November 9, 2014
William G. Carter
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 ready 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.’
Well, what were they thinking? They did not prepare and they were out of luck.
It’s a common human problem. Yesterday morning, I poured myself a cup of coffee, opened the refrigerator, and discovered we were out of milk. Oh right, I was going to pick up some…
Or I remember the billboard in the southwestern desert: LAST GAS STOP FOR 100 MILES. We have a quarter tank left. Think we can make it? I wonder if we can speed our way through and get to the other side?
Years ago on a backpacking trip in the high peaks of the Adirondacks. We were descending Gothics Mountain. There is a slanted cliff of sheer granite. You go down by hanging on to a cable. Halfway down, we overheard a father shout to his young son, “Not now, Jimmy. Why didn’t you think of that before we left base camp?” I’m not sure what he was referring too, although I have a few ideas.
Planning ahead – some people can do it ease. They project what they are going to need and calculate what will be required. Others find that difficult.
Of all the curious details that have come to light about Eric Frein, the accused shooter who hid in the woods for forty-eight days, we have now heard the inventory of the supplies he stashed for his hideout. He had a laptop computer and a solar power device for keeping it charged. There was a shortwave radio, toilet paper, two shaving kits, a stack of DVDs, a pile of food, silverware, soy sauce, dental supplies, laundry detergent – and a copy of the New Testament. Obviously he planned ahead.
So we don’t need to speculate a long time about the meaning of Matthew’s parable. There were ten bridesmaids, he reports. Five were wise and five were foolish. The wise ones planned ahead. They kept some oil just in case. It wasn’t enough for them to live by simple faith. They hedged their bets and packed some supplies. They wanted to be ready, even if it took a while for the bridegroom to lead the wedding procession to the house.
By contrast, the five foolish ones weren’t expecting the wedding to start late. Apparently they have never been to any of the weddings that I’ve attended. There’s always a delay. Even the 50-year-old bachelor who finally got hitched a few years ago. He insisted his wedding would start on time; his bride pointed out she had been chasing him for ten years.
Delays are part of life. Every day something goes slower than we think it should. Friday morning, I drove down my hill, expecting the road construction was done in Chinchilla. Silly me. If we order a Christmas gift and pay for expedited shipping, that simply means it might arrive on time. Maybe. Perhaps.
In the ancient world, news traveled by foot or horseback. Even the fastest traveler in a hurry was subject to slippery roads and bad weather. I think of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome that he had never met: “I have hoped for years to see you, on my way to Spain” (Romans 15:23-24). We don’t ever know if he ever got actually there, since he was subject to delays.
And when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica, he knew they were starting to wonder about the Really Big Delay that every Christian wonders about: the Christ who came to earth promised to come back. Where is he? When is he going to arrive? In Thessalonica, it is 51 AD. The church cemetery is starting to fill up. Jesus said he was coming, but he is twenty years late. What should we do? And our first lesson addresses this. “The Lord will descend and we will all go up to meet him.” (4:13-18). “Encourage one another,” says Paul. Chill out.
But now it’s thirty years after that, as Matthew writes his Gospel about Jesus. It is fifty years after the resurrection. Jesus preached of the dominion of God, coming in power among us. And where is he? So Matthew addressed this as he retells three parables that Jesus told. In each parable, the main character is delayed. He is hung up somewhere. He isn’t here yet. He’s taking a while.
In the middle of the three parables, the one for today, the bridegroom is so late that all ten bridesmaids have fallen asleep. Both the wise and the foolish have nodded off. The Lord said a few verses before, “Stay awake,” but how long were they supposed to stay awake?
When my daughters were little and we went for a drive at night, I’d say, “Stay awake, you’re getting too big for me to carry you into the house.” It never worked, especially with the older one. She would roll off Slumber Cliff and become dead weight. And I couldn’t blame her for that. It was late.
The wise and the foolish both fall asleep. There’s no judgment for that. No, the trouble comes when half of them were not ready to greet the bridegroom. As Ken Bailey says, in a Palestinian village, the weddings take place in the long, hot summer. When young, unmarried women move around after dark, it is unthinkable that they would not have an oil lamp lit and carried in front of their faces. It is a matter of personal safety as well as a sign of character. A reputable young woman does not lurk around in the dark.
So the moment comes. It’s late at night. The bridegroom suddenly appears at the door. There’s a shout of joy. All ten bridesmaids wake from their sleep. They reach for their lamps, and half of them have run out of oil. What are they going to do? The wise ones say, “We don’t have enough oil for you and us.” It was like lifeboats on the Titanic: they only had enough for half the passengers!
So the fools go scrambling out, trying to buy some lamp oil after midnight, getting locked out of the party because they hadn’t prepared … for the delay.
A lot of people think that’s not fair. If the wise ones are so wise, couldn’t they share a little bit? I mean, how much oil do you need to go from the house to the party? In a Palestinian village, it’s not going to be far. Not only that, what’s the deal with the bridegroom? He knows who they are, yet he says, “I don’t know you.” Isn’t he supposed to be kind and gracious and in a good mood for his wedding night?
Well, sorry, this is the Gospel of Matthew. And Matthew often says to a lazy church, “Tough tarts!” The five foolish maidens say, “Lord, lord, open to us!” And in an exact quote from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, lord’ will get into the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven (7:21).”
So what do we have here? We have a warning. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Rejoice, rejoice, believers and let your lights appear. The warning is for those who have already been included, but through their own actions – or lack of actions – will be shut out.
Is it their own stupidity? Perhaps, although Matthew is not talking about intelligence when he regards five of them as “fools.” Biblically speaking, there are a lot of smart people who act as fools. They are short-sighted, living only for today and not for tomorrow. They refuse to see the disconnection between their actions and the consequences. They avoid the hard work of staying faithful in their hearts and nimble on their feet. And when the decisive moment comes, they miss it. They run out of the time they have been borrowing.
Matthew wants the church to be ready for the long haul, to be faithful across the coming generations. What would that mean? I suppose I could tell you, “Put this church in your will,” and that would be good advice. But I should also say, “Pray that the church doesn’t get lazy after you leave us two million dollars.” You see, that’s the deeper issue: checking out before you’re done. Matthew calls it “running out of oil.”
So how do we keep the lamps lit? A good start is simply to ask that question. A lot of people never ask. They simply show up and expect the lights to be on, because they’ve always been on. Maybe they are just dropping by when they feel like it, without any investment or commitment, merely coming to consume – before moving on like locusts to eat another crop.
But the life in Christ is so much more than that. It’s keeping the lamps lit. It’s expecting the same Jesus who is now hidden among us, the One who says “I am with you to the end,” will suddenly appear, will suddenly show himself from time to time, will suddenly come with great clarity to confirm what we have been trusting to be true all along.
· It really does matter that we come together to sing praises to God.
· It matters deeply to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
· It matters that we take care of an earth entrusted to us.
· It matters that we pray for our needs, and that we turn those prayers into deeds.
· It matters that we protect the weak and love each child.
· It matters that all of us do our part to keep this slice of Christian community strong –
· looking in on one another, offering a listening ear and a hot casserole.
· It matters that we offer a strong shoulder to lift up those that life has trampled down.
· It matters that we tell the truth to one another in love, and that we offer each other the same second chances that God gives us through Jesus Christ.
Beloved of God, let those lights appear. Keep at it. This is the will of our Father in heaven. Pack a big lunch because we are in this for the long haul. And should Christ suddenly come, share that lunch with somebody who hasn’t had something to eat. Do these things, and you will never run out of oil.