God is free, and so are we

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke to his disciples near the end of his life. And so, his preaching here considers the end of things and how to live with the end in mind.

This story about bridesmaids waiting for the bridal couple to arrive to the wedding reception party can lead us down tricky paths if were not careful.

For one thing, it’s not about remaining in a constant state of vigilance. Because those five who had enough oil for their lamps had just enough for themselves. They hadn’t stockpiled oil enough to cover more than one night. Even these ‘prepared’ ones didn’t take into account all the contingencies. What if the bride groom wasn’t going to make it till the next day? What if the guests got their days mixed up? 

Clearly, in the story, the bridegroom is delayed. But for how long? No one knows. The Gospel’s point, in the end, is that “you know neither the day nor the hour.”[1] God is free.

At the same time, the story here revolves around how we live in a time of unknowing. There’s something to be said about looking ahead and getting ourselves ready to the best of our ability for an unknown future. 

It’s not uncommon to have heard this assessment about resilient individuals and resilient communities during the pandemic:

Those individuals who had already been practising healthy lifestyles before the lockdown earlier this year – such as regular exercise, diet, personal hobbies, prayer practices – were better poised to endure the limitations on social gatherings and sheltering in place. In contrast to those who were ‘forced’ into doing some of these things after the restrictions were imposed.

Also, those communities, organizations, businesses, charities and churches who were already ‘pro-active’ in best practices and ahead of the curve in terms of financial and technological innovations were better positioned to weather the storm and not only survive but thrive. In contrast to those organizations who had to do a whole lot of catching up to implement technology, websites and procedures in the midst of the crisis.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for folks who are grieving is never make a major decision about changing something significant in your like – like selling property or moving – when the pain of grief is still raw. Making changes to your normal way of doing things in the midst of a crisis is never nearly as effective as continuing best practices and healthy disciplines that you already were doing to some extent before the crisis. 

They say how you die reflects the way you lived; that is to say, the attitudes under the surface that have always been there but never maybe addressed, or the values on which we have oriented ourselves in all our activity – these are exposed and emerge at the end. Unresolved issues will catch up to you. So, it’s best to start putting into practice now life practices that you know are healthy and good but for whatever reason may be tempting to leave until later. Because, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It is how we live in uncertainty, that is the point of the Gospel. The story Jesus tells suggests it is wise to bear down and do what we can to meet the day given to us with the best of our consciences and abilities. But it is here where our Lutheran instincts kick in, and we may object: We are not saved by our good works; we cannot earn God’s favour by working harder. And I agree.

Because God doesn’t need the product of our labour. We delude ourselves in believing that God needs the results of our hard work. But God doesn’t. What God does care about deeply, I believe, is what we do with the freedom we have. God is free, yes. But so are we. 

And so, our focus then becomes not whether what we accomplish is worthy or perfect; rather, we pay more attention to our intentions, and how we live, in truth, and do the work we do.

Otherwise, we do nothing. The striving after perfection often keeps us paralyzed from the good. No matter what we do we can never completely solve the problems in the world and in our lives. In all our preparations, there is always a space left incomplete, imperfect. And this gap is what God alone can fill. And will, one day.

The bridegroom’s delay doesn’t mean he will not come. The bridegroom’s freedom also means the party will not really start until he arrives. The Gospel asks us to live in hope for what has been promised and what will be but is not yet. 

While it is wise to fill our lamps with good things, these good things are for use this side of eternity. There is, after all, enough light for everyone at the banquet. So, for now, let us do good. Let us work with the uncertain future in mind using the good tools of knowledge, faith and love.[2]

And let God be concerned about the rest.

[1] Matthew 25:1-13

[2] Mark Douglas “Matthew 25:1-13” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011)  p.284-288.

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