29 October 2014

Matthew 25: 1-13: ‘Keep awake therefore,
for you know neither the day nor the hour’

Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom (Matthew 25: 1)

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group on Wednesday mornings, we are looking at the readings for Sunday week. Next Sunday week [9 November 2014] is the Third Sunday before Advent (Proper 27) and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for that day are: Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78: 1-7; I Thessalonians 4: 13-18; and Matthew 25: 1-13.

But that Sunday is also Remembrance Day, and in many parishes in the Church of Ireland the challenge may be to relate the readings to any commemorations of Remembrance Day.

Matthew 25: 1-13

1 [ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς,] Τότε ὁμοιωθήσεται ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν δέκα παρθένοις, αἵτινες λαβοῦσαι τὰς λαμπάδας ἑαυτῶν ἐξῆλθον εἰς ὑπάντησιν τοῦ νυμφίου. 2 πέντε δὲ ἐξ αὐτῶν ἦσαν μωραὶ καὶ πέντε φρόνιμοι. 3 αἱ γὰρ μωραὶ λαβοῦσαι τὰς λαμπάδας αὐτῶν οὐκ ἔλαβον μεθ' ἑαυτῶν ἔλαιον: 4 αἱ δὲ φρόνιμοι ἔλαβον ἔλαιον ἐν τοῖς ἀγγείοις μετὰ τῶν λαμπάδων ἑαυτῶν. 5 χρονίζοντος δὲ τοῦ νυμφίου ἐνύσταξαν πᾶσαι καὶ ἐκάθευδον.

6 μέσης δὲ νυκτὸς κραυγὴ γέγονεν, Ἰδοὺ ὁ νυμφίος, ἐξέρχεσθε εἰς ἀπάντησιν [αὐτοῦ]. 7 τότε ἠγέρθησαν πᾶσαι αἱ παρθένοι ἐκεῖναι καὶ ἐκόσμησαν τὰς λαμπάδας ἑαυτῶν. 8 αἱ δὲ μωραὶ ταῖς φρονίμοις εἶπαν, Δότε ἡμῖν ἐκ τοῦ ἐλαίου ὑμῶν, ὅτι αἱ λαμπάδες ἡμῶν σβέννυνται. 9 ἀπεκρίθησαν δὲ αἱ φρόνιμοι λέγουσαι, Μήποτε οὐ μὴ ἀρκέσῃ ἡμῖν καὶ ὑμῖν: πορεύεσθε μᾶλλον πρὸς τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ ἀγοράσατε ἑαυταῖς. 10 ἀπερχομένων δὲ αὐτῶν ἀγοράσαι ἦλθεν ὁ νυμφίος, καὶ αἱ ἕτοιμοι εἰσῆλθον μετ' αὐτοῦ εἰς τοὺς γάμους,καὶ ἐκλείσθη ἡ θύρα. 11 ὕστερον δὲ ἔρχονται καὶ αἱ λοιπαὶ παρθένοι λέγουσαι,Κύριε κύριε, ἄνοιξον ἡμῖν. 12 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ οἶδα ὑμᾶς. 13 Γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν.

Translation (NRSV):

1 [Jesus said:] ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.

6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’

‘Pax 1919’ ... the spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gates of the Garden of Remembrance … how do we remember the war dead in our cathedrals and churches on Remembrance Sunday? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The context of the readings:

Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25

The people who were once slaves but were freed and who have spent 40 years in the wilderness have now arrived in the Promised Land, and this has been divided among the tribes. They gather at Shechem, on the edge of the hill country, 50 km north of Jerusalem. Here Abraham had built an altar to commemorate his meeting with God; here Jacob set up camp, bought land, and erected an altar; here Joseph was buried.

This reading describes a treaty between God and his people, like a treaty between a victorious king and a vanquished people, who in return for protection undertake obligations, including revering the Lord (verse 14), and with warnings about the consequences of breaches in the terms of the treaty (verse 20).

The people are free to worship God or the local gods, but they elect to serve God (verse 15), recognise all God has done for them, and choose to serve him.

[Discussion: How would you relate this reading to Remembrance Day and God’s protection of a people in conflict or when they have been vanquished?]

Psalm 78: 1-7

This psalm recounts the story of the liberated slaves and their descendants, from the Exodus to the reign of David. In this way, it teaches that God has continued his saving acts in history despite the unfaithfulness of his people. They should recount for generations to come how God has intervened in human affairs through his “power” and “wonderful works” (verse 4).

[Discussion: Does God continue to work through mighty acts and in history?]

I Thessalonians 4: 13-18

Saint Paul has just urged his readers to live a godly, ethical life “because the Lord is an avenger” (verse 6). Now he raises an important question about what about those who have “fallen asleep,” those who have already died (verse 13).

