Matthew 25:1-13, Being Prepared for the Lord’s Delay

[November 9, 2014] With this morning’s reading we consider carelessness in view of the delay of the Messiah’s “Second Advent.” In Matthew 24:1-31 Jesus spoke to his disciples privately about the immanent desecration of the Temple and the attendant suffering. Jesus also spoke of the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven (Daniel 7:13-14) with power and great glory when he would gather his elect (the peoples of Israel and Judah) from the four winds that would take place immediately after the suffering of those days. Unless the attendant sufferings lasted a very long time, it would seem that Jesus was saying that his coming in glory was likewise immanent. However, in verse 36 he begins to speak to his disciples about the delay of his coming. No one can know when it will occur: his disciples had better be constantly vigilant against that day, for no one knows the day or the hour (Jesus did not even know; 24:36) for “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).

In verses 37-41 Jesus speaks about the surprise that will overtake the people of the world—it will be like the days of Noah when they suspected nothing. Like in the days of Noah, a few people will be saved from the coming flood while the rest would be swept away.

Then in verse 42 Jesus speaks about his disciples as domestic slaves who await the coming home of their master at any time. “You do not know the day when your master is coming” (24:42). The wise owner of a house would stay awake if he knew when the burglar would be coming to break into his home. Since the homeowner will be away, his house steward—each disciple—must be on the watch for the burglar (24:43-44). In verses 45-51 the disciple become the steward whom the master has left in charge of his household—to feed the other slaves at the proper time. If when the master arrives unexpectedly he finds that his steward has done as she or he was supposed to, that one will be rewarded with greater responsibility. However, if that steward takes advantage of the master’s delay and abuses her or his position, when the master comes “on a day [the steward] does not expect and at an hour he [or she] does not know,” he will punish the steward.

The disciples are the stewards set over the master’s household, to protect the house from burglars and to feed their fellow slaves. If this is correct, then what is the house that they are protecting and who are their fellow slaves whom they are feeding from the house’s storeroom? The usual answer in both instances is the church, the collective body of future disciples over whom the disciples—those whom Jesus was addressing—would become the stewards, namely, the apostles and bishops (overseers), and, giving a modern application, pastors as well (the clergy). That might be correct.

In chapter 24 Jesus is definitely referring to the judgment on the Temple of Jerusalem and the suffering of the “daughters of Zion” (the people of the city). He is also alluding, however, to the coming desecration of his own body and his coming exaltation to the Father in glory (which occurred, according to Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus was resurrected). This is the apocalyptic moment as much as the other. Yet they will both occur, as the apostles testify. When does his reference to one pass over to the other? Jesus, it would seem, sees them together. The desecration of the Jerusalem Temple is only a sign—and one that was to be horribly real as that!—of the real desecration, and the glory of his coming at the culmination of human history will be the cosmic fulfillment of the glory of his resurrection. The unexpectedness of the events that would soon befall Jesus—and not even Jesus knew when they would occur—also parallel the unexpectedness of events still in our future, beginning with his Second Advent. Both the siege of Jerusalem (and desecration of the Temple) and Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were predictable events, but they would both still overtake people by surprise. The resurrection and the Second Advent were and will be such unprecedented events that the element of surprise is of a different level altogether.

I raise the question again: in the parables that close chapter 24, namely in verses 42-51 in which the disciples are slaves with responsibility over their master’s house and household (or at least over the other domestic slaves of the household), who or what is the house and who are the household? The answer, as I said already, may be the church. I would like us to consider another possibility. In Matthew’s gospel we saw that Jesus’ ministry was directed to the people of Israel (with a particular concern for the neglected and lost sheep of the house of Israel) and to the gentiles— to Israel as God’s beloved but lost and oppressed people on the one hand and to all marginal people on the other: God’s kingdom embraces both. The kingdom of the heavens has jurisdiction over all people, and we have seen how Jesus’ concern was for all people, as much as it was expressed especially with regard to the marginalized, and always within the context of God’s promises to Israel. The disciples are called to be the Messiah’s church within Israel and with a role that has to do with the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel—promises that extend to the turning of the gentiles to YHWH and their entering the beatitude (blessing) of the Messiah. They are given the responsibility of the kingdom toward all others, not only toward their own—just like Jesus. The house that is about to be burglarized then might very well be the “house” of Israel; the burglary would then be the siege of Jerusalem. Could the prophetic movement begun by John the Baptist and continued by the Twelve forestall it or even prevent it?

