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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 15, 2017

 The Wise and Foolish Maidens

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Matthew 25:1-13

            Woody Allen said once in a movie that “he believed in a God whose goodness coursed throughout the entire universe, except for a few select portions of New Jersey.”  I always think about that line when I find myself driving the New Jersey turnpike.  Let’s just say it is not the Garden of Eden.  I remember especially a Sunday when I was filled with things to do here, shortly after I had come to this church, and I waited until the last possible minute to drive from here, when I was living at the manse, to the airport to catch my plane.  I made it just in time, arrived at the Newark airport, picked up my rental car, which, you can do with a license and a credit card.  I got on the New Jersey turnpike, and suddenly realized that I had no change in my pocket and a one dollar bill in my wallet for a $1.85 toll that I was going to have to pay.  I began to rack my brain about how I was going to manage this feat.  Then it occurred to me that I always kept a bill hidden in the back of my wallet for such moments, fortunately, maybe, unfortunately.  Have you ever paid for a $1.85 toll on the New Jersey turnpike with a one hundred dollar bill?  Let’s just say the toll booth operator did not rise up that day to call me blessed!

            Mark Twain said, “Always do right.  This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest of them.”  The fact of life is that we do not always do right.  We do the wrong thing for a variety of reasons, sometimes the reason being our own stupidity.  The Boy Scout motto, an organization that soon may have to change its name, is “Be prepared.”  It is good advice, but once again I am not sure it is advice that we always heed.  That is why Jesus told this parable of the Wise and the Foolish Maidens.  It is a parable about being prepared, about being ready for whatever may come.  It is a parable about doing what is wise, versus doing what is foolish.

            It is not an easy parable.  It is not a parable about how incredibly compassionate God is and God calls us to be.  It is not a parable about the father who waits forever for the Prodigal Son to come home.  It is a parable that takes place at a wedding feast, a moment that is filled with a lot of emotional investment among the families that have gathered on that occasion.  It is a parable that in many ways does not have a happy ending to it.  The foolish bridesmaids were the ones who were ready for the wedding feast and the parade to follow; they just were not ready for the delay that came unexpectedly before then.  When the bridegroom arrives at an unexpected hour, the foolish bridesmaids asked the wise bridesmaids to share their oil, and the wise bridesmaids say rather honestly, “We have enough for ourselves, but if we give you what we have, none of us will have enough.”  The foolish bridesmaids must go and do what they should have done ahead of time.  And, of course, we are told chillingly, “the door was shut,” and they missed the feast.

            Jesus does not say that these five bridesmaids were evil.  He does not call them bad people.  No, He says they were foolish.  Foolish is something with which I am only too familiar from my own life.  Foolish people get themselves in situations where they have to pay for a $1.85 toll with a one hundred dollar bill, all because they did not prepare.  They were not wise.  There is enough fool in me to feel sorry for these unwise foolish maidens.  I have been there.  But do you know what?  I think Jesus feels sorry for them as well.  I think that is exactly why Jesus told this parable in the first place.  You remember this: “parable” means to “lay alongside.”  These stories are told so that we will lay them alongside of our own lives and allow them to speak into our lives.  When Jesus told this parable, He said it was about the coming of “the kingdom of heaven.”  Elsewhere Jesus says “the kingdom of God will come like a thief in the night,” so you better be ready. 

            The church has often taken this parable to be a word about the return, or the second coming of Christ.  However we read this parable, we are fools if we do not recognize that it is a parable about preparedness.  About being ready for whatever life brings.  Ready for the worst, and ready as well for the best when it comes.  I love Jesus’ word at the end, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  And, of course, we do not.  I had a teacher when I was a student at Edinburgh University named Thomas Frances Torrance.  I still remember him saying, “The future has an uncomfortable capacity not to accommodate itself to our expectations.”  

            So what is the difference between wisdom and folly, and what could this parable teach us today?  First, I suggest that it teaches you that there are some things in life that you cannot borrow from others.  You have to find them, or develop them on your own.  Do you remember what the wise maidens said to the foolish maidens?  “If we share our oil with you, none of us will have enough.”  In effect they are saying, “You have to get your own.”  There are many things that we can receive from others.  Money is something that can be shared.  Possessions can always be shared.  Kindness is something that you can always share with another.  But there are certain other precious gifts that one person cannot give to another, however much you wish that you could.  You cannot give somebody else character or integrity.  You cannot make somebody else resilient, or you cannot give them perseverance, courage, toughness, inner strength, or self-discipline.  These are all things that by definition we have to gain for ourselves.  Nor can you give somebody else faith.

