Bridesmaids

November 12, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 25:1-13 |

Expect Delays.

We have all seen the signs:  Construction for the next 10 miles, expect delays; Holiday weekend, Ferry volume high, expect delays; winter storm, expect delays.

We live in a world accustomed to things being on schedule.  Whether we’re waiting for the birth of a child, a book from Amazon, or the realization of a new call, we expect things to arrive when planned—on our time, when it is convenient for us.

You see, we all live under this illusion that we can harness time, somehow, and so we schedule, and we plan.  We populate our daily calendars with appointments for phone calls, play dates, meetings, dentist visits and coffee with friends.  Technology has only reinforced this illusion of mastery by allowing us to multi-task to a degree our fathers and grandmothers wouldn’t have imagined possible.  Indeed, if the bridesmaids from Matthew’s gospel had been transported to our time, those neglecting to bring the extra oil could have undoubtedly ordered some through their i-phones and had it dropped off by a delivery drone.

But I digress.

We have become an impatient people, my friends; people who have lost the ability to wait indefinitely. And our impatience has even become normalized to the point where culture has responded by providing gimmicks and tactics to deal with our need to know when our wait will be over.

We are provided wait times for seating at restaurants and buzzers to let us know when our table is ready, for a few dollars extra most amusement parks offer passes so you don’t have to wait in line for a ride, we can track our friends and family through our cell phones and determine within minutes when they’re likely to ring our doorbells; I have an app for my I-phone that lets me know where the traffic is backed up or when a ferry is delayed.

We want answers, we want to know how long we’ll have to wait—our calendars are too full, our time is too precious to waste.  And it is, my friends, it is.  It is as precious as a last drop of oil in the darkest of midnights.

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is difficult; it contains no showering of Jesus’ grace, or reaching out to include the disenfranchised.  Rather, it speaks of finality and culmination.  The long-awaited bridegroom, delayed beyond reason, has finally arrived and the wedding feast can commence.  Within the doors all is bright and warm, every succulent morsel you could ever want is offered for tasting, wine is flowing, music is playing, people are dancing and rejoicing; it is the party to end all parties.  And outside, in the dark and the cold, are our five bridesmaids—shut out, unrecognized, unknown.

And the finality of this is hard to take, isn’t it?  It feels cruel.  After all, these five were no different than the other five:  they showed up on time, they brought their lamps, they even slept just as the other five did.  And what’s with the bridesmaids who wouldn’t share their oil?  Their unwillingness to help their sisters seems to fly in the face of all Jesus teaches about the ethics of the kingdom of heaven---only a few chapters earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, he’s all about giving someone your cloak as well as your coat and walking an extra mile—what’s happened?

Sometimes, getting too caught up in the literal details of a parable can pull us off the message inherent within.  We can become so outraged at the injustice shown to these poor five bridesmaids and their mistreatment by the other five, that we miss the point entirely.

Jesus isn’t advocating miserliness—there are too many other examples in the gospel to contradict this notion.  Nor, frankly, is he speaking of literal bridesmaids and literal oil.  Rather, as everyone in Matthew’s community recognized, oil (olive oil, more particularly) was fuel; it was the means by which one could pierce the darkness of the first century night.  It was the means by which your own little lamp, your own little light could shine.

And Jesus has definite things to say about shining; remember this bit from the Sermon on the Mount?

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

 

It’s not that the five bridesmaids with plenty of oil were stingy or mean-spirited in not sharing; rather, they couldn’t share.  The oil that keeps our light burning isn’t a transferrable commodity.  Instead it is the oil of faith, and hope.  It is the oil that enables us to be merciful when the rest of the world is clamoring for vengeance, and the oil that keeps our hearts filled with hope when the night is dark and fear feels like a more natural response.

 

We have recently seen yet another example of why a good supply of oil is in order.  The murders of the light-bearers at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, shake us to our core and fill us with despair and pain.  Outrage, fear, and a call for vengeance and justice is the natural response, and we have been thrown into these emotions entirely too frequently of late.  At times such as these, it is easy to slide into the darkness of hopelessness, cynicism and futility; what’s more difficult, and yet so, so, essential, is to make sure our oil stores are replenished so that we may shine ever more brightly in the darkness of our times.

Now, especially now, we must be the light of hope, the beacon of God’s love, and the lamp whose warm glow welcomes all to the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Matthew’s first century community expected the Christ to return and make all things right in their lifetimes; meanwhile, their world, like ours, was plagued with turmoil and violence and different factions seeking power and voice.  Like us, they too grew weary and despondent; their faith and hope in the return of the risen Christ had to have been tested a bit more with each decade that passed.

In our impatience, there’s no way we could have tolerated the delay.  Indeed, from the moment of the ascension we would have demanded from Jesus an itinerary of when and where the second coming was likely to occur so we could put it on our calendars!

Thanks be to God one wasn’t provided.

 

Can you imagine the carelessness with which we would steward this world if we knew the New Jerusalem was right around the corner?  And some things, things like reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, love, and the realization of the inherent worth of all God’s children, require the long game.

Inside the doors at the wedding banquet, in the glory of that timeless celebration, the culmination of all things back into the God who began this whole enterprise is already happening, even as it is not yet entirely realized on this side of the threshold.  But God will not save us without us, and we are all called again and again to participate in providing light in the darkness.

Only when our oil reserves are full are we able to shine, and shine we must.  We live in a world profoundly in need of hope and healing, and mercy.  And each time we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, and live into the radical love with which we’ve been gifted, our lights shine a little brighter and like moths to a flame, hurting and broken souls will find their way to the deep healing light of Christ.

The bridegroom is coming.  Blessedly, not when it is convenient for us, but when it is best for us.  So replenish your oil my friends, and trim your lamps.  Let your light blaze everyday of your life so that all who see it may find their way to the wedding feast.