Understanding this, he says, is important so that we may have hope, because we believe in the crucified and risen Christ, and that through him, God will bring those who are asleep into his company (verse 14). In verses 16-17, Saint Paul express a basic truth in terms of the cosmology of the day (with heaven above and the earth below): at the time of the second coming, God will descend, those who are already dead will rise, then we who are alive will ascend, joining those who have already died. And so we will all be with God forever (verse17).

[Discussion: is there an appropriate way of remembering the dead on this Sunday? Is there a border between remembering the dead and glorifying war?]

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you’ (Matthew 25: 11-12)

Looking at the Gospel reading:

The setting for this morning’s reading is on the Mount of Olives, looking down on the Temple, where Christ has teaching in the week leading up to the Passover, and in the week leading up to his passion, death and resurrection. In the Church Calendar, we are also preparing for the Season of Advent, when we think about his Second Coming, as King in Glory, at the end of time: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23: 39).

In the verses before this reading (24: 45-51), Christ tells the parable of a master who leaves his household for a time, but suddenly returns. If, while he is away, his servant lives a godly, ethical life, he is “blessed” when the master returns. On the other hand, if he thinks his master is delayed in returning, misbehaves and lives a life of debauchery, he will be condemned when the master returns.

In fact, the master will return when he least expects him.

Christ is speaking about the connection we should make between how we live now and what will happen at the Second Coming.

This reading is another parable Christ tells about the end of time, the Second Coming, the coming of the Kingdom of God.

In Christ’s day, weddings could last for days, as we know from the story of the Wedding at Cana (see John 2: 1-11). Weddings still go on, for days on end, in Greece today.

In Christ’s day, the groom and his family would gather at his household, while the bride and her family and guests would gather at her household. The groom and his family then make their way to the bride’s house to meet bride. When the groom arrived, he would take the bride inside, the marriage would be consummated and the wedding celebrations would continue.

In this parable, the party goes ahead without the bridesmaids who have not prepared themselves properly for the arrival of the groom, and who hastily rush away and try to return in the pretence that they had been prepared all along.

It was normal at Jewish weddings for the bridegroom to be delayed (verse 5). So the sudden, early arrival of the bridegroom (verses 10) is unexpected and surprising to those who are the first to listen to the telling of this parable.

Each of the wise bridesmaids has made her preparation and has made sure she is spiritually prepared. But being prepared is something we cannot transfer to others. Their refusal to give oil to the foolish bridesmaids is not an act of selfishness but a lesson in how each of us is expected to make his or her own preparations.

The surprise created by the early arrival of the bridegroom is added to as two further developments unfold in the story: the door is shut against those who arrive late (verse 10); and the groom refuses to recognise the foolish bridesmaids: “I do not know you” (verse 12). Those who are not prepared, or are too late in their preparation, are refused entry to the Kingdom.

The surprise is shocking when we think that this is the same Jesus who taught, healed, and broke bread with anyone who would join him, and who has particular compassion for the poor and outcast. Why now is Christ portrayed as someone who would shut the door on half of those who are waiting for his arrival?

But what are the expectations of the majority of people in our society today?

What would they prefer most?

The values of this world’s kingdoms … or the demands and expectations of the Kingdom of God?

The exhortation to “Keep awake” (verse 13) is a call to be prepared – for the coming of the Kingdom of God, for the Second Coming of Christ.

And how ought we to do this?

Think back to the readings of the three previous Sundays, about rendering onto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22: 15-22); about living by the two great commandments – loving God and loving our neighbour (Matthew 22: 34-36); and about living by the spirit and not merely by the letter of the Law of God when it comes to discipleship (Matthew 23: 1-12).

Some additional notes:

The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens … the word παρθένος has resonances that go beyond single, chaste women (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Verse 1: The Greek word the NRSV translates as “bridesmaid” and the RSV as “maidens” is παρθένος, which means a virgin, a marriageable maiden, a woman who has never had sexual intercourse with a man, or a marriageable daughter.

But this word has resonances that go beyond single, chaste women. This is the word that also gives us the name of the Parthenon in Athens. Athena Parthenos ( Ἀθηνᾶ Παρθένος, Athena the Virgin) was the title of a giant-size statue in gold and ivory of the Greek goddess Athena in the Parthenon in Athens.

It was the best-known cult image of Athens, and was seen as the greatest achievement of Phidias, the most acclaimed sculptor in ancient Greece.

There may be a reference here, therefore, to cult worship, often in the night and under the cover of darkness, and true worship of God, which should take place in the light. If so, there is an interesting connection between this Gospel reading and the persistent Johannine theme of darkness and light and the true worship Christ invites us to take part in.

Other Johannine parallels can be found in the Book of Revelation:

“Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19: 7).

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21: 2).

Verse 2: The wise and foolish young women can be compared to the wise and foolish man who each build a house (see Matthew 7: 24).

Verse 3: Oil is not only a symbol of life but also a symbol of repentance and anointing (see Matthew 6: 17.


Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the king of all:
Govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 29 October 2014.

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