A story about hope: a sermon about Matthew 25

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

This is unlike any wedding I’ve ever been to.

At what wedding does the groom not arrive until midnight?

And at what wedding does the groom lock his door so the bridal party can’t get in?

And where is the bride?

There are a lot of reasons why today’s parable from Matthew strikes us as archaic, and more than a little strange.

It’s not just the details of the story that sound strange to our modern ears.

This is just a plain weird story.

Biblical scholars argue whether today’s gospel is an actual parable, meant to convey some kind of moral teaching,

Or whether or not it’s a later allegorical addition to the gospel, where the characters are meant to be a stand-in for someone or something else—

the bridegroom as an allegory for Jesus, the bridesmaids as the church, for example.

Interpreters of today’s gospel have understood this story in a variety of ways, as a teaching on preparedness, on waiting, on the coming of God’s kingdom, to name just a few.

The truth is that today’s gospel from Matthew is so complex and so rich, that it can legitimately be understood to be speaking about all these things at the same time.

But I wonder if, one of the often-overlooked aspects of this text, is how it speaks to us about hope.

More specifically, about how we hope.

All ten bridesmaids are hoping to get into the wedding party.

All of them are waiting, and not with a great deal of vigilance either.

As today’s gospel says, all ten maids, both the wise and the foolish, fall asleep when the

bridegroom is delayed.

They are all hoping, and it’s the kind of hope that is realized over time.

None of them get into the party right away.

The difference between the bridesmaids is not the fact that they wait or the fact that they hope—

they all do that.

The difference is how they hope.

One set of bridesmaids brings only enough oil to get them to the place they hope to be.

The other set of bridesmaids bring enough oil to get them past the place they hope to be.

Andrew Lester, a chaplain who works with the chronically ill and dying, talks in one of his books, about the difference between finite hope and transfinite hope.

Now those are both big words, but they mean something essentially very simple.

Finite hope is the kind of hope that most of us experience in our everyday lives.

It’s the kind of hope that looks forward to a specific, time-bound event.

We hope we do well on the test.

We hope we get the job.

The reason this kind of hope is called finite hope, is that one way or another, the hope comes to an end.

Either what we hope for happens or it doesn’t happen.

And then we move on to hoping for something else.

One hope simply passes off to another.

It’s like the bridesmaids who only have enough oil, only have enough hope, to get them to what their hoping for…

…and then they need to go refill their lamps again.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of hope.

Finite hope can bring a dynamic a sense of urgency, even excitement, to our lives.

The problem with finite hope, however, is that it is temporary, it doesn’t last forever.

We need to keep refilling our lamps, and sometimes it is easier to refill our lamps than at other times.

When people are left feeling hopeless, it’s because their lamp of finite hope has run dry and they have run out of options for replacing the well.

Transfinite hope, on the other hand, is different.

Lester describes transfinite hope as “hope, or trust, in an open ended future.”

It’s a hope that goes beyond time-bound events.

It’s not just hoping for a specific thing in place and time, it is hoping for a wider and even

more expansive future.

Transfinite hope is also called ultimate hope, because it points towards the place where our lamps always remain full, when we never run out of hope in the future.

The wise bridesmaids who have enough oil to take them not just to the wedding feast, but

beyond, even when the bridegroom is delayed…

…is a perfect metaphor for how transfinite hope takes us into an open-ended future, full of possibility.

As Christians, for us, our ultimate hope is God’s future, what God desires for us as God’s people, also called the kingdom of God.

Here’s the thing about transfinite hope.

It’s not as tangible, sometimes, as finite hope.

Finite hope results in some kind of concrete, real life event.

Either we are happy that what we hoped for happens or we are disappointed when it doesn’t.

Either way we experience it.

Transfinite hope always takes us beyond our own experience.

Our well of hope never runs dry, we never stop hoping, because we are always hoping into the future.

But that means that we do not always get to experience that transfinite hope in the same way as finite hope.

Each and every one of us, as Christians, knows what this feels like.

We hope and trust in the kingdom of God, but until we ourselves actually arrive in the presence of God…

…what we see of God’s kingdom are glimpses.

They are beautiful glimpses, powerful, but never quite the whole thing, until we stand in the presence of God.

I wonder if today’s parable is saying something to us, as people of faith, about needing to keep our lamps of transfinite hope full.

Because if we only count on finite hope, it may not always be enough to see us through until the bridegroom comes.

We need something more, in this world of disappointment and failure, to keep the lamp of faith lit.

And thank God, we have such a thing as an ultimate hope in God.

As a pastor, of course, I am biased, but I am so grateful that as people of faith, we never run out of hope and our future is always open-ended.

In a world that can be so broken at times, such hope is a tremendous gift.

In fact, I would go even further and say that precisely because the world can be so broken, the world needs such hope.

Such hope not only sees us through difficult times, but it can shine a light across other people’s paths.

It is interesting that in today’s parable, when asked to share their oil with the others, the five wise maidens refuse, saying,

“there will not be enough for you and for us.”

That of course, is always the temptation.

We have hope and light, and we ourselves need it, so let’s keep it to ourselves, or reserve God’s hope only for people who are worthy to receive it.

But as today’s parable also points out, that’s not really an option.

The lesson in today’s parable is not that we shouldn’t share the hope we have in Jesus Christ, but instead to remind us, how important it is to have such hope

available to us and the world.

Without hope in God, we will always be disappointed.

With it, the light of hope will never go out.