Gospel Text – Matthew 25:1-13
We have entered the season of preparation for the long night of winter. At our house, we are rolling up the hoses and boxing up the wind chimes, stowing away the lawn chairs and patio table, and making sure the driveway is relatively easy to shovel. It’s not exciting or immediately productive. But this preparation will help us be ready for those times when the wind blows and the snow flies.
In the church year, we are also in a time of preparation. That is the focus of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids in Matthew 25. We are called to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
It is important to read Matthew’s gospel always in light of Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes, and Matthew 25:31-45, the Parable of the Last Judgment. In light of that final parable, we know that Jesus comes now, not only later. As he comes now, however, he is unexpected and hidden. This parable is not only about the end of time but the middle of time as well.
It is equally important to read Matthew 25 in light of Matthew 24, a series of texts we don’t get in the lectionary at this point. Remember that we are nearing the end of Matthew’s Holy Week narration. In chapter 23, Jesus delivers his scathing screed of woes against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem. He concludes that prophetic barrage with a lament over Jerusalem because the city of David colludes with the religious authorities in accommodating and collaborating with the Romans.
Jesus concludes that lament by predicting the desolation of the Temple (and by extension the city) if the current conditions continue. Chapter 24 begins with the disciples begging to differ, since the Temple and surrounding buildings appear to be indestructible. Jesus overtly predicts the destruction of it all, and the disciples want to know how soon this will happen. Please be clear that Jesus in Matthew 24 is not talking about “the end of the world.” He is describing the end of the current “age” of hypocrisy and idolatry. Jesus uses classical images of destruction employed by Old Testament prophets to describe this catastrophe. In particular he refers to the prophet Daniel. He also quotes the prophet Joel.
If we read this as a description of the end of the world, we are destined for disappointment. Jesus notes that the generation of his listeners will not die before his predictions are fulfilled. If this refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, however, that was in fact the case. If we read this as being about the end of the world, then we are committed to the game of explaining why the end didn’t come “this time” as we predicted.
Moreover, even if we read these texts as about the end of the world, all information in that regard is on a need to know basis, and we don’t need to know. “But about that day and hour no one knows,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 24:36, “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That is followed by the infamous “left behind” text. In fact, the one who is left behind in the text is not the one who is saved but rather the one who is swept away, as was the case in the days of Noah. Certain modern interpreters get this text completely backwards.
The theme for Matthew 25 is announced in Matthew 24:44 – “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This theme sets up the four parables that conclude this section of Matthew: The Unfaithful Slave, The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, The Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats. Each parable in its own way illustrates and magnifies this theme. Now we’re ready to look at our gospel texts for the next three weeks.
We’re always ready when we get advance notice. I don’t know how it is at your house, but we always clean when company is coming. That’s not quite as likely to happen when we get drop-ins. Most of us do fine in normal times. It’s crisis that reveals character. It’s problems that test preparedness.
Character is most revealed in our unprepared moments. That’s why practice in advance is so important. This parable is more about Christian “muscle memory” than about eschatology. Following Jesus is not about pulling spiritual all-nighters in order to cram for the final. Discipleship is about the steady, unglamorous work of keeping our wicks trimmed and our lamps filled. As Jesus says, we know neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.
As we move indoors, we have less opportunity for exercise outside. So, I’m spending time each day on our treadmill. It’s not a fun time for me (although I listen to podcasts as I walk – so it’s not completely lost time). I am grateful for the time, however, when I play with our grandchildren. The fact that I can run with them is a direct result of the time I put in on the treadmill, going nowhere fast. That’s preparation.
For what were the bridesmaids preparing? They were waiting for the wedding feast – a party! Perhaps we’re back at the earlier parables. Is this another example of the failure to party? Are we prepared to experience the joy of Jesus and then to share that joy with those who need it? Are we ready for the party ourselves? Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to talk about the benefits of preparation for worship and especially for communion. For me, one of the great losses of Covid worship at home is that I don’t feel a need to engage in the rituals of dressing and driving, of gathering and greeting, which I realize have made up so much of my worship preparation.
We can again remember Luther’s words, that we are simply beggars showing other beggars where the bread is. It takes light to show people the bread in dark places. Is it coincidental that Jesus uses the image of lamps in this parable? I think not. No, let’s remember the words in the Sermon on the Mount – our call to let our lights so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. If you hear that preparation is part of fulfilling our baptismal covenants, then you are quite right.
So, wait, and watch, practice and prepare, be alert and agile in your daily faith journey. Be ready for the Lord to show up and do something unexpected. The best ministry I have done in and through the church has not been anything I planned. Instead, it has always been in response to needs and opportunities I did not anticipate or imagine. My task was to gather information, ask questions, be curious, keep preparing. And when the Lord showed up, I have to have the courage to act in faith, hope, and love.
We might leave our fellow congregants with a question and a challenge. Where did Jesus show up in your life last week? How will you prepare to meet Jesus in your life in the coming week? You might even use language from the game of Hide and Seek – Ready or not, Jesus is coming!
Second Reading – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The themes of preparation and of meeting the bridegroom are picked up most clearly in the second reading. It may be worth going through the actual description in detail since the text is so routinely misunderstood these days.
The Thessalonian Christians have become confused about the nature of the end of the world. They expected Jesus to return before any of them died. Then the funerals began to mount up, and they had a faith crisis. They were concerned that their loved ones were going to miss out on Jesus’ return since they were already dead and buried.
Paul seeks to correct their understanding and to comfort their anxiety. For an extended discussion of this text, I would recommend Barbara Rossing’s excellent book, The Rapture Exposed. I would also suggest a section of N. T. Wright’s work, The Resurrection of the Son of God (pages 214-219), which focuses on this text. I’ll try to include information from both.
Those who have died prior to Jesus’ second coming will not be forgotten, Paul says. Instead, they will “precede those who have died” (verse15). The call of the trumpet is a standard image connected with the Lord’s coming, going back to the Exodus narratives. Jesus will come from heaven “and the dead in Christ will rise first” (verse 16).
Then the rest of the believers who are still alive will join the newly resurrected. The whole joyous throng will accompany the Lord – not back into heaven – but to the New Creation. “What this letter is emphasizing is not that some will be left behind,” Rossing writes, “but rather that we will all be together with our loved ones in our resurrection life” (page 175).
The image Paul uses here is of a “Parousia.” That’s a Greek technical term that describes the arrival and presence of an emperor or imperial representative. The local residents meet the dignitary outside the city and accompany the celebrity into the city where the authority is then seated on the local throne. Rossing gives more details.
“Paul’s description of ‘meeting’ the Lord in the air employs a very specific Greek word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times: apantesis, a practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then accompanied him into their city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids who go out to ‘meet’ the bridegroom and then accompany him into the feast, and also in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to ‘meet’ Paul as he arrives in their city” (page 176).
This is not a “rapture.” There is no such word in Christian scripture. This is God making God’s home among mortals, as we can read, for example, in Revelation. This is what we can expect. Therefore, we can “encourage one another with these words” (verse 18). “There is no reason to think that Jesus will change directions and turn around to go back to heaven after Christians meet him in the air,” Rossing notes. “What the passage is describing,” she says, “is Jesus’ second coming to earth, and the resurrection from the dead that will happen when he returns” (page 176).
N. T. Wright hopes that we won’t be captivated by the image of saints flying around in the clouds without airplanes. He connects our text to Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 and declares that being snatched up in the air is “functionally equivalent, in Paul’s mind, to being ‘changed’ so that one’s body is no longer corruptible, but now of the same type as the lord’s own risen body” (page 215).
Again, there is no “rapture” imagery in this text. Instead we have language “indicating not that believers will be taken away from the earth, leaving it to its fate,” N. T. Wright concludes, “but that, in the language of apocalyptic imagery, not in literal spatial reality – that they will ‘meet’ the lord as he comes from heaven…and surround him as he comes to inaugurate God’s final transformative, judging-and-saving reign on earth as in heaven” (page 218).
First Reading – Amos 5:18-24
For those who long for the end of the world, Amos 5 must be a disconcerting text. We hasten to say that this reading is not about “the end of the world” in the sense of the Hal Lindsey/Left Behind crowd. Rather, Amos preaches to his audience about “the end of the world as we know it.” Amos is a contemporary of Isaiah, but they live in somewhat different worlds. While Isaiah is the court prophet in Jerusalem, Amos is the outsider who lives much closer to the real action of the day.
Assyria threatens Israel from the north, and Egypt pressures Judah from the south. Amos can see the coming destruction if nothing changes. “The day of the Lord” will not be a day of victory for God’s chosen. It will be a day of bitter defeat (think about Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 24). Amos sees the political vise in which Israel finds itself – “as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” Those prophets who suggest that there is a way out of this vise in which the status quo is maintained – those prophets are theologians of glory who describe reality as they wish it would be rather than as it is.
No amount of right religion is going to bail out God’s people. In fact, the hypocrisy of their “solemn assemblies” disgusts the Lord. There is one offering which could make a difference and stave off the inevitable judgment: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
This justice, in Amos’ view, is care for the widow, the orphan and the sojourner in their midst. It is political and economic justice of the sort that many American Christians would find distasteful in sermons. Of course, the audience for Amos didn’t find the message all that congenial either.
Final thoughts, illustrations, and resources
These texts will come after the American national election day. It may be that the result will be decided by then. Or it may be that the chaos of our system will continue. In any case, and regardless the result, some people will think that the world as they know it has come to an end. Apocalyptic thinking has moved from the fringes to the center of our cultural concern. These texts will provide opportunities to give some perspective and comfort in a time of upheaval. It is always “the end of the world as we know it,” for someone. But we remain convinced that the real end rests in the hands of our loving God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If anyone is interested in studying apocalyptic, and especially Revelation, further, I have a 30-day video series on the topic I can share. Each video is about seven minutes.
Rossing, Barbara R. The Rapture Exposed. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.
2020 “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, especially on the Amos text.
Gross, Matthew Barrett; Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition Copyright © 2012.