The story of the bridesmaids and their lamps – a familiar parable.
We think of bridesmaids and we picture wedding attendants, typically lovely young ladies, dressed in finery dictated by the bride, and carrying tasteful bouquets.
Instead of carrying flowers, though, the young ladies in today’s story carry lamps. Some of the girls wisely bring extra oil for them, flashlights and extra batteries being, shall we say, too anachronistic. But some of the young ladies unwisely don’t bring extra oil. One moral of the story is simply that wise bridesmaids make it into the wedding feast and unwise ones are shut out.
Today their being shut out probably wouldn’t have happened. Today the young ladies would probably have been bailed out by Mom. In my teaching career I saw that happen over and over. Sweet Susie Student forgets her homework. She phones home, sometimes sweetly, though sometimes she’s snotty. And voila! Somebody (i.e. Mom) delivers the assignment.
Or young Mr. Junior High School Student doesn’t get ready for school on time. Mom writes a note for him: Please excuse my son’s tardiness; I overslept and didn’t get him up on time. (Note the “I overslept”; Mom takes the responsibility. She ought to buy him an alarm clock for Christmas.)
Even the school will occasionally enable children to be irresponsible. Betsy Basketball Star has forgotten both her cell phone (hard to believe, but it does happen) and, heaven forbid, her basketball shoes. So she asks the secretary if she can use the office phone, a privilege, at least in my time, normally forbidden to students. Mrs. Secretary not only allows her to use it, but she fills out a “tardy-excused” slip so that Betsy can get back into class without penalty.
I guess I was experiencing a “bailed out” generation. Jarrod pointed out to me the other day though, that I, myself, have admitted that my own mother would bail me out sometimes by allowing me to stay home from school, “sick,” the day before a major assignment like a term paper was due so that I could have it finished on time.
The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a “real life” parable rather than a “bailed out” one. If you forget your homework, then you get a zero. If you don’t get ready for school on time, you can walk – and your tardy will be unexcused. I remember my step-mother assuring me that if I missed the bus, she would not take me to school; it was twenty-six miles from home to North High – too far to walk. I never missed the bus; it would have meant an unexcused absence.
Life really does have consequences, and the wise bridesmaids respect that. The foolish ones hope – nay, they expect – to get bailed out. But nobody – not even their mothers -- nobody runs to Walmart to buy them more oil for their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids have to go get it themselves. And at Walmart there are several choices of lamp oil. It takes a while to agree on the proper kind. When they return, the door is shut. They cannot enter into the bridegroom’s celebration.
Although it’s hard to say just exactly how the Hebrew wedding planner would have organized the celebration, it seems that it would have involved a kind of ritualized abduction. By night the groom and his attendants go to the house of his betrothed, and he “takes” his bride away from her family back to his place for the wedding party. The maidens accompany them (along with the bride’s family, needless to say), lighting the way to the groom’s house. And, of course, our young ladies are hoping to be invited in to the celebration.
For whatever reason – the best man can’t find the ring – too much bachelor party – somebody gets stuck in traffic – the bridegroom is delayed. He’s so late that the girls become drowsy and fall asleep -- all of them, wise and foolish alike.
What does this parable mean to Mathew and his community? What do a bachelor, late for his own wedding, and a handful of unwise bridesmaids have to tell us about the Gospel of Jesus?
For the early Christians, the second coming of Christ – very much expected, very much anticipated – has been inexplicably delayed. The Son of Man has not arrived “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” before the current generation has passed away. So what were the people to do?
It’s one thing to follow the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount for a few days or months before the End arrives. Followers of Jesus could live with turning the other cheek as an interim ethic, but what about for years on end?
They could live with praying for one’s enemies and loving them if the prize of heaven were right around the corner. But what if it were delayed indefinitely? What then? Would they have enough oil of grace in their lamps for six months? Six years? Six decades? Would they be like the wise bridesmaids or like the unprepared ones? Could they live in diligent anticipation forever?
The question for them then – and for us – is how to live with delay. As Christians, what do we do until the Messiah returns?
How do we deal with delays? Road construction delays? One-way traffic on a bridge delays? Late airplanes? Slow medical diagnoses?
Amos has suggestions for ways to deal with delay. Not with offerings and church services and music and festivals but with justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Maybe. But does it have to be either offerings and music and church services or justice and righteousness?
Mother Teresa suggested setting priorities. A man once approached her and said, “Mother, I want to do something great for God, but I don’t know what. Should I start a school, be a missionary in a foreign land, build up a charitable agency?” He had great visions. Mother Teresa looked at him closely, with kindness, and responded, “What you need to do first is to make sure that no one in your family goes unloved.”
Another way to live with delay is to consider your perspective. “Watch, therefore,” Jesus says at the end of the parable, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” When all is said and done – when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment – we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Think about it.
Because what we’re watching for is a party. And the party is not somewhere down the street, making up its mind when – even whether -- to come to us. It’s already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar steps. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house isn’t dreadful; it’s all part of the divine lark of grace.
God is not an imperious mother-in-law coming to see whether the set of china she gave as a wedding gift has been chipped. God’s a funny old uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; after all, it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
It looks like it will be worth staying awake and keeping our lamps ready, although we do have a choice about it. We can become frustrated and angry at the delay and let frustration and anger burn out our supply of oil.
Or we can stay awake in hope, by allowing the oil of prayer to sustain us, the sacraments of the church to nourish us, the community of loving believers to surround us, and the life-giving words of Jesus to animate us.
The reality – the real-life point – in this parable is that nobody can stay awake for us -- just as no one should constantly bail out our kids who fail to take their responsibilities seriously. Why would they take them seriously as long as mom or the secretary will step in for them?
By the way, there is a temptation to look upon the “clever” bridesmaids in the story as materialistic, selfish, and insensitive. Why didn’t they share some of their oil with their dim-witted [or dim-wicked?] sisters? Isn’t that what Jesus would have done? Sentimentality would say He would have.
But in some cases, to ask someone else to do what only you yourself should do won’t work. “Spiritual oil” is not interchangeable, as is regular lamp oil. A student who has not studied for an exam can’t have someone who has studied take the exam for him. An athlete who hasn’t practiced can’t expect another athlete to run the race for him. Just as you can’t be baptized for another person, so you can’t put your “oil” in another’s lamp. We can only fill our lamps with our own oil.
Well . . . let me rephrase that. Because the Gospel message is that God can and will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is God who offers us an abundant supply of oil for our spiritual lamps. We can’t run to Walmart for it. We can choose to accept God’s gift – or we can make ourselves unavailable to our gracious and generous Lord.
After all, as Robert Capon says (Capon is a guy who writes wonderfully about the parables of Jesus) [Capon says] “If the world could be saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus. The law would have been just fine.”
But the law isn’t enough. The law by itself sucks the oil out of our lamps. It is God’s unconditional, unending love that enables us to have an abundant supply of oil to light our way to the party.