One of the great joys of my job is to preside at weddings. In preparing for these events, I spend time meeting with the soon to be bride and soon to be groom. Most of the time, it is a delight. I hear about how they met and fell in love, how they proposed marriage to one another, and we always seem to end up talking about plans. Plans for the wedding ceremony, yes, but also plans for the wedding day. When they’ll get ready. Where they’ll dress. When they’ll take pictures. How they will show their unity. How things will get decorated. Where the party will be. I’m pro-weddings because even in the bible it was one big party.
In the midst of the swirling details, especially when things get overwhelming, I take a moment with the couple to pause and remember that all that they need to do that day is say “I do.” The rest is just details and bonus, the frosting on the cake.
We often think that weddings have to be like we see on movies and on Pinterest, but really, you have to show up and make a promise, and then keep repeating that through thick and thin over a lifetime. Maybe not what you expect when thinking about a wedding, but it brings relief and a new sense of priorities for the bride and groom. It turns the focus and shifts it to where it belongs.
Parables do that too. Parables are supposed to turn things on their head. They are stories that teach, but you have to have a willing suspension of disbelief. They aren’t supposed to make sense from what you already know. But you listen to them because eventually something surprising is seen and learned. That is, you’re not supposed to understand them on first glance. They take some work, some tinkering, some wondering. They are supposed to be confusing. They are supposed to bother your world view.
Today’s parable is found in the 25th chapter of Matthew. There are 10 Bridesmaids, five of them foolish and five of them wise. (I think Jesus said there were ten because he could show on each hand that there were FIVE of them foolish and FIVE of them wise). I don’t recommend that many bridesmaids for a wedding.
The bridesmaids are waiting and waiting and waiting for the groom to arrive. He doesn’t show, but they keep on waiting. They take lamps with them, little pots that light the space immediately in front of them. Five take just the lamp with the wick and oil in them. Five take extra oil. It’s like taking extra batteries. Not something you would actually usually do. It’s as if they were waiting for him not to show up.
All Ten bridesmaids fall asleep waiting for the groom (who has shown up late to his own wedding I might add) and then, in the middle of the night he arrives. Those who didn’t bring extra oil were left to scramble. The wise wouldn’t share their oil for there wouldn’t be enough. The foolish bridesmaids left to find oil but when they left the groom showed up and the marriage feast started and the five who had extra oil went in and the five who did not were gone in search of oil. When they returned, they were left outside.
It is not a nice parable. I can’t say that I like it. The most troubling thing about it, though, is that it makes a lot of sense. It’s how life works.
It doesn’t seem to be a parable of what the kingdom of heaven is like; it seems to be the plain spoken truth of what the world is like.
You either have enough or you don’t.
We are afraid to share because like the five wise bridesmaids, we are afraid that we just don’t have enough.
We judge those who do not prepare for their future.
We operate on scarcity and not abundance.
Always be prepared! We say. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for crying out loud! It’s the least you can do. Keep awake because we do not know the day or the hour.
They were all awake, by the way. They had all fallen asleep, but they had all woken to the news that the bridegroom was arriving. It’s just that some had enough oil to light their path and others did not.
This story rubs like a splinter beneath the surface. We are saved by grace through faith, but grace is no where to be found! Some are in and some are out. Some have enough and some do not. What is Jesus teaching us? Is it as it appears? That it depends on what we have and what we do after all? Were our fears about faith correct? Is God just as shrewd as we thought? Should we be trying harder? Will we have enough to get into the banquet?
These questions make sense to us. We want faith to mean certainty and so often we take that to mean that we must take it into our own hands, accept the gift, live the gift, do right by the gift. Truth be told, we don’t mind being in control of our destiny.
But maybe that’s what Jesus is flipping over and turning upside down.
We think it was the oil that was lacking, but maybe it was trust, maybe it was faith. Did they need oil to enter the party? Wouldn’t you just set your lamp down when you entered? Did they need something more? Or did they just need to stay there and wait and trust? Trust that the groom could find them in the darkness. Trust that they could have made their way while still lacking. They felt like they needed more than what they had. So they left the party they were invited to all along to find something else, to bring something more.
And so when they returned, with enough oil in their lamps, with a light to turn back the darkness, they knocked on the door. Lord, lord, open to us, let us in, we’re finally ready, we finally have enough, we finally got it right, we finally have what we need to enter your party.
But he wouldn’t open the door. He didn’t know them, he said.
Was it he who didn’t know them? Or was it them, the five foolish ones, who didn’t know him?
The five thought they needed something more than him. We do that, don’t we? So often we too think that we need more than Jesus. Or, so often we aren’t willing to wait to see if
that he will truly show up.
But he does, he shows up when and where we least expect him, he shows up in people and places we would never go looking for him, he shows up time and again when we have nothing in our hands to give.
Keep your wicks trimmed and burning, dear ones. Hold out hope for your messiah to come. But if your light does go out, if death does come before Jesus does, you do not need to find another way into the party.
You don’t need more than his promise, which was to say “I do” to you on the cross, through thick and thin, that day and everyday since then. In life and through death.
Behold, Jesus has drawn near to you.