesus will not leave us standing in the dark when the time comes.

Waiting is hard – and so is a life of faith. And since the reward is in God’s hands, we can be sure that even our faltering, (and often insufficient) preparations will be enough. “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future of hope.”3 We live on into that same future, assured by faith that our waiting is not in vain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 1 Cor 13: 10

2 See James 1:23

3Jeremiah 29:11

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