March 31, 2019
Matthew 25:1-13 (CEB)
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring extra oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.
“When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight, there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’
“Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’
“But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for all our lamps. You go to a shop and buy some for yourselves.’ But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding feast… then the door was locked.
“Later, when the other bridesmaids came, they stood outside, calling, ‘Lord! Lord! Open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
“So keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.
* * * * *
Part of the ritual first-century Jewish weddings was the groom going to ‘fetch’ the bride from her father’s house. When the groom and her father agreed to a marriage price, then the bridegroom got to bring the bride home, and everyone would celebrate. The bridesmaids would be part of the processional from one house to the other. Everything in this story would have been perfectly normal… until you get to the part of the delay. That was not supposed to happen.
The message of the parable seems to be, “Be prepared for the unexpected. Be prepared for the wheels to fall off. Be prepared for an emergency.”
That’s a simple enough message: “Be prepared.” Who could argue with that? It’s the motto of the Boy Scouts, for heaven’s sake. It’s the whole reason people carry insurance policies. It’s why schools have fire drills and why we have tornado sirens and tests of the emergency broadcasting system. “Be prepared.”
I’m old enough to remember people building nuclear fallout shelters and stocking them with food, water, and blankets. Now it’s ‘Disaster Preparedness,’ especially with such frequent storms and floods and wildfires. We used to call them ‘once in a lifetime’ but nobody says that anymore; we don’t know what’s coming next. It makes the Mormons look very wise, the way they stockpile enough provisions for a year. Did you know they did that? There are even websites and blogs that teach you how to do this, so you don’t have massive amounts of food spoiling. They’re the masters at “Be prepared.”
But is this passage really about preparing for a minor disaster? What is this parable trying to say? What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be ready for the Bridegroom to come back?
Some backstory might help: One of the issues the early church faced was how to understand Christ not returning. They really thought he would come back sometime soon to complete what he’d begun. It sure seems like that’s what he meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” As time dragged on, they became more and more confused. What was going on here? Why the delay? Were they wrong to expect him to come back?
This story and others like it seem to set the stage for a long delay. It seems to be a word to the flock not to get too impatient, to stay in it for the long haul. It seems to be, at least in part, a word of assurance that Jesus hasn’t abandoned them, and that a delay didn’t mean the party’s been called off.
Waiting for Jesus, the story seems to say, is like waiting for the groom to come back. You don’t expect a delay; no one wants a delay; a delay can be disconcerting. But that doesn’t mean giving up. You need to be ready for the celebration. Stay the course; you won’t be disappointed.
In other words, just because God isn’t working on your timetable doesn’t mean that God isn’t working.
Just because God is not ‘appearing’ in the way or time you expect doesn’t mean God is absent, or abandoned you.
Just because you’re getting anxious doesn’t mean you should run out of hope. No, now of all times you need to keep that light burning.
When I was working through this passage I had a funny little song pop into my head. When my son Luke was little, he was in the care of a marvelous child-care provider. Mary used to sing a little song to the children, “My mommy always comes back, she always comes back to get me….”
That could be the theme-song of this passage, right? Jesus may not be standing here now, but he’s not going to leave you stranded. Keep that light burning. Be ready for the party when he comes.
See, the arc of the story of scripture is always, always, always toward fulfillment, a happy ending, a celebration. What God started, God will complete. The creation God began will be a new creation. That’s the story scripture tells.
But in the meantime – well, we all have to live in the meantime. We all have to live, here, and now, bridegroom or not.
Even in the middle of the night, when the world is very dark. Even when we’re left wondering what the heck is going on. Even when anxiety comes creeping in…
That’s precisely when we’ll need oil for our lamps. But it’s not to fend of scary things that go bump in the night. It’s to be ready for good things to happen. I think that’s what this parable is telling us.
From time to time I get notices from my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary, about upcoming speakers and events. There’s one coming up soon on the subject of patience. The invitation says this:
The enduring positive effects of peace, loving-kindness, and compassion, and everything else that is good in human nature—its values and ethics, its aspirations and goals—are possible only when combined with the strength of the power of patience. Without that strength, these values, profound and noble though they may be, are often seen to be fragile and frail, and thus are neglected, ignored, and misunderstood even by those who aspire to live by them.
What’s needed for those qualities to survive and thrive is the power of patience. That’s what the wise ones in the parable carry with them. Their patience has not run out, and their lamps are still burning brightly. They are in it for the long haul. They are the strong ones.
What does it mean to wait with an expectation of goodness? It’s not being naïve about the dark; in fact, it’s just the opposite. You only carry oil if you think the dark will last a long time. They are not fools.
But you can live in the dark and carry the light of Christ at the same time. Especially if you are preparing for something good. Peace. Loving-kindness. Compassion.
It takes tenacity, but it is possible. And what this parable tells me, is that it’s exactly what Jesus wants for us, and for this world.
I learned something recently about this in my own life. It was a Sunday night, and I was at yoga practice at Christy Plaugher’s studio. This particular class was one that included a longer time of meditation at the end. I was kind of anxious about something that had been rattling around in my head, and I wasn’t sure how present I could be with all that noise inside myself. But I wanted yoga, and that was the class being offered, so I went. The practice was fine, and by the end, the movement had helped me calm down some.
When it came time for the meditation, the instructor led us through some guided imagery. First she invited us to imagine our bodies being very warm. I thought that was odd, but I tried to imagine it. Then she asked us to feel our bodies being very cold. OK, I can do that; I’m cold all the time. Then she asked us to imagine being hot and cold at the same time. I thought that was really strange. But by then I was curious. What would that feel like?
Next, she said, “Think of something that makes you very anxious.
“Now,” she said, “imagine yourself being very calm. “
Then, she said, “Feel yourself being calm and anxious at the same time.”
And I was.
And instantly it clicked. I could be anxious and utterly calm at the same time.
Could that be what it means to be patient? To be patiently present?
To be waiting, but as those who are prepared… with light for the darkness…
I think this is an invitation - to be filled with the light of Christ. No matter how long the darkness lasts, or how different life is from the expectations we bring.
Night can last along while, and we can still be filled with light.
A light that has strength, and power, to fill the whole world.