Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
I have noticed two odd trends that have been developing over the past few years. The first is one that has actually been developing for more than a few years, and I have heard people lament this fact for most of my life. It is conventional wisdom that our attention span is getting shorter. Last year you may have seen one of several articles making the round that thanks to the rise of smart devices, average human attention span is now only eight seconds. We hear that statistic and we do not question it, because it sounds like it could be true. It is a statistic that tends to validate what we already believe, and that is attention spans, especially of younger generations is getting shorter. We can site a lot antidotal evidence, but there is little proof that attention spans are truly getting shorter. The whole eight second stat is inaccurate, and it arose from a third party misinterpretation, misuse, and stretching of a Canadian study with a small sample size. Even though it feels right to us, I am not 100% convinced that attention spans are shrinking. In fact some statistics point to the opposite. 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 top grossing movies was 118 minutes, twenty years later in 2012 the average was 141 minutes. This leads to the second trend I have noticed. If attention spans were getting shorter then binge watching would not be a trend. A couple of weeks ago the hotly anticipated second season of Stranger Things premiered on Netflix, and according to the company 361,000 users watched all of the episodes in a row on the first day that it was out. Our attention spans have not gotten shorter, 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. While I would like to think that most of us can go eight seconds before we change the channel or pull out our phones to look at funny cat pictures, it does seem we live in an era where it is easier to find distractions than ever before. 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.
I can remember way back in the day when I read through the Bible for the first time, and I came across this parable. It left me scratching my head as I tried to figure out what on earth is going on here. Why are there ten virgins waiting to meet the bridegroom? It honestly sounds like the start of a terrible reality show. How long were they waiting that their lamps ran out of oil? At the surface level this whole story is just odd and it really requires some digging into the cultural and historical context as to what is going on. First, the word used is unmistakably virgin, but contextually a better understanding is bridesmaid. This parable uses a marriage custom of the day to illustrate the point. Part of the wedding ritual of this time involved the groom arriving to the place of the wedding, and the groom was to be met and escorted by bridesmaids who carried lights. This was part of the ritual and for the ten selected it was their most important part in the ritual. Their job was to keep watch, and honor the groom by escorting him into the venue. The other confusing part of this is the understanding of lamp. Now initially when I pictured this story initially, I imagined them holding something more along the lines of the oil lamps found in cracker barrel, but that is the wrong image. It is likely that what the young women were holding were more along the lines of torches. 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.
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. Five of them brought extra oil in case this happened, and five did not. The startling thing though, is that the five who did not do not instantly go to get more oil. When their lights go out, they hang around and take a nap. 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 and they failed in the most spectacular way.
Understanding the proper cultural and historical context of the story helps us understand the deeper point that Jesus was teaching. This is one of the very last parables that Jesus told. 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. 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. If you are a place in your life, where you know that you have not truly made a faith commitment, then it is my prayer that you would feel this urgency in your life. It is my prayer that you would use the time you have in this life to be prepared for when you meet the groom, the son of God. If that is you, and there are reasons why you do not feel ready then I would love to sit down and listen to you someday soon.
Even though the original intention of this story was to communicate being spiritually ready and right with God when the time comes, I think that the underlying message can speak to believers as well. The women in the story were given a task to perform when called upon, some were ready and others were shockingly ill-prepared. The underlying message of this scripture is to be ready, and it should lead us to ask are we ready? The women in the scripture had the job of having their lights ready. In the same way 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. Are we like the five women who are prepared, waiting and ready or are we like the ill-prepared ones? 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?
Challenging us to consider how ready we are to serve the Son of God, is where this scripture can speak and convict us today. Because if we live in a culture of smart phones and binge watching, how are we going to be ready? If we are so busy being entertained and distracted how can we be sure we are not going to miss it when the Spirit leads us serve? It is easy to think that this is a technology fueled problem that only impacts younger generations, but the average American over 50 still watches over forty seven hours of traditional TV a week. Smart phones and streaming technology may have changed the playing field, but our culture has long been distracted by entertainment.
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 old word that means not doing much. It is a word that could be used to describe the women who slept instead of getting new oil, and we have to admit that it could also be used to describe binge watching all 13 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in a week on Netflix. This scripture challenges us to assess how ready we are to serve Jesus. When we are asked to volunteer in a way that serves the needy or show the love of Christ to others are we quick to say yes? Or are we more likely to say I am too busy, while we settle into a hallmark Christmas move marathon or grind another level of prestige in Call of Duty? This scripture challenges us to seriously assess ourselves and consider if we are ready or if we are trifling. Now, believe me I am not saying that entertainment is wrong, I am not saying fun is bad, and I am not saying rest/relaxation are sinful. However, I, we could probably all confess that we can become a little distracted by all of the entertainment and relaxation options that we are bombarded with.
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 willing to follow Jesus wherever he is leading.