Burning the Midnight Oil

Scripture:  Matthew 25:1-13

There is a general belief that attentions spans are getting shorter.  A survey from earlier this year reported that more than half of adults are concerned that their attention span is not what it used to be.  It is conventional wisdom that our attention span, especially for younger generations, is getting shorter.   We can cite a lot antidotal evidence, but there is little proof that attention spans are truly getting shorter. There have been studies to determine if this is happening, and the studies are not conclusive.  What they seem to show is that we have more distractions than ever, and we may be getting worse at resisting distractions.  However, when distractions are factored out most people are able to focus reasonably well.

The data does not full support attention spans are getting shorter, and there does seem to be some evidence to the contrary.  If attention spans are getting shorter, then it would make sense that movie runtimes would be getting shorter but the opposite is happening.  In 1992 the average run time of the movies was 118 minutes, now thirty years later the average movie length is 143 minutes.  Another example that supports attentions spans holding is the phenomenon of binge watching.   Thanks to on demand streaming services it is possible to watch an entire series in the course of a few days, and binge watching is watching multiple episodes to an entire season of a show in rapid succession.  A survey found that 70% of Americans with access to a TV binge watch, and among young adults that number is 90%.   Our attention spans have not gotten shorter, and it seems our ability to focus on a singular task is still remarkable.   However, in our era of 160 channel plus cable TV, 24 hour streaming, smart devices, and online video games our ability to not be distracted by entertainment has greatly diminished.   When people lament the shortening of attention spans, what they are really lamenting is the shortening of our ability to spend time not being actively entertained.   We may still have the ability to focus but we are much worse at waiting.  Given that, the prophetic parable that Jesus tells in this morning’s scripture seems shockingly relevant.   The call to alertness is one that we need to hear today.

Jesus told a lot of stories, and by design a lot of the stories that Jesus told are odd ones.  Often it is in the oddity that the deeper point of the story can be found.  However in the instance of this story, the whole thing is just odd.  This is especially true for us because aspects of this parable get lost in translation.  We can start with who is waiting, the word in Greek is unmistakably virgins, but perhaps a better understanding would be bridesmaid.  Many biblical scholars think this parable is built on what would have been a first century wedding tradition where a group of young women escort the groom to the ceremony.  These escorting young women would have been unmarried, and so they would have been friends and peers of the bride.

The next part lost in translation is the word lamp.  Now clearly, these are not the electric lamps of today, but likely for many of us this brings forth the image of an old fashioned oil lamp, like what you can find in most Cracker Barrel restaurants today.   Yet, to properly get this image into mind we should be thinking of a torch.  This is why in verse six they trimmed their lamps, they had to cut off the burnt part to expose the rest of the torch so it could burn.  These lamps were poles with oil drenched rags on top, and the burning time would have only been fifteen minutes or so.   So what we should be imagining is a group of unmarried, young bridesmaids with torches awaiting the arrival of the groom so that they can escort him into the awaiting wedding.

When we consider the context of this story, it begins to shed a bit more light onto what exactly is going on here.   The ten women in the story are chosen for the honor of meeting the groom.   They are where they are supposed to be on time, they light their torches in expectation of the groom’s coming, and they wait and wait.  As the story says, the groom is delayed, and the lights burn out.  At this point, the five who came prepared were ready to go.  The startling thing though, is that the five who did not do not instantly go to get more oil.  The groom was so long delayed that they all fell asleep.  This would have been several hours.  This was plenty of time to come up with a plan B, it was plenty of time to prepare.   It is only when the groom is spotted, that they look to do anything about it.  They presumably had hours to fix the problem, and they did nothing.  The ones with oil could not share.  Remember, the oil only gave them about fifteen minutes of flame.  Presumably, half the oil would not have lasted the entire time it was needed for this part of the ritual.  If the five with the extra oil had shared, then all of the flames would have gone out to early.  With no other recourse at this point, they go to buy oil at midnight.  By that time the delayed wedding would have been under way.  These five women were tasked with one job.  They had to be ready to escort the groom to the wedding.  Because they did not take any effort to prepare, they completely failed at their one job.

Understanding the proper cultural and historical context of the story helps us understand the deeper point that Jesus was getting at.  This is one of the very last parables that Jesus told.  This is the first of a sequence of three parables that all seem to focus on when Jesus will return.   All three parables have a different focus, and the focus of this one is on being prepared.    Directly preceding this parable Jesus is talking about his second coming.  In Matthew 24:42 Jesus states, “keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come”, and then this parable is told to illustrate this point.

