Being wise stewards of our time and energy
Stewardship does not just involve the faithful use of our money and possessions. God calls us, as individuals and congregations, to be faithful stewards of our time and energy. The following parable from the Gospel of Matthew illustrates well this point.
Before we look at today’s passage, however, let’s remember a few things about parables.
• Jesus frequently uses parables as a challenging, but highly effective method of teaching.
• Parables usually involve complex and dynamic stories, with many different moving parts and characters.
• Listeners often realize that they can assume the role of different characters in a parable at different times in their lives. For instance, three years ago you might have identified yourself as one particular character in the story, with a point of view shaped by your circumstances at the time. Today, you might picture yourself as a quite different actor in the story, as determined by your current context.
• Another principal feature of a parable is that something surprising or even
disruptive and uncomfortable for listeners usually takes place in the story. That is the purpose of a parable: to get us to see and engage life from a new point of view.
The following parable from the Gospel of Matthew incorporates all these elements.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were prepared went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Matthew 25:1-13).
On one level, the parable is clearly a story about the experience of the first-century church. They are expectantly waiting for the return of the resurrected Jesus, when he will conclude his work of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Several clues point us in this direction:
• In early Christian literature, the “bridegroom” usually symbolized Jesus Christ and the “wedding banquet” signified the celebration that would take place when Jesus returned to earth to complete God’s reign in the world.
• In the Gospels, Jesus himself often talks about his future return as something that will take place at an unexpected day or hour; so he admonishes his disciples to “stay awake” and always “be prepared” to welcome him when he does return.
• The early church understood his admonitions as encouragement to continue living faithfully by the example of Christ’s life and teachings, no matter how long the delay before his return.
• They had a sense that the returning Christ would recognize those disciples who were still living faithfully, and admit them to the heavenly wedding banquet.
The early church expected the risen Christ to return soon; but as the decades after his death and resurrection dragged on uneventfully, there was a growing sense that his return had been “delayed,” as noted in today’s parable and many others in the Gospels.
• From this historical perspective, the wise bridesmaids represent those followers of Jesus who continue to remain adequately prepared to meet him at any time of day or night when he finally does return.
• These wise disciples are still living faithfully according to Christ’s life and
• The foolish ones are those who, during the time of this delay, have lost sight of Christ’s expected return; they let the cares and concerns of daily life interfere with their preparedness as faithful disciples.
• On this reading, Jesus recognizes and welcomes into the wedding banquet only those followers whose preparedness is marked by a continuing faithfulness to his life and teachings throughout the course of his “delayed” return.
The parable also works on another level, not only for those first disciples of Jesus, but also for those who still follow him 2,000 years after his death and resurrection.
• Most of us are accustomed to hearing Jesus say in the Gospel of John that “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:4).
• But in the Gospel of Matthew (the only Gospel in which today’s parable
appears), Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 5:14-15 that they are the light of the world and that no one after lighting their lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, so that it gives light to everyone in the house.
• Thus, at least in the Gospel of Matthew, it is important for disciples to keep their lamps burning brightly to illuminate their own pathway and to lead the way for others; disciples themselves are the lamps that must remain brightly lit for the good of the house and the world.
• The “oil” in the parable signifies the fuel that allows a lamp to stay brightly lit.
• Disciples must always have sufficient oil in their lamps if they hope to continue burning brightly until Jesus returns.
This second reading of the parable suggests disciples must always be discerning.
• We must always consider whether we have enough “oil” in our lamps to say “yes” to the opportunities in life that come our way.
• In other words, disciples must make sure they have enough time and energy to undertake a new calling or opportunity that God puts in front of them.
• Conversely, when we take on too many responsibilities, with not enough time and energy to complete the tasks satisfactorily, we deplete our “oil” supply and the lights of our lamps begin to grow dimmer and dimmer.
• When our lights “burn out” because we have no more oil to fuel them, we are no longer “prepared” for Christ’s return, and he can no longer recognize us as his faithful disciples.
• On this reading, our “no’s” are just as important as our “yes’s” so that we keep our lights burning brightly as we remain “prepared” for Christ’s return.
• Faithfulness requires that we carefully measure the oil in our lamps before saying “yes” or “no” to a new calling; i.e. we must carefully measure the time and energy we have to give to a task before we take on that new responsibility.
• God does not penalize us for wisely saying “no” to new opportunities if our oil supply is low; God is generous and new callings will continue to come our way until we are once again in a position to respond with a faithful “yes.”
Over my many years of teaching this parable, I’ve heard many people characterize the wise bridesmaids as “un-Christian” because they said “no” to the request for help from their needy sisters.
• I hope this reading of the parable helps you understand that sometimes faithfulness requires us to say “no” to otherwise good people and causes that need our help.
• This applies not only to us as individual disciples, but to our congregations as well.
Questions for reflection
• It is now nearly 2,000 years after the death of Jesus, and most of us seldom think about being “prepared” for his return. What if Jesus did return this week – would he recognize you as his faithful disciple, awake and prepared, with plenty of oil fueling your lamp? What else might you need to do to be prepared for greeting him?
• Can you identify a time in your life when you said “yes” to a calling from God, and later realized that you really did not have the time or energy to carry out the task satisfactorily? Can you identify a time when you said “no” to a calling and later recognized the wisdom of your decision?
• Apply these questions to the life of your congregation. What do you discover?
• What hinders you from wisely saying “no” to some callings that come your way?
Generous and merciful God, who desires that I remain always prepared to greet my
Lord at his return: grant me the patience and wisdom to discern regularly how much
oil is fueling the lamp that is my life of discipleship; guide me to say “yes” to
callings I am prepared to fulfill, and strengthen me to say “no” to those callings that
will consume my time and energy and cause my lamp to burn out; this I pray in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.