Matthew 25:1-13 Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids
Most ordained ministers who’ve been around awhile have at least one – a wedding day fiasco story to tell. So when I hear this parable, I think back to pre-cell-phone-days: On a 100-degree August Saturday afternoon in suburban Philadelphia, a hundred folks gathered in the un-air-conditioned church for a wedding. But at the appointed hour, the groom and his mother hadn’t yet arrived. People started fussing, the bride in particular. At 15 minutes late I entered the sanctuary and let everyone know that we had called the family home and there was no answer. At 30 minutes I returned to the sanctuary and invited everyone to wait outside under the big oak trees to try to catch what little breeze was available and escape the blistering heat. At 45 minutes the church phone rang – the groom was calling from a phone booth at a gas station where he had hiked a mile-and-a-half from his deserted car in the middle of grid-lock on the Schuylkill Expressway half way across the city … they were safe but we’d have to wait at least another hour, maybe 2. At 60 minutes guests started leaving to find liquid refreshment. At an hour-and-a-half the overheated groom and his weakened mother surprisingly pulled up in a cab. No questions asked, we all went back into church and started the ceremony. Then, in the middle of the vows (“for better or worse”) everyone heard a few car doors slam in the parking lot, and the giddy laughter of several slightly inebriated guests at the open windows. “Look,” one of them guffawed, “they started without him.” And that’s when the bride turned to the window and with a glare said, “No, we started without you!” For better or worse, indeed; I’ve often wondered how long that marriage lasted.
Strange things can happen at weddings, and who knows what Jesus might have encountered in his experiences, that helped shape this parable. This much scholars do suspect, that as it stands in Matthew’s gospel, there’s at least some influence added by those who lovingly gathered up and wove together the many memories of Jesus’ words and deeds into this one gospel – mostly because many scholars see this parable as really being about waiting … waiting for the groom … waiting for their resurrected Jesus and the kingdom of God. And even though Jesus might have pondered the anxieties that his earliest followers would experience if his return was not immediate, that was really an issue for his later followers, just about the time Matthew’s gospel was taking shape. They were desperately waiting for Jesus’ return.
Of course this story is often interpreted as one of judgment, with the foolish (unfaithful) left on the outside, looking in – barred from the coming kingdom. And though this interpretation certainly has merit, I personally find it less helpful because it tends to reduce faithfulness to judgmentalism – those of us who presume we’re “in” judging who else is “in” and who is “out,” who is good enough and who is not. Or even more insidious, it can tempt the individual to worry that I’m simply not good enough to be welcomed into the feast, I don’t have what it takes, so what’s the use – sorry Jesus, this is all the oil I’ve got … no extra flask in reserve … so to hell with it!
But what if we focused our attention on the wise ones instead of obsessing on the foolish? What if we considered this flask of oil, this spiritual jar filled with whatever is necessary to wait faithfully for Jesus’ realm? What if we contemplated this symbol and named the spiritual qualities that enable us to burn brightly with the love of God while we wait?
I truly appreciate the wisdom resident in our two mid-week bible studies that help unpack the Sunday morning reading. What we discover in our conversations is usually more than any one person could learn on their own. And it makes every one of these sermons collaboration. This past week as we pondered the ‘flask of oil’ metaphor, a few really helpful images emerged. Someone offered “inner faith” – that’s what’s in the flask … which is more than only what we believe; it’s also the grace-inspired trust we have in God’s goodness. Another suggestion was “open-mindedness” … the willingness and desire to embrace a new idea and live with it, always growing in what we know of God’s goodness. And then someone told a story about waiting at the bedside of a dear friend who was dying … the loving presence of a gentle word whispered, and a compassionate hand to hold – sharing God’s goodness while we wait; exactly what another person recognized and named as “an action of kingdom-kindness.”
There are other possibilities for sure, but these three certainly feel like a good start in appreciating what you already have in reserve that allows you to shine – faith and trust that is ever deepening, mindfulness and knowledge that is ever broadening, and loving kingdom-kindness that is ever expanding. But for me, what we hold in reserve as Jesus’ followers points to the parable’s deeper meaning. It’s really about faithful waiting. I’m not sure how many of us these days are intentionally waiting for Jesus’ 2nd Coming in particular … but most of us do know the stress and anxiety of everyday waiting: waiting for a diagnosis, for someone to come back home, for a child to be born, for a decent job, for a hospital bed, for the financial markets to recover, for the hungry to be fed, for someone to say I love you, for a broken relationship to be healed, for a child to cut the apron strings, for an aging parent to realize they need assisted living, for an adult child to marry the person they’ve been living with, for a loved one to die, for a sickness to be cured, for someone you love to say yes. One important question worthy of asking yourself today might be ‘what are you waiting for?’ And a second is like it – ‘what spiritual resources are in your flask because you are a follower of Jesus?’
To live faithfully while we wait is really what Christian living is all about. And that means in the midst of struggle, especially in the midst of struggle, Christ encourages us to come with our oil flask ready, and to live expressively … by sharing our faith with each other, by learning God’s goodness daily, by showing Christian love compassionately. It may not speed up what you’re waiting for, but it will bless your waiting time by filling it with light and hope for yourself and others.
I’m not sure you saw Kelly Egan’s story in the City section of Friday’s Citizen … ‘Something Good in All of Them’ – about 90 year old Florence and 84 year old Loris who every Thursday spend 3 or 4 hours walking the rougher streets of Ottawa passing out sandwiches, socks, and hugs to the least among us. For the past 15 years they’ve been doing this street ministry as an expression of their Christian faith. Now I don’t know what they’re waiting for exactly, but I’m sure, like you and me, they must be waiting for something. In the meantime, they’ve never run out of oil. For 15 years there always seems to be enough in the flask. And this goodness they’ve shared, God’ goodness, along with the brightness they’ve shed, the very light of Christ, is a blessing to behold. And if they’re waiting for end of their days on earth, which they very well may be at their age, then surely they’re waiting faithfully, in part because they realize the wisdom of having a spiritual reservoir; and of trusting that God will never let it run dry. Now there’s a parable message to carry with you in your flask – love courageously while you wait! May it be living possibility for each of us.