Inspired by Matthew 25:1-13
So there are those cultural differences that make this a strange story but even more puzzling are the theological differences. This story, as well as the one that follows it, which we get to read next Sunday, does not seem to fit in with the rest of this Gospel! I don’t know if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the floor, or if he was sick of attending weddings, or if he had one too many glasses of “water”, but the lessons from this story, taken at face value, just don’t seem to line up with everything else that Jesus had been teaching, such as, sharing.
How many times have we heard Jesus teach us to share what we have with those less fortunate? But now, all of a sudden, Jesus seems to be saying no to the idea of sharing as he doesn’t seem to reprimand the ones who tell the foolish bridesmaids to go to the store! No, he calls them wise! Not to mention the fact that Jesus, in various ways, has taught us to care for others, even at our own expense. But not here, here he seems to be teaching the very American way of looking out for number one, a very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of thinking.
So I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t a lesson on how to be stingy, nor is it a lesson on how to look out for number one, nor is it a lesson on how to throw a sexist wedding. Well, here’s one more thing I don’t think this is about, the future. Many over the centuries have used this passage to strike fear into believers hearts convincing them that when Christ returns you better be ready, or else! I don’t think that’s very helpful! I mean, if you have to read this in a future-oriented way then the take away should be that our hope that Christ will return is not in vain. But I really don’t think that’s what Jesus point was here and we get a clue of this at the end of the chapter. Sometimes it helps to skip ahead and see where Jesus lands to help us understand some of his strange teachings.
In this case, right after this he tells another, very related story, about a master giving three servants different amounts of money and what they do with it, which as I said we will read next week, but then he ends this teaching session with the story of the sheep and the goats. That’s the story where the ruler says to the sheep, “Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat.
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” And the sheep reply, “when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink, or as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear or sick or in prison and visit you? When you did those things for others, you did them for me, the ruler said.
In this whole teaching session, Jesus wants us to focus on the here and now. What are we doing, or not doing, now. The future is in God’s hands and is taken care of. No need to worry our little heads about that. The present is where Jesus is pointing us. So, in that light, and in this particular story, the lesson seems to be about being prepared and the ramifications, or as I like to call them, the natural consequences, of not being prepared. I recently had a conversation with our Stephen Ministry team and I was telling them how I really don’t like to just drop in on people at their home.
And Joy Johnson asked me, how I felt about being dropped in on without notice, and I had to admit that, no, I’m not a big fan of it either, which is probably why I don’t like to do it to others, but especially not a fan of it is my wife Sara! Her favorite is when we tell the girls that we have to clean the house this weekend and their first question is, “Why, do we have company coming or something?” That question just drives her up the wall! Because, one, we who live here permanently enjoy a clean house, but two, you never know when someone is going to just stop by, so why not be prepared!
But, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about being prepared for company, Jesus is ultimately talking about being prepared for him. And again, I don’t mean being prepared to meet him at the pearly gates after we die. We don’t have to make everything about salvation! No, Jesus is talking about the present, being prepared for others needs that may turn up without notice—needs like hunger and thirst, being a stranger, nakedness, illness, or being a prisoner—and being ready to meet those needs with food, drink, welcome, clothes, care, or a visit. And in being ready for those needs we in turn are ready to meet Christ, here and now. But the point is being prepared.
Here are a few practical examples from the here and now: we recently went trick or treating for cans in our surrounding neighborhood. Our director of children, youth, and family ministry, Lisa, also knew of just how many hungry people show up at our office door each week and thought, maybe we should store some of that food here at the church, to be prepared for those needs when they arrive—prepared to meet Jesus, when he arrives hungry at our door. Here’s another one: I recently got an email from Dana Miller. She told me that she’d like to form a team that was ready to welcome visitors on Sunday, that was prepared to welcome strangers that show up at our door—prepared to welcome Jesus when he shows up.
Here’s another example: a man showed up at our office door just the other day with two large bags of toys that he wanted to donate to children this Christmas. Our office manager knew exactly which direction to point him because of a relationship that she had already established with one of our local ministry partners. She was ready, prepared for when Jesus showed up at our door with bags of toys. Here’s another example: Not that long ago Muriel Delagostino asked me if she could gather and store here at the church, medical equipment like canes and wheelchairs and walkers for when people need one but can’t afford one, so that we would be ready when those needs arise—prepared for when Jesus shows up with a medical need.
Here’s another one, I could do this all day!: I mentioned early that I met with our Stephen Ministry team, most of that conversation centered around how we can be ready for the visitation needs of Bethlehem, whether that be for shut-ins, the ill, the lonely, or anyone in between. They want us to be equipped for when those needs arise—prepared for when Jesus needs a visit. As Jesus said, when you do these things for others, you do them for him. If you take a look at any of those examples by themselves, they may seem small and insignificant. But one of the gifts of my position as your pastor is being able to see all of these examples, being able to see the big picture, being able to see all that you do, on behalf of Christ, for the sake of the world. It’s not insignificant, by any stretch of the imagination.
And I don’t tell you that just so you can all give yourself a pat on the back, I’m not that nice. I share these things with you to give you hope and confidence. Because when you don’t see the big picture it is easy to fall into indifference, complacency, and despair. Church growth is on the minds of many these days. But there are more ways to grow than just filling these pews. That would be nice too, I’m not gonna lie.
But I think the other ways we are growing, growing in discipleship, which is just a fancy word for following Jesus, or more specifically, following the ways of Jesus, that kind of growth, should happen first, and is happening. That kind of growth, growing in how we follow the ways of Jesus, is how we prepare ourselves to fill these pews—with new members, meaning new extensions, of the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.