The Virtue of Being Foolish

The following is a sermon I preached on November 12 at Clackamas United Church of Christ in Milwaukie, Oregon. The scripture was from Matthew 25:1-13. It’s a parable Jesus told about five wise bridesmaids and five foolish bridesmaids. 

After worship last week, I went to lunch with my family. While we were eating, I got a push notification on my phone from CNN telling me about the horror of a man killing 26 people at a Baptist church in Texas.

As the news sank in, my head fell to the table. I was numb. How could this happen again? And again? And again? We just had the shooting at a concert in Las Vegas. And now a shooting at a church in Texas.

After feeling numb, a sense of despair began to creep in. I thought about Sandy Hook Elementary school and all the shootings since then. If our politicians refused to change our gun laws after 20 children were murdered, I doubted they would have the will to ever change them.

So I felt despair. But the words of a wise friend came back to my mind after a previous political disappointment. He said, “We don’t have time for despair. We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We don’t have time for hate. We have to move forward in hope.”

After I shook myself out of despair, I began to find hope. Because my friend was right. This is not the time for despair. The world needs us. The world needs the message of an all-inclusive Christianity that enters into the world in the spirit of love. God has given us a light and we must share that light with our community. The world doesn’t have time for us to keep that light to ourselves. We have to share it.

I came to the scripture passage scheduled for today looking for a word of hope and inspiration. But I got a parable that at first made no sense to me. Here’s how most Bible scholars interpret the parable.

Jesus tells a parable about a groom who came to get the bridesmaids for his wedding. Many scholars say that Jesus is the groom and the bridesmaids represent the church. There were 5 wise bridesmaids and 5 foolish bridesmaids. It was night, so each brought a candle with oil as they expected the groom to arrive quickly. But the groom took longer than they expected. The foolish bridesmaids didn’t bring enough oil, so they lost their fire.

They asked the wise bridesmaids to share some of their oil, but the wise bridesmaids refused to share and sent the foolish bridesmaids back to the city to buy oil for themselves. While the foolish bridesmaids were away, the groom came and took the wise bridesmaids to the party. The foolish bridesmaids came back and knocked on the door to the wedding, but the groom, remember, this is apparently Jesus, shut the door on them and refused to let them in, saying, “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”

Really? That’s the God character. The one who shuts the door on people? That’s Jesus? And the bridesmaids who hoard their oil for themselves are wise models for us to follow? I can’t preach that sermon. I especially can’t preach that sermon after last Sunday.

Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus multiplies a couple fish and a five loaves of bread to feed at least 5,000 people. He told his disciples to share the fish and loaves with the people. And everyone ate with food left over. That miracle is about abundance. It’s about trusting that there’s enough for everyone if we just share with one another. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is marked by abundance.

But now we have these bridesmaids, and somehow we’re supposed to believe that there isn’t enough oil to share. I don’t think so. I think the wise bridesmaids don’t trust in Jesus. I don’t think they trust in the miracle of the fish and the loaves.

And the groom, who’s supposedly the Jesus character? Shutting the door on people because they weren’t prepared? That’s not like Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus specifically included those who weren’t prepared. He included those who were seen as foolish: the sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Jesus went out of his way to include these people, to show them that they were loved. And now all of a sudden he closes the door on them? I don’t think so.

Why is it that we assume the character in these parables who has the power to exclude, to punish, to be violent, is the God character? Jesus came to change our understanding of God away from that.

Jesus said there was a certain mystery to his parables, and the Gospels tell us that the disciples frequently misunderstood them. I wonder if this particular parable is easy to misunderstand. Maybe we have it backwards. To me, the groom in our parable looks a lot more like the Roman Empire of the first century than like Jesus.

The Roman Empire held the power to include and exclude. If you were wise according to the Roman Empire, you were invited to the Roman party. But if you were foolish and you didn’t prepare to help Rome, then the Empire would turn on you in an instant. You were excluded from the Roman party. The door was shut in your face.

And you know what? I’d rather be a fool than go to a party that’s based on exclusion.

Here’s the thing about this parable: there’s a certain virtue in being foolish. Paul says that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. Maybe the foolish bridesmaids were foolish according the wisdom of the world. The wisdom of the world is based on dividing people up into who’s in and who’s out. Who’s worthy and who isn’t. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the wisdom of the world because the wisdom of God says this, “no matter who you are, you are invited to the party. No matter who you are, you are loved.” There’s enough food. There’s enough oil. There’s enough love here for everyone. It’s up to us to trust that there’s enough, if we just share.

