Ordinary 32A; Proper 27
Heard the word “bridegroom” spoken lately?
Do people in your congregation discuss Christ’s return or are they better versed in “X-Men: Apocalypse”? What about the part of this parable where the five “wise” bridesmaids refuse to share with their “foolish” sisters? That doesn’t sound very Christian to me! Didn’t Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount to not only hand over your coat but your cloak, too? Very mixed message, Jesus. Which is it? Give until it hurts or hoard because there isn’t enough go around?
Little about this parable resonates in our post-modern ears. We don’t use oil lamps. We rarely consider the Second Coming. No one I know concerns themselves with THE FINAL JUDGMENT. Bridesmaids’ duties do not include sitting around waiting for the “bridegroom” to return to his father’s house with his new wife. All of this watchfulness and wakefulness and alertness feels unnecessary or just plain weird. We have security systems, surveillance cameras and cell phones to alert us, no need to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. If something major happens someone will text, tweet, post or call.
How do we connect these “be on the look out” for the Parousia texts to a time when we wait for virtually nothing and we rarely disconnect from the firehose of information? Those 10 bridesmaids would have gotten a text letting them know the happy couple was just down the road. Surely, there would have been posts on Facebook with photos of the wedding, honeymoon, airport and more. Plenty of opportunity to go buy more oil. No need to be left scrambling at the last minute. Planning ahead is obsolete when communication is constant.
But if the kingdom of heaven requires patience and vigilance and preparedness, what analogy would Jesus use today? What do we plan for with diligence and watch for with anticipation in our lives?
The birth of a baby comes to mind. Perhaps the return of a loved one from a tour of duty. Maybe a wedding or graduation. I suppose candidates running for office stay up until the wee hours if the race is a tightly contested one. I have seen families in hospital waiting rooms hold vigil for days, even weeks. I know I’ve sat beside the bedside of people on hospice, not with eager anticipation, but with attentive care, wondering which breath would prove to be their last one. Are any of these scenarios akin to the Kingdom of God Jesus describes in these first verses of Matthew 25? If so, how does wisdom get expressed? What is the oil that can’t be shared?
The bridesmaids await a joyous reunion with the newlyweds. A party will be on the other side of the bridal couple’s return if the bridesmaids are awake, prepared and at the ready. If, in other words, they are wise. The foolish ones meet a horrible fate: they are unknown, persona non grata, all for the sake of too little oil. Would this be so for those of us who prepare to welcome a child or hear a doctor’s update or wait for a loved one’s death? What would cause someone to be unknown to the very ones they long to be closest to?
What if the oil that can’t be shared, the commodity that must be held in reserve until it is needed, is relationship? What if the oil is something akin to trust? Or intimacy? Or shared experiences? I have heard this text preached where the oil is equated with faith. Faith can’t be shared, the person in the pulpit says. I suppose that is true, but I know I have relied on the faith of others – their prayers, their ability to see hope and possibility, their confidence in God’s promises – when I lacked all of the above. They may not have given me their faith, but they shared their faith in the sense that their faith carried me when I had none of my own. However, had I not been in relationship with them, if I had been unknown to them, I would have been left out in the cold no less than those five foolish bridesmaids.
I wonder if the oil that grows isn’t the product of doing what needs to be done to remain in relationship with God and with one another. There is a mundane quality to this parable. Go to the dealer, head to the grocery store, buy some oil, get what you need to pack the kids’ lunches, don’t forget the cat litter. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Call your mother. Check in on your neighbor. Write a note to the college student who has not been to church since she left for school. Keep awake. Be present when your partner wants to process the stress of work even when you’d rather watch Netflix. Be alert to the baby’s cry down the hall, to the lonely person on the pew, to your own need to ask for help.
In the interim times, the everyday times, the ordinary times, pray, worship, serve, read the Bible, tend to those entrusted to your care, buy the oil, make sure there are batteries for the flashlight, don’t run out of milk. Do those things, those not-too-flashy-things, that keep you connected to God and to each other, because there will come a day when the extraordinary will require more than you knew would be needed.
You will find yourself face to face with a diagnosis or a dilemma, an impending birth, wedding or death, a storm, tragedy or celebration, that can’t wait, a situation that will call upon you to call upon others, a season that will both test and reveal your deepest relationships, with God and with others. These seasons come at an unexpected hour and with all kinds of surprises. Much in this life upends our best laid plans or highlights our lack of foresight. Regardless, our connection to God and neighbor has the power to see us through in ways we could never have previously imagined.
Being alert, awake and ready is sometimes a short, intense experience; but for those of us who anticipate that we will see Christ any day, every day, it is a constant state, an orientation, a disposition, a given. This text is, after all, the very beginning of the chapter that ends with the FINAL JUDGMENT, the one that depends upon how we treated people, all people, every day, in the mundane, in the feeding, clothing, visiting, tending. In other words, in our relationships, that, if we are wise, we have nurtured, the oil that we can’t give away, but that nonetheless gives light to the world and helps us see Christ, now and whenever he returns.
- How do we talk about Christ’s return? Do we talk about it? Should we? What is lost when we don’t?
- When have you experienced a time of waiting? Was it a season of eager anticipation or anxious dread? How did you prepare for whatever you were waiting for?
- What things can’t be shared with others even if we want to share them?
- Look at the other texts where Jesus says he doesn’t know people. What do these passages have in common? (Luke 13: 25, 27; Matthew 7:23, for example.)
- What do you make of the limited time for action in this parable? Is Jesus’ invitation to come to the banquet open-ended or time-limited?
- When have you experienced a time when your relationships were critical?
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