From this perspective, if it is correct, those whom Jesus is addressing are not only the leaders within the church but all disciples, that is, every member of the church, all whom Jesus calls to himself. They are, in other words, the assumed reader (actually the auditor) of the Gospel according to Matthew. Jewish disciples in particular had a responsibility to their fellow Jews, to do as Jesus had done, to work against the “baseless hatred” of their felliows (see the explanation in my last blog post here), and to prepare their fellows for what was coming (as Jesus himself was doing). We see this fulfilled in the Acts of the Apostles, in the existence of the messianic communities themselves and in the ministry of the apostles. Matthew himself had them particularly in mind when he wrote his gospel: the Jewish disciples of Jesus. Yet the disciples’ loving concern for those for whom Jesus was so concerned continues for the duration of the church. This is not a call for gentile disciples to harass their Jewish neighbors—beating them up more or less to get them to believe in Jesus as the Messiah—but rather for all disciples to extend to them the loving regard that Jesus did, and to look after, care for, and give hope to the poor and marginalized in the land of Israel (recall the monetary offering of the churches of the Diaspora, some of them predominantly gentile in makeup to the poor of Jerusalem that was organized by the apostle Paul), including the Palestinians, and indeed—especially for the gentile disciple—all marginalized everywhere, whoever are our neighbors.

We are indeed to bear witness to Jesus, but more by deeds of compassion than by preaching. Words are necessary too lest our light be hid under a bushel basket, but not always. The point is to herald the coming of Jesus—not apart from our embodying Jesus’ continuing presence. It is not to harass people or compel them to believe.

Setting this context prepares us to consider the parable in 25:1-13. The word “then” with which the parable begins refers to the coming of the Son of Man, which is the subject of 24:23-51. The coming of the bridegroom in the parable refers therefore to the coming of the Son of Man.

“Ten wedding attendants took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” The New Revised Standard Version has “bridesmaids,” which would be correct. The older English versions have “virgins” which is a translation of the Greek, parthenos, which means literally either a maiden (a young woman, irrespective of her sexual experience) or a virgin (when this is assumed). In this case the women are attendants of the bride (never the bridegroom). Their job was to await the arrival of the groom when he came to take the bride to his house.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the bridegroom and his disciples the wedding guests or the groom’s attendants in 9:15 (literally “the sons of the wedding hall or bridal chamber,” hoi huioi tou numphōnos). In 22:1-14 those whom Jesus calls—that is, the church—are the wedding guests. To the Jews the bride would be Israel (for example, see Hosea). Later, the church would consider herself the bride (see for example, 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 19:7-8; 21—22). These are not mutually exclusive images, for the two are related. Israel (including the church) is the bride of YHWH; for the church, the bridegroom (YHWH) comes to her in the person of the Messiah. However, in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are still the wedding guests. In 9:15 they might be the groom’s attendants (groomsmen). In 25:1-13 they are the bride’s attendants (bridesmaids). During the ministry of Jesus they attended the groom. After his departure, as they await his return, they attend the bride. The bride are the faithful of Israel (those who truly love God). Jesus spent his ministry preparing the bride out of the poor and marginalized of Israel, the lost sheep. In the early days of the church, the bride would not only be faithful Jews but all those who adhered to the God of Israel, including gentile believers in the Messiah. (The synagogues did not require gentile God-fearers to give up idolatry; only circumcised proselytes were so required. The church however did require it of them.)

It was the bridesmaids’ job to keep watch against the time of God’s visitation—here, the coming of the Son of Man—when God (in the person of the Messiah) would come to claim his bride, faithful Israel. In the previous chapters we saw that those who were Israel’s custodians came up terribly short. These would be the Pharisees and scribes, the chief priests and the elders of the people. Jesus called the church into being to take their place as the custodians not only of Israel but of all God’s people, including all who would hear the call of Jesus through them. The parable seems to be directed at them.

Matthew alone uses the word “foolish” in the New Testament (six times). The word “wise” is also one of his favorite words (seven times). The division of five and five (half and half) is for the sake of giving the idea of the parable and is not meant to describe proportions. All the women have lamps with oil in them and all their lamps are lit and burning, at first. But only the wise women took account of the possibility that the groom might be delayed. They took an extra flask of oil with them. This is what makes them wise. Those who did not prepare for the groom’s delay are foolish. They apparently thought that if such a thing should happen they could simply rely on what the others had to help them out.

As it turns out, the groom was delayed. They all fell asleep while waiting, both the wise and the foolish. No one is faulted for that. When the outcry was made at midnight that the bridegroom was coming, they all woke up. “Come out to meet him!” they are told. They quickly took their lamps and trimmed them to make sure they were not just smoldering but still burning.

Here is where the problem arises. They all saw that the oil in their lamps had burned low and was about to run out. The wise women used the flasks of oil that they had brought with them (just in case) to refill their lamps. The foolish women, however, thought that they could simply rely on the others for more oil. “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” The wise women were not prepared to do that. “No! There will not be enough for you and for us.” Even the wise did not have enough oil to spare for others. The foolish women were now in trouble, for their lamps were about to go out.

“You had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves,” they are told. Remember it is midnight. “While they went to buy it, the bridegroom came.” They did not have enough time, even if they could arouse one of the oil dealers. They had to try. They left and while they were gone, the bridegroom came.

He came, “and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.” When the foolish women came back, it was too late. “Lord, lord, open to us!” they pleaded. But the bridegroom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” The words do not mean that they are unknown to him. They mean that he will have nothing to do with them. They are locked out.

Jesus then concludes, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This conclusion applies to everything Jesus said from 24:42 to 25:12. In this particular parable the wise fell asleep as well as the foolish. The difference between them was that the wise were prepared for the bridegroom’s delay; the foolish were not. The foolish thought they could leave the preparation to others, that at the last minute the others could help them. As it turned out, they were not able to.

We said before that the bridegroom’s coming refers to the coming of the Son of Man in glory. The wedding banquet is when the Messiah gathers all Israel from the four winds and celebrates their marriage. The wedding guests are those whom the Messiah himself and his messengers have called from among both the Jews and the gentiles. It is the beginning of the kingdom (Revelation 19:9), when the kingdom of the heavens is about to become manifest on earth when the resistance to God’s rule will be overcome not by force but bit by bit by the persuasion of the Word, after the powers of darkness are dismantled by the universal light of the revelation of Jesus. It is the time when all things in heaven and on earth are headed up in the Messiah. It is not yet eternity, when God will be all in all, but rather the reign of God that precedes that.

The falling asleep of the bridesmaids would seem to refer to their falling asleep in death. The bridegroom delayed. They fell asleep in the meantime, both the wise and the foolish. The cry to come out and meet the bridegroom would then be their resurrection, as the apostle Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17a, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”

The instruction that matters for us is not so much about what happened after the ten are awakened, it is what they did and did not do before they fell asleep. The issue comes down to whether or not they had brought an extra flask of oil.

The lamps and the extra flask of oil: what do they signify? The lamp can either refer to light for oneself or for others. If for others it might speak of one’s witness or testimony. Oil is fuel for the lamps. In the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament oil generally typifies the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes upon people to anoint them—to set them apart and to empower them—for the task they have been given with respect to the people of God and the world: whether they be a priest, a king or a prophet. It is also used for healing and restoration, both of which are works of the Holy Spirit. The problem is not that the foolish did not have any oil, it is that they did not have enough. They had the Holy Spirit, but not enough. What are we to suppose this means? What is the point that Jesus was trying to get across to his disciples? Or rather, in reporting this, what was Matthew trying to convey to the auditors of his gospel? What is the extra flask of oil that we are supposed to acquire before it is too late—in practical terms?

It is the supply of the Holy Spirit for life and work. We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit by an inner condition of radical poverty of spirit and constant adoration of God, for therein is true faith. With these prerequisites, Jesus becomes to us—through the words of Scripture—a supply of spirit and life. See, for example, Galatians 3:3-5 where Paul seems to be familiar with this parable: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? … He therefore who bountifully supplies to you the Spirit … does he do it out of the works of law or out of the hearing of faith?” Or hear Philippians 1:19, “I know that for me this will turn out to salvation through your petition and the bountiful supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ …” In the first, we receive the bountiful supply of the Spirit though the hearing of faith. In the second, we notice that the bountiful supply is of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is Christ in us, for as Paul goes on to say in verse 19, “For to me, to live is Christ.” This is the supply of the Spirit with which we not only begin our Christian life but bring it to maturity.

So for Jesus, it is that his disciples would somehow continue to nurture themselves on the life of Jesus. When he is no longer manifest among them, it will be through what he has left them: the Gospel, his teaching and his story. If they continue to nurture themselves on their remembrance of him, they will continually be supplied with the Spirit, with the oil that keeps their lamps burning. Since the disciples did not expect Jesus to leave them, they would not have understood at the time, but Jesus was telling them this that they might understand in the days to come. Apart from such spiritual remembrance and what it has given us over the years, we are not welcome as his bridesmaids.

Our attending of the bride until the bridegroom comes refers not just to our attending our fellow believers but all who will in the future be the bride. The bride is the elect, who are all around us and do not even know themselves to be the elect. They are the unbelievers, the sick and poor, weary and heavy-laden, ruined by sin and lost, and rejected by church and synagogue. They are Christ’s bride and the ones we serve with the little light of our Gospel lamp. It is for them that we need to be well-supplied with the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

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