Which takes me back to the horrific shooting last Sunday. As I researched the shooter, I discovered that Devin Kelley used to be in the military. Here’s the thing. We train our soldiers to go off to war, but we don’t train them to reenter civilian life. We do a horrible job caring for soldiers. They frequently come back with moral injury, PTSD, and often experience a lack of meaning in their life back home. Saturday was Veteran’s Day. One of the best things we can do to honor our soldiers is to take better care of them when they return home. If we don’t, I’m afraid we may doom ourselves to more of these shootings.

Many claim that our gun problem is a mental health issue. And that’s true. Devin Kelley probably wouldn’t have committed that act of terrorism and those 27 people who were killed last week might be alive today if he had better access to mental health services. But we have to face the truth that Kelley is a product of our mentally ill nation.

We live in a culture of violence. Our government believes that the best way to solve our problems is through violence. The US spends more on our military than the next eight countries combined. And yet we have politicians who say that our military isn’t big enough! The US sells military weapons over 100 other countries. War is a big money-making business. The United States has 662 military bases in other countries. Contrast that with other nations who have military bases in other countries – Russia has eight military bases in other countries, Great Britain has seven, France has five, and the Unites States of America has 662. Let’s talk about Nuclear bombs. It would take detonating about 100 nuclear bombs to block the sun and destroy life on earth. The US owns 7,300 nuclear bombs. I think that’s a bit excessive.

And so yes. We have a gun problem in our culture. The good news is that 90% of Americans want stricter gun laws. The even better news is that 72% of NRA members support stricter gun laws, too. Stricter gun laws are important and we need to fight for them, but our mental health problem that leads to violence isn’t just a problem for people like Devin Kelley. Our mental health problem stems from a culture of violence that starts at the very top of our government and infects virtually all of us, including myself.

The remedy for hate isn’t more hate. The remedy for violence isn’t more violence. It’s not exclusion and it’s not shutting the door on people. Rather, the remedy for hate and violence is more love. Or, in the case of the metaphor in our parable, the remedy is more oil. Devin Kelley didn’t have oil. His oil ran out and nobody shared their oil with him.

There are so many people in our communities who need more oil. They need us to share our oil with them. The world doesn’t need more “wise” bridesmaids who keep their oil to themselves. We need to share our oil, because the world needs our light now more than ever.

So may we continue to boldly share our oil with one another, our community, and the world. Amen.

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4 replies
  1. Tom Truby
    Tom Truby says:

    Hi Adam,
    That is a tough passage to work with and I struggled with it too. I guess parables are supposed to get us to struggling with truth. I just spent two hours talking with a friend about my sermon on this passage and it stirred all kinds of thoughts in us both. We didn’t resolve it but neither of us left feeling depressed or uninvolved. Our conversation will open us to the world with some fresh receptors. Thank you for your work.

    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hey Tom,

      Yea! This is a tough one. Some scholar I research for this said something like, “Good luck with November, because the lectionary has some really tough passages!” Great month to start at a church! :)

      Your sermon a few weeks ago “Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come,” helped lead me in this direction. But I don’t know what I would do with the upcoming parable. I’m not preaching this Sunday, so I don’t have to deal with it! I see the graciousness of giving the talents, even one talent was a huge amount of money. And I don’t know where the one who was given one talent got the idea that the owner was stingy and harsh, but the owner’s response seems to prove the point. I know some mimetic theory people claim the parable means we get the God we think we have, but that doesn’t satisfy me. God doesn’t call people worthless and send them into outer darkness. It’s tough!

      I’m about to read your sermon for this week! Looking forward to it.

      Talk soon,

  2. tom
    tom says:

    And who is asking for more Military? Who is highly responsable for the last two big wars you americans had/have? Religious people. Bush was extremely religious. And with Afghanistan and Iraq he could have gone the christian way. But he didn’t.

    And for the bible text you mention. You found a contradiction and now you bend it, so it fits your worldview. For religious People it is impossible that Jesus might have been wrong about things. Because beeing wrong twice, (as he apparentely was, as God(=Jesus) in the old testament) would be too much, right? This would actually say that Jesus has nothing to do with God, but would indicate that he was just a normal human, understanding life a bit better than the ones around him. Not perfect, but better. So now, you can improve on Jesus(what you already do) and come to an even better understanding how life and morality works, without the baggage of religion. For example: without the religious believe in the afterlife, we would value the human life even more. We would stop sending people to war in other countrys, or at least not go, even if ordered. We already did it with slaves. Something Jesus never condemned.

    thanks for reading, tom


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