Oil: Looking for the absurd and the consistent in Jesus’ parables

[Jesus said to his disciples:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But 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.’ And 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

My sermon from the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (November 12, 2017) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So I know Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is just around the corner but like every retail store out there, I too, have Christmas on the brain. Well, not Christmas exactly – just Christmas sweaters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Ugly Christmas Sweater is a thing. It’s no longer a name we give to the knitted sweaters we find at Goodwill that are covered with trees, snowmen, and lights. The Ugly Christmas Sweater is now a fashion design with the name right on the tag. If, say, you headed north after worship and stopped by a Target in New York, you can pick up a fantastic Ugly Christmas Sweater. If you wanted a sweater that lights up using long lasting LEDs? Target has a dozen to choose from. If you’re looking for something more branded, and you want to celebrate the new Star Wars movie with R2D2 wearing a Santa hat? You can get that in red. And if you love the story of Santa but wished he had tabby cats pulling his sleigh instead of reindeer – your dream is now a reality. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are amazing because they are completely absurd. They’re silly, light hearted, and challenge us to look at the world in a new way. When we see a coworker, family member, or friend wearing a ridiculous sweater, we’re forced to see them in a new light. The more absurd their Ugly Christmas Sweater is, the more that sweater changes our viewpoint and perspective. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are absurd and looking for the absurdities is what we need to do when listening to Jesus’ words today.

And doing this isn’t always easy. When we hear Jesus speak, we want to keep his words reverent, sacred, and important. We should take his words seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can only approach his words in a serious fashion because parables, by their very nature, are not completely serious. They are stories that are a little bit off. And they need to be because they translate into human terms what Jesus “the kingdom of heaven.” Since our world isn’t the kingdom of heaven quite yet, we need stories that are a little off to help us see God more fully. So parables need us to, in my opinion, find those slightly askew parts in the story, to find those Ugly Christmas Sweater moments. the story. And one such moment comes at the very end of today’s parable. Jesus, in a sentence designed to sum up the entire story, tells everyone to “stay awake.” But who, in this parable, actually stays awake? No one! Everyone, the wise and the foolish, sleep. So if everyone sleeps, what’s the point of the story?

Now, the thing about Ugly Christmas Sweaters is that there is always more than one and that rule applies to Jesus’ parables too. We need to look for all the absurd moments. But that’s hard because we no longer live in Jesus’ cultural context. We are not Jews living in Galilee and Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We don’t know what wedding would really be like back then. From what we can tell, the groom would show up on their wedding day and one of the first rituals involved bridesmaids. These bridesmaids would use lamps and torches to escort the entire wedding party from the bride’s home to the groom’s. Once the groom, bride, and everyone else made that move, the three day long party would start. But we don’t know how many bridesmaids would be needed. So the fact that Jesus mentioned ten, and then splits them into two groups of 5, is a little bit off. The story also starts with everyone ready to do their part. Every bridesmaid has a lamp and, it seems to me, every lamp is already on fire. Even when they notice that the groom is delayed, they keep their lamps lit, instead of conserving their oil while they wait. And this waiting is weird because everyone seems to fall asleep, right where they are, with everything still burning. That doesn’t feel very safe. And then, when the groom finally arrives in the middle of the night, some torches are ready but others are about to go out. Five of the bridesmaids need more oil but their sisters do a completely unChristian and unJesus-like thing: they don’t share what they have. They reject their sisters, telling them to go to the store which, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t be open since it is the middle of the night. But 5 bridesmaids go anyway and while they’re away, the groom finally shows up. The 5 that meet him don’t tell him that others have gone on an errand. Since the groom was late, it would have been thoughtful for him to wait for the other bridesmaids to return. But he doesn’t. Instead, the escort happens, the party begins, and they shut the door behind them. When the other bridesmaids finally show up, they are rejected again. When we look at the details of this story, we see that everyone ends up wearing an Ugly Christmas sweater. Everyone does something slightly absurd. Lamps burn unnecessarily. The wise do not share. The foolish are able to find an oil store at midnight. And the groom, who we usually identify as Jesus himself, isn’t very kind, considerate, or loving. The only part of the story that we can attribute to Jesus himself is that very last sentence which doesn’t seem to make much sense because everyone sleeps. Everyone in this parable is a little absurd. Everyone is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater. The only thing that stays consistent is: the oil.

So what is the oil supposed to be?

Well, without oil, lamps do not burn. Without oil, the bridesmaids have nothing that will bring them light in the middle of the night. Without that light, shadow is all there is. This parable, and the two right after it, are ones where we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what they say about the afterlife. We don’t want to be denied entry into the party that Jesus is throwing so we latch onto the words “stay awake” and we do whatever we can to figure out what we need to do to get into heaven. We can be so laser focused on getting into that final party that we miss a key to this parable that Jesus gives to us way back in chapter 5. At the start of his ministry, in the very first parable he used to teach something to his friends, he tells them, “you are the light of the world” (5:14). “You are” already burning bright. “You are” already lit up. We don’t start this parable as characters without the fuel, the oil we need. We start as light. And that’s because you have something the characters in this parable do not. A parable needs a storyteller and our storyteller does more than just tell stories. Our storyteller made a promise to you in your baptism that the oil used to mark the sin of the cross on your forehead will never run out. Jesus promised that he will always give you the oil you need to shine bright. In the long periods of waiting, when nothing seems to go right, you will have oil. In those moments when we feel stuck in one place, exhausted, worn out, and unsure of what we’re supposed to do next, you will have oil. When the days feel long and the nights feel even longer, Jesus promised that you will have fuel for your journey. But that fuel isn’t always a motivation, a power, a feeling that we feel deep inside. That fuel is also a community, a church, where we all turn to each other and ask: “what do you need to keep going?” (Lundblad, Feasting on the Word (Matthew volume 2), page 259) And in the moments when we don’t have an answer to that question, the community around us still does what it can to carry us through. The church sings can sing when we cannot. The community can prays when we cannot. Others worship even though you yourself might not be able to set foot through that door. All of us can believe the hurts that you share and we can all break the silence of pain, suffering, stigma, and hate that makes this world hurt too much. And then, with a little piece of bread, a little thimble of drink, and a simple word of promise – we can give you all of Jesus because Jesus has given all for you.

Amen.

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