The lectionary passage for this past Sunday was Matthew 25:1-13, which is one of Jesus’ more enigmatic parables, but, hey, I was up for the challenge—and my preparation took me in some interesting directions, which I think is what the parables were intended to do. Anyway, here’s the sermon . . .
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women only players,” is an often-quoted line from the beginning of a lengthy monologue about mortality by the character Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The line has held up for four hundred years because the metaphor of life being a play is a pretty good one–except that it can lead us to believe that life, therefore, has some sort of script that we can follow. When things happen that we don’t expect, or that are difficult or painful, we can easily wonder how they fit into the script, as though it might be comforting if we knew there was some kind of master plan.
We want the assurance of a life GPS that shows us where we are and tells us the best way to get where we want to go—and even points out the obstacles. Yet our reality is that life is made up, mostly, of things out of our direct control. We can prepare, but we don’t always know for what. Somewhere in my stacks of books and papers, I have a card with a quote that reads, “The story of my life has a wonderful cast of characters, I’m just not sure about the plot.” I find great comfort in those words.
In his song “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon sings, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” which is another way to say that our lives are not scripted. Rather than a set drama, life is improvisational theater: we make it up as we live, which means it does matter that we try to prepare for things we can’t see coming—and, at the same time, we do well to remind one another that what matters most are everyone else with whom we share the scene.
Jesus walked the earth during a period of world-wide unrest. Even though the world as they knew it was much smaller than ours and they didn’t have to deal with a twenty-four-hour news cycle or social media, people were convinced they were living in apocalyptic times because of the Roman occupation. When Jesus came on the scene, his presence fanned the flames of interest around what the highly anticipated end of the world would be like. People wanted someone to tell them that life didn’t have to hurt so badly and that things would get better.
Right before Jesus told the parable we read this morning, he told people no one knew how things were going to roll out, but the best way to live was to be faithful to God and to one another. Then he told the parable about the ten young women, five of whom ran out of oil for their lamps because they didn’t expect the bride and groom to take so long. The ones who had oil wouldn’t share because they were afraid there wasn’t enough to go around, so they told the ones without oil to go to the store and they missed the wedding.
Then he told a parable about a rich man who was going on a long trip and gave three servants money to invest or use while he was gone. Two of the servants had ideas for what to do with the money–they were ready to say yes; the third was so frightened of his boss or of failing that he dug a hole and buried the money so he could return it intact when his boss came back. He didn’t lose the money, he played it safe. When the master returned, he chastised the man for being captured by his fears and had him thrown out.
Then Jesus told a third parable that was set at the final judgment when the nations will be divided into sheep and goats. The sheep are congratulated for responding to the needs around them: “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me something to drink; lonely and you included me . . .” The goats are chastised for not doing those things. Both groups ask, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or lonely?”
Jesus answered, “When you met the need in the face in front of you, you met me.”
But here’s the thing that always gets me in this story: neither the sheep not the goats knew the impact of their behaviors. They all asked, “When did we see you?” They didn’t know. The difference between the two is the sheep had prepared to notice their fellow actors who were in need. They had prepared to be able to respond with food and drink, clothing, and companionship. They saw themselves as supporting actors. The goats didn’t. And those described as goats were also left out.
I know we have talked about this before, but I want to say it again: some of the parables of Jesus are difficult to comprehend. They are not allegories. They are not fables with an easily identifiable moral lesson we can all take in. In all three of these parables, well-intentioned people get left out for not being able to see what was coming. The bridesmaids were unprepared for the long wait, the servant was an overly cautious investor, and the ones labeled as goats couldn’t see beyond their own needs.
But there’s another progression in these stories that is worth noticing. In the first one, the bridesmaids with oil refused to share and sent the others shopping, which was why they missed the wedding. In the second one, the successful servants took care of themselves, but didn’t share their knowledge of investing. In the last story, those who were identified as sheep saw the people around them who were in need and shared what they had.
Perhaps when we focus on those who got it wrong—which is really easy to do—we are missing the heart of these parables. Again—these are not allegories or fables. I am not saying this is The Point of These Stories; I am saying here’s one of the layers of meaning that continues to speak across centuries, much like Shakespeare’s words.
It is starting the obvious to say we don’t know what lies ahead.
A year from today—and I mean the second Sunday in November of 2024—we will be worshipping for the first time following the next presidential election. Today we speak about the pandemic in the past sense, yet I would venture none of us has had a week go by in the last three and a half years without hearing about someone who has COVID. The war between Russia and Ukraine is almost two years old—so old, in fact, that it doesn’t make our headlines very often. The conflict in Israel and Palestine is both heartbreaking and ominous.
We all want to know what is going to happen. We would all like to know how to plan, just like those who asked Jesus how to prepare for the end of the world. Both directly and through his parables, Jesus said, “Be faithful,” another way of saying be true to yourself, to God, and to those around you.
Our call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God is not based on favorable circumstances. We are called to share our oil even if we aren’t sure there’s enough to go around. We are called to share our knowledge, even if that means we don’t come out on top. We are called to meet the needs in front of our faces because every last one of us is created in God’s image. God calls us to a difficult way of being in the world that chooses to be faithful in the face of our fears. When Jesus says, “Be awake because you don’t know the day or the hour,” perhaps it has more to do with being awake to how we can nourish and support one another rather than avoiding punishment.
In the parable, the five who didn’t have enough oil finally found some and got back to the wedding, it was in full swing, but no one would let them in. Doesn’t that feel a bit strange that the bridesmaids weren’t allowed into the wedding? Why would they have wanted a wedding without the bridesmaids? Why didn’t they throw the doors open and say, “Glad you made it”?
We all feel the pain and pressure of life. In one way or another, I think it’s fair to say we all live with some fear about how things will turn out and if we will have enough to do whatever it is we want to do. But let’s ask ourselves this: How can we grasp God’s beloved community unless we prepare to include everyone? Isn’t it better to share our oil so everyone gets to come to the party? No one dies of generosity; a lot of people die of loneliness. Let us keep awake to every chance we are given to share our oil, to share the love that gives us life, and gives us life together. Amen.