            Louis Evans was a very well-known Presbyterian minister of another generation.  He was the pastor at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church when it was the largest church in America west of the Mississippi River.  He preached a very famous sermon once from the book of Romans he called, “God has No Grandchildren.”  What he was saying was that you have to be a child of God yourself.  You cannot make somebody else’s faith your own, or live off of somebody else’s faith.  Faith always has to be a first-person personal experience.

            A few years ago I read a novel about a young man who returned home upon his mother’s death, and his life was in shambles.  He saw her old reading desk, on it a pair of her reading glasses and her well-worn Bible.  He sat down at the desk, picked up her Bible and began to look through it.  At one point he even picked up her glasses and put them on his face.  Then he suddenly realized, taking them off, that he needed to find a faith of his own, that his mother’s faith, as strong as it was, and as much of a model for him as it was, was not a substitute for him finding his own.  He said, “There are some things you just can’t borrow from someone else.”

            Preparing for death, as well as life, is another one of those things that no one else can do for you.  Remember the best-selling book, written by a Detroit sportswriter named Mitch Albom a number of years ago?  It was called, Tuesdays with Morrie.  Morrie was a philosophy professor of Mitch Albom’s, and he went to visit him as he discovered Morrie was sick and dying.  Morrie said to him, “Everybody knows they are going to die.  Nobody believes it.  If we did, we would do things differently.  There is a better approach – to know you’re going to die and to be prepared for that day at any time.  That’s better, that way you can actually be more involved in your life while you’re living it.  You need to do what the Buddhists do.  Everyday have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day?  Am I ready?  Am I doing all I need to do?  Am I being the person I want to be?’”  Then Morrie turned his head, as if there were a bird sitting on his shoulder, and he said to Mitch, “Is today the day I die?  The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

            He is right, of course; you cannot prepare for life or for death by borrowing or living off of some other person’s faith and strength.  You have to find that, or develop that, for yourself.  But please do not miss the second lesson on wisdom that this parable holds for us if we are to be people prepared: We never know what tomorrow holds.  “Watch, therefore,” Jesus says, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  I swear if I had known as a kid that I was going to do this for a living, that I was going to have to study and read, I would have studied a whole lot harder in school to get ready for the rest of my life.  But that is the way it is with fools like me!

            Fools, sadly, are often arrogant, they are so full of themselves that they take no heed for what tomorrow may hold.  The Bible puts it this way: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes.”  The verse says foolish people spend a lot of their time trying to justify themselves.  Wisdom on the other hand, breeds humility in a person.  You grow aware of how much you do not know, how much you still have to learn about all that it means to be human and to be fully alive.  Wise people know you can never justify yourself.  Only God can make you right.  It was said once by one saint of the church, “No one has more faith than you can summon in an emergency.”  Of course the nature of an emergency is that we never know when one is going to come and what shape it is going to take.  So by such a definition, how much faith can you summon?  I love what Jesus said: “Watch, be ready.  You know neither the day nor the hour.”

            Sam Keen wrote a best-selling book years ago entitled, To a Dancing God.  I still remember a sentence in it because it knocked me off my feet.  He said, “Wisdom is knowing what time it is in your life.”  I love the sentence, but I have thought about it for a long time, and I think I disagree with Sam Keen.  I would say instead that wisdom is knowing that you never know what time it is in your life.

            Will Willimon worked many years as the Dean of Duke University Chapel.  He became the Methodist Bishop in Birmingham, Alabama.  Now in retirement, Will is back at Duke.  I remember a story he told once of a friend, whose father died tragically, after a very hard life.  The funeral was being held in a small country church, and because of the popularity of his son, the church was packed, and the country preacher was not going to miss his opportunity that day.  And so on a hot summer day, he said to the congregation, “It’s too late for old Joe.  Let’s be honest – Joe was a drunk, and I can’t do a thing to change that.  It’s too late for Joe to change.  But it’s not too late for all of you.  You could die tomorrow; you never know what tomorrow holds.  So today is the day for you to repent, to get right with the Lord today, because you never know what tomorrow will hold.”  Driving home from the service, Will looked at Patsy, and said, “I can’t believe he said those things.  He was so insensitive, so arrogant.  He was so manipulative of everyone in the church.”  Patsy said very quietly, “Yes, and the worst of it was, every word he spoke was true.”

            “Watch therefore, for you do not know either the day nor the hour.”  This is the word of the Lord!


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