The Twenty Seventh Sunday after Trinity
November 24, 2013
“Wisdom and Folly”
St. Matthew 25:1-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." St. Matthew 25:1-13
Time marches on and on and on. What was is and what is will be. There is nothing new under the sun. The days are getting shorter and colder as another winter descends on the Red River Valley of the North. One thing we can know for certain is that yesterday was like tomorrow will be. The more things change the more they stay the same. This is the lesson that experience teaches.
But experience is no guide to heaven. I’ll admit it’s not a bad guide for living here on earth. This works and that doesn’t. Experience shows. This is the lesson of history. Liberal dreams crash into conservative reality. To understand the way the world works is necessary if you are to learn how to live in the world as it is. We live in the world that is, not in a world of our own dreams. I think it was Winston Churchill who said that while anyone under the age of thirty who was not a liberal had no heart, anyone over the age of forty who was not a conservative had no brain. As the old adage goes, if we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them.
But the horizontal plane can teach us only about living on the horizontal plane. The vertical relationship between us and God is a different matter entirely. For that experience won’t do. Tradition won’t do. Our good old fashioned common sense won’t do. The conservative wisdom of the ages won’t do. No, if we want that wisdom by which we get from here to there we must have the wisdom that comes down from there. This is why we pray in the Collect for the Church:
The wisdom of the Holy Spirit is foolishness to this world. But the world is not going to heaven. Its wisdom is for this life only. Those who think they are travelling the road to heaven by following the wisdom of the world are not going to heaven but hell. We need above everything else in this life the wisdom that will lighten our way to eternal life.
Jesus used parables to teach us about the mysteries of his kingdom. The parable before us this morning teaches us to be prepared for the end of the world. Be ready. Christ could return at any minute. No one knows when it will be. You must be ready at all times. If you are ready to meet Jesus when he comes, you will enjoy the celebration of eternal joys in heaven. If you are not ready, you will be shut out of the presence of God forever. So be ready.
Christ is Wisdom. The Holy Spirit imparts wisdom. True spiritual wisdom is taught. The Holy Spirit teaches it. It does not exist where there is no faith because this wisdom is received through faith alone. We need to be taught a wisdom that runs counter to the prevailing religious opinions. The Wisdom that comes down from above was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. The Scriptures testify to him from cover to cover. He is the object of faith. We confess this faith. We confess that he was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He is God in the flesh. He preached the gospel of the kingdom of God. He drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, and by these signs revealed his glory as the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. He suffered and died on the cross, bearing the sin of the whole world, crushing the head of the devil, rising from the grave on the third day, showing himself to be alive by many infallible proofs, and ascending into heaven where he intercedes for his Church and from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead.
He will. He said he would and he will. He will return to judge. At the end of the last book of the New Testament Jesus said, “Surely, I am coming quickly.” The return of Jesus Christ to judge is imminent. Imminent means it could happen at any time. Jesus could return today. He told us this parable so that we would be ready to meet him when he comes.
Christ’s return is likened to a wedding. Wedding celebrations in those days would often last as long as a week. The virgins in this story would escort the bridal couple into the groom’s home where they would participate in the celebration. If he came at night when it was dark they would need to lighten their way with lamps that were fueled by olive oil. There were no lampposts in those days. But as anyone with any amount of sense knows, the wick of a lamp will not burn until it is saturated in oil. The wise virgins brought extra oil with them. They didn’t know when the groom would show up and they wanted to be ready no matter when he showed up. The foolish virgins took no oil with them. How would they light lamps without oil? I guess they never thought that far ahead. I guess they didn’t really think. They were invited to a wedding and given a simple task – to escort the bridal couple into their home – and they did not prepare for the possibility that it would be at night. Undoubtedly they were dressed in pretty clothes. They were well groomed. They looked just fine. In fact, they even had the little lamps that lighten the way in the dark. But the lamps were useless without oil.
They are not hostile to the gospel. They go to church. They participate in the life of the church. They call themselves Christians. They enjoy the company of Christians. They wouldn’t dream of mocking God or embracing an outwardly unchristian lifestyle. If you asked them, they would say they are Christians. But they have no oil in their lamps. They have no faith.
Faith is something common to all Christians, but this Christian may not give it to that Christian. Oil is necessary to lighten the way into the wedding celebration. Without oil, one remains in darkness. The oil is the wisdom that comes down from above. It is faith. Ah, but what is faith? It is about as slippery a word as you will find. I recently read an interview of a very famous world leader who claimed to be a Christian, spoke of his deep faith, and proceeded to deny basic mysteries of the Christian religion. He made his own values the standard for right and wrong. He argued that there were other ways to heaven than through faith in Jesus Christ. He promoted immoral perversions as human rights. And he claimed to be and was identified by the interviewer as a Christian with a deep faith.
In these days of marketing religion, as if it is a commodity like toothpaste or beer, the word “faith ” is prominently displayed as something very good and desirable but impossible to define. What is faith? Who knows? We know. It is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. It sees Christ, not as an ornament to a life that could be lived without him, but as the Wisdom that defines life. To understand the oil – the true faith that lightens our way into eternal life – we must consider another metaphor in this story, the comparison of Christ to a bridegroom and his Church to a bride. The groom gives himself up for his bride. All that he is is hers. He gives her his name, his identity, his property, and places her in his heart as his greatest treasure. She submits to him, bearing his name, claiming his identity, and regarding whatever belongs to him as her very own.
She sees his suffering as her glory, though the world may despise it as of little value, or, if of any value, only that of an example of devotion to a cause. She knows better, for she sees him through the eyes of faith. She sees his suffering as taking away her sin and she guards it as her precious treasure. She treasures him. His victory over the devil is her victory over the devil. His defeat of death is her defeat of death. His resurrection from the grave on the third day is her resurrection to eternal life on the last day. All that is his is hers and she knows it and rejoices in it.
This is faith. This is what lightens our way into the wedding celebration. This faith is not produced within us by us and tailor-made by us for our own felt needs. No, for you see, we’re not in charge of this faith any more than we are in charge of our lives. The oil is the wisdom that comes down from above. It is the work of the Holy Spirit himself, and he binds himself to the gospel and sacraments of Jesus. He’s not a free flying bird who flits from this enthusiasm to that. He is the Spirit of truth who guides us into all truth.
All ten virgins slept. But five were ready and five were not. The five that were ready were ready because they saw their need for the oil to light their lamps. They needed Jesus. They needed his obedience and suffering. They needed his body and blood. They needed all that he is and has. They were wise because they saw their need for true Wisdom.
The foolish virgins were fools because they did not see their need. They didn’t care about God’s instruction because they figured they already knew what mattered anyway. They lived lives that conformed to the standards of decency that prevailed in their place and time. But they were spiritually dead. They did not repent of their sins and rely on God’s grace in Christ because it never really crossed their minds that without the blood and righteousness of Jesus they were lost. So they were lost. The door was shut. They cried out to be let in. The bridegroom spoke with finality the words that would echo in their ears for eternity: “Assuredly I say to you: I do not know you.”
Jesus has delayed his coming. He said he would be coming soon and this was nearly two thousand years ago. So what do you think? Is he coming soon? Are you ready to meet him? Many nominal Christians – even among those who regularly go to church – despise God’s word, refuse to repent of their sins, and assume that associating with the church will save them from hell. They are fools. They don’t know their need. The oil of true faith comes only to the needy. As we sing in Mary’s Magnificat, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” It comes now. It is here and now that you need it because Jesus will return when you are asleep. You won’t have time to buy the oil. Repent of your sins. Claim the treasures of the bridegroom as your own. His suffering is your glory. His death is your life. The world calls it folly. Many nominal Christians dismiss it as of little account. But we know that the despised things of this world are our eternal wisdom that will lighten our way into heaven when Jesus comes for his bride.
Rolf D. Preus