Ultimately, this is a parable that has to do with salvation.  When Jesus returns or our time on earth comes to an end, the clock will be up for us and we have to be prepared to meet the groom.   This parable is a warning for us to not put off until tomorrow what can be done today.   The irresponsible women had ample time to get oil but they did not, they chose to sleep.  The women in this story chose not to be prepared for what they knew was going to come eventually.  They chose to not be aware, and when it comes to our eternal salvation there are sadly too many people who do this.   They may have a passing acknowledgement of God, but they never take the time to confess their sin, to open their heart, and to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.   There are too many people who go through life with a vague notion of faith, but they never truly commit to it.  There is always a distraction, something else that catches their attention.   This is exactly what this parable is warning against, this parable is one that is meant to create a sense of urgency.   Chances are many of us know someone who need this warning.  Many of us know someone who, when asked about their faith practice, their answer is “nothing in particular”.  Chances are many of us know someone who may have a background in faith, but a belief in God or the lordship of Christ has no real bearing or influence in their life.  Chances are most of us know the kind of person that this parable was meant to be a warning for.

If you do know that kind of person, then perhaps this parable is a warning and challenge for us as well.   The five wise bridesmaid were not responsible for the foolish ones, but how would this parable have been different if the five wise bridesmaids had noticed the predicament of the ones who were not prepared?   The wise bridesmaids could have suggested to other to get oil while there is time, they could have worked with them to find a way to meet their needs.   The fact that the foolish bridesmaids were not prepared is not the responsibility of the wise ones, but there was an opportunity to notice and meet the needs of others.  In the same way, we are not responsible for anyone else’s salvation.   All people have the free will to say yes to God’s yes or not.  Even though we are not responsible, we can still take time to notice those around us who need Jesus.  We actively try to point them in the right direction, they may not pay attention, they may dismiss us, and they may not care but if that is what happens then we can know that we did our best to help someone else know Jesus.

While it could be argued that the primary point of this parable is one of urgency.  The story is about the second coming, but in a broader sense it is about being prepared, alert, and ready.  The bridesmaids in this story had a job and they did not know when they were going to be needed to fulfill the job.  As disciples of Christ, we face a similar predicament.   As those who follow Christ have the job to be lights in the world.  We have the job to make disciples of the nations and to transform this world into a more loving, just, and kind place.  When through the Holy Spirit Jesus calls on us to be the one who shares the gospel or show compassion to those who need it are we going to be ready or are we going to be sleeping?

In his pamphlet “Rules of a Helper” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote some convicting words.  In this work Wesley was instructing leaders in the Methodist movement how to life an effective Christian witness.  In doing this he wrote, “Never be triflingly employed.  Never while away time.”  Over the course of his career, John Wesley wrote a lot about trifling and none of it was positive.  Trifling is an old word that means not doing much.   Many of us have experienced trifling away time.  If you have ever found yourself aimlessly scrolling on your phone to be surprised that hours have passed or you have flipped through channels looking for something good to watch until it dark outside, then you know what it is to trifle.   This scripture challenges us to assess how ready we are to serve Jesus.  We are to be prepared and ready for when that time comes, and this can be a challenge because it is easy to get distracted.  It is easier to focus on whatever catches our attention or to aimlessly drift than to be focused on how God might be able to use us to further the kingdom of God today.  This scripture challenges us to seriously assess ourselves and consider if we are ready or if we are trifling.

If we are going to be ready, then that means we have to be ready.  Just like the women who brought oil, we have to be prepared.  2 Timothy 4:2 puts it this way, “be prepared in season and out of season.”   This means that we need to have open hearts ready to love and have compassion for whoever God has us cross paths with.  It means we have to open minds that we can accept and care for them without reservation, with judgement, and without imposing qualifications.  Finally it means we need to have open doors, so that when God call us on us we are not found unprepared, making excuses, or distracted.   When God appears in our lives and invites us to join God’s work in redeeming the world, spreading the gospel, and transforming the world may we not be like the women without oil who were caught unprepared for the task at hand.   Instead, may we be like the ones who were ready and prepared.  May we be ready to burn the midnight oil if necessary, and may we be willing to follow Jesus wherever he is leading.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *