In Alexander McCall Smith’s book, Sunshine on Scotland Street (of the 44 Scotland Street series), he records an interesting conversation between Bertie, a precocious 7-year-old, and Olive, a sassy, impertinent 10-year-old girl who is evidently betrothed to the younger Bertie. Olive has just explained that she has booked the Gritti Palace in Italy for the post-wedding honeymoon — an event that will take place in the far distant future.
“But I never said I wanted to marry you Olive …”
“Oh yes you did, Bertie. And I’ve got it in writing, remember? I’ve got a piece of paper that has your signature on it. It says that you agree to marry me — those are the exact words, Bertie, and you can’t deny them.”
“No buts, Bertie. If you don’t keep your promise, then you’ll get into serious trouble. Big time. You could go to prison, and then what? And there’s God, too. God watches these things and if he sees you breaking promises he can really get you. He does it all the time.”
Do we see God as a Cosmic Cop eager to catch you in all your misplayed good intentions, bad habits, failed initiatives, and compromising acts, then throw the book at you?
Granted, there seems to be some biblical evidence for this view — from the mouth of Jesus Himself, no less. Several times, He warns that failure to toe the line may result in one being cast into outer darkness where there’s weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. (See, for example, Matthew 13:50, Matthew 25:30, Luke 13:28.)
It’s a form, perhaps, of frontier justice, or an eye-for-an-eye revenge motif, or even a type of unqualified joy. We’re happy to see evildoers punished.
This is why we turn to Instagram, YouTube or TikTok to watch “instant karma” dash cam videos. Instant karma occurs when, for example, a car streaks by you at 80 miles per, weaving in and out of traffic. But then, just as you’re about to say, “Where’s a cop when you need one?” you see the guy getting lit up by an unmarked state trooper he just passed.
Instant karma! The driver caught it all on his dash cam. You can hear him shout, “Yes!” You can feel the adrenaline of fresh schadenfreude pumping through his veins.
Karma is cool. Instant karma is cooler. But no one wants to be on the receiving end. No one likes to be publicly embarrassed. You get pulled over by an officer after you’ve been speeding and driving recklessly, and you know that drivers are passing you now and laughing at you. Not fun. So, what can you do to avoid being the victim of instant karma?
This brings us to Jesus’ little story told in today’s gospel reading. Here’s the takeaway: What can one do to avoid being embarrassed like the five bridesmaids whose lamps ran out of oil, or — to use a modern metaphor — whose smartphone batteries were deader than disco?
To fully understand the power of this parable, it’s necessary to review how Matthew arranges Jesus’ red-letter words of the two previous chapters: 23 and 24.
Chapter 23 is full of stinging denunciations against the religious leaders of his day who “do not practice what they preach” (23:3).
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (23:13).
- “Woe to you, blind guides … you blind fools!” (23:16-17).
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (23:23).
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (23:27).
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (23:29).
Read these five declamations aloud for effect, and then note that Jesus — as though exhausted by this emotional invective — stops to catch His breath, perhaps sitting on a stone wall on the Mount of Olives, and sighs, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate” (23:37-38).
Then, Matthew lets us in on more gloom and doom. Jesus tells everyone who will listen that the temple will be reduced to rubble. He starts muttering about signs of the end of the world. He says that false prophets will arise, persecution will be rampant and that friends will betray one another. Things will be so bad that the public will head for the hills wishing they’d never been born.
Then there will be portents in the sky. Solar and lunar eclipses will only be part of it. There will be amazing and horrifying meteor showers and “the powers of heaven will be shaken” (24:29).
And in that moment … in that very moment, human destiny will be decided. For “all the tribes of the earth will … see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (24:30-31).
Now scroll forward to today’s parable about the 10 women of a bridal party, five of whom were vigilant and ready for every contingency, and five who were feckless, reckless, and careless and who were, in terms of our metaphor, victims of instant karma. They were on the receiving end of the humiliation and anguish they richly deserved. They are classic examples of the conditions reviewed by Jesus in the previous two chapters.
Jesus sometimes had trouble with His followers nodding off when, in His opinion, they should’ve had a Red Bull and toughed it out.
It almost happened at the site of His Transfiguration in the early days of His ministry: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed, they saw his glory” (Luke 9:32). But other times, they just could not keep up with Jesus. In Gethsemane, hours before Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus has His besties with Him. He goes off to pray — He was nervous about his impending trial and inevitable suffering. “Remain here, and stay awake with me,” He said (26:38). But they couldn’t.
After a period of prayer, “he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?’” (26:40).
In today’s text, Jesus concludes the lesson by saying, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13).
Keep awake? Really?
Can this really be Jesus’ main idea?
Jesus Himself said that all 10 of the bridesmaids succumbed to sleep! Their lamps were out. Dead to the world. All of them.
Yet, when the groom appears, the trumpets sound, the shouting begins, the hora is danced whilst singing “Hava Nagila,” and five of the wedding party are ready — immediately. Their prior sleepiness is not the problem.
- Some had oil for their lamps; others didn’t.
- Some slept with one eye on the alarm clock; others didn’t.
- Some remembered they were on standby alert, on-call status; others didn’t.
- Some were operating at Defcon 1, the highest state of readiness; others were not.
Jesus’ warning to “stay awake” must mean something other than literally, “don’t go to sleep.”
Instead, we must read Jesus’ warning as, “Be aware. Be in a state of readiness.”
- A blizzard is coming. In the aftermath of a snowfall of 7 feet, you discover that your neighbors have snow shovels, but you do not.
- Remember the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic? Your neighbors had toilet paper; you did not.
- You’re setting out from Rock Springs, Wyoming, headed west on I-80. The next town is Green River, 100 miles away. Other motorists have plenty of gas; you do not.
- Most car owners have a spare tire in the trunk. “Ah, so do I,” you think triumphantly — but you discover it’s flat at the moment you need it.
The five slacking bridesmaids had one thing to do: bring plenty of oil.
This might not be as bad as running out of wine, as did the host of an actual wedding Jesus attended (see John 2), but running out of lamp oil? Who does that?
Five very foolish members of the wedding party.
When they finally showed up, the doors were closed. The opportunity to party was past. The chance to get a seat at the table was lost.
The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ warning: “So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). And … just how do we do that?
It’s a good question. Jesus tells this story and the one that follows about three employees tasked with managing the corporate financial portfolio to address concerns about His second coming, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (v. 31). A strong eschatological thread runs through the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation.
In fact, the apostle Paul had to address this question, especially in his letters to the church at Thessalonica. Some had taken the idea of being ready with their lamps trimmed and burning so seriously that they’d stopped working altogether and were living in idleness. Flip over to 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 for Paul’s stinging response to these Christians who didn’t understand what it meant to watch and wait. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” he writes. He accuses them of “living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”
Paul himself answers the question by reminding his readers that “we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8).
So, when does it all end? Over the millennia, people have wrestled with an answer. Predictions were replete with times and dates, and often fueled by apocalyptic fervor, antisemitism, or charismatic — if not psychotic — seers. It could be fairly argued that Paul and John both believed the end would come in their lifetimes or very soon after (though neither stated this clearly). The first announced prediction came about 160 years after Christ’s death when Hippolytus in ~ 195 AD picked 500 AD as the return. Since then, the hits just keep on coming. Hilary of Poitiers, Martin of Tours, Gregory of Tours, scores of religious leaders at the turn of the millennium (1000, 1700, 1800, 1900), Pope Innocent III, Joachim of Fiore, the painter Botticelli, radical reformer Thomas Müntzer, and many others all claimed to know when the Lord was coming again. Even Martin Luther insisted the return would happen no later than 1600.
The most famous example of the 19th century was the case of William Miller. The Millerites expected the second coming to occur on April 28, 1843, or at the end of 1843. Didn’t happen. So, they recalculated. After Christ did not return on March 21, 1844, the Millerites recalculated yet again and came up with October 22. Ultimately, the disheartened group realized that they had absolutely no idea when the second coming would occur, and the associated depression was known as the Great Disappointment.
But 19th century idlers and busybodies, to use the apostle’s language, were mere ripples in the apocalyptic sea compared to the typhoons of catastrophe envisioned by the soothsayers of the 20th century — Herbert W. Armstrong, Pat Robertson, Jeane Dixon, Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Harold Camping, to name a few. All of them, like the Millerites, took several stabs at it before giving up or being forced to quit because they died.
What’s a fine, upstanding Christian to do as these end times keep going on and on? Sometimes it’s so obvious that we can’t see it staring at us. To live in vigilance means that Christians must do the tasks they have been assigned to do, like the 10 bridesmaids or the three servants.
According to Matthew’s gospel, those tasks include:
- bearing witness to God’s kingdom by welcoming the stranger (vv. 31-46),
- feeding the hungry (vv. 31-46),
- visiting the sick and imprisoned (vv. 31-46), and
- making disciples in all the world (28:19-20).
It’s all there. In the same chapter. Do these four things — actions that could fall under the category of loving one’s neighbor — and you can be assured that when the Lord comes, there will be oil in your lamps.
No one will catch you napping. You will not be embarrassed before your Lord or your neighbors. No instant karma for you.
Rather, you will hear the bridegroom say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). Amen.