13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14for since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
1”Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10and while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
The church calendar is starting to pick up speed as we lean forward into advent. We’re rushing headlong into a season of waiting, and along the way we pick up some kingdom parables and impressions of our eschatological destination. “The kingdom will be like this…” begins Jesus, introducing a parable that is unique to Matthew’s gospel. We’re looking expectably to the story, hoping for the clue about the kingdom of heaven which is to come.
The characters begin to emerge, as actors preparing themselves for the stage. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise,” the foolish enter from stage left, the wise from stage right, and we know, as we watch and listen, that this distinction will matter somehow. We prepare ourselves to find grief with the foolish and to take hope with the actions of the wise.
Our whole Christian tradition is built on the intermingling of grief and hope. We rightly grieve at the foot of the cross, but the resurrection establishes a new reality in which all peoples can have hope. In the kingdom parables, Jesus gives us an impression of what that hope looks like. But for Christ, and for his church throughout the centuries, these hopeful impressions are not meaningless set pieces. The kingdom of heaven is an oncoming reality for which we must be prepared. It will jump out and surprise us when we least expect it, and its radical freedom energizes us to be the disciples Christ expects us to be.
Expecting that energizing freedom, the ten bridesmaids carry lamps, beacons of their hope. They prepare for the bridegroom and the accompanying celebration. Their lights are dim and the darkness is vast, but the are prepared and hopeful. But there’s a misstep along the way, “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
Commentators have argued about what the oil represents for centuries. Some argue that it’s good works, other argue that it’s faith, others wisdom. I think if it were essential for us to know, Christ would have told us. The foolish bridesmaids probably trusted that there would be enough oil already in the lamp, that it wouldn’t run dry before the bridegroom arrived. After all, the wedding prepared, the director had cued the bridegroom’s entrance, everything would come together as soon as he arrived!
But the players will have to carry the show longer than they thought, as the bridegroom was delayed.
The most trivial delay can still be a magnificent bother in our Veruca-Salt, Don't-Care-How-I-Want-it-Now world. As our days grow shorter and the temperature drops at night, it often takes shower water longer and longer to heat up, because the pipes are colder. So we test the lukewarm water, and crank the "hot" up just a little bit. Then we wait a moment, and test it again. It's still pretty lukewarm, so we crank it up just a little bit more. Wait another moment, still lukewarm, so we crank it up just a little bit more. That seems like about the right temperature, and then by the time we get into the shower we get a moment of perfect temperature water on our backs before it suddenly turns to a river of lava and we try and leap out from under the showerhead before we scald ourselves to death. We flip the hot water down and the cold water up and after a moment the water is so cold that icebergs start forming around the shower drain. The the process starts all over again, all because there's a delay between when we adjust the faucet handle and when the water actually changes.
We've got control over our water temperature, we can fiddle with the handles all morning if we need to. Delays outside our control are more than irritating, they can be downright terrifying. "Thank you for submitting your application, we'll get back to you at some point in the next few weeks." "We have to wait for some project funding to become available before we can do that..." "We've done what we can to get them stable, we'll have to wait until morning to know more..." In times of intense stress, the delay only intensifies things. Waiting is, as they say, the hardest part. We pass the time any way we can: small talk, reading a magazine, or taking a nap "As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept."
The wise bridesmaids are not more diligent than the foolish ones. As the night marches on with no word from the bridegroom, all ten of them fall asleep. "The wise bridesmaids are distinctive not because they were ready for the groom but because they were ready for the groom’s delay." All of the bridesmaids held lamps, ready for the groom’s arrival. The foolish ones trim their lamps alongside the wise, but their hope was immediate and their preparation short-term.
A short-term action assumes that God will show up when we expect, as though we were the director, casting whatever image we fancy in God’s role and demanding cues be met are marks be hit. We know, however, that’s not the way things really are. Even though we struggle to live by it, we know God is the both the playwright and the director, and we are enacting his hope-filled story. Preparation for the delay acknowledges God's freedom, and shows faith that God will show up even if it's not on our calendar.
While it is possible, and often healthy, to schedule time for our relationship with God, we've got to recognize that God is not bound to a minute moment when we decide we are ready. God will show up and break up our carefully constructed days and nights, inviting all who are watchful to participate in the work of the kingdom. "Being watchful means being ready at all times, whether waking or sleeping.” We can be faithful, and hopeful at all times. Even dormant faith can shine in a dark enough world. God can use those dim, flickering lamps to light up the whole stage as the theater wakes up to a magnificent final act.
Jesus finishes his parable, and the play comes to a close, and the audience is left with their impressions, wondering at the meaning behind his words as they move back out into the world. We work to understand and enact Christ’s words of hope, delay and preparation. "It cannot be that we are all supposed to bring with us the resources necessary for the celebration: while not all of them get in, all ten [bridesmaids] bring only lamps with oil in them. The text's theological claim about anticipating the bridegroom's great banquet does not negate the grace-shaped joy of a feast in which the host brings and shares all that we will actually need.” The focus of this passage is not that we should grab on to every possible provision and hoard it for ourselves. "The point is living expectantly and hopefully. Christian hope rests on trust that the God who created the world will continue to live the world with gentle providence." As church-type-people, we have the privilege and responsibility of hopeful preparation.
Each disciple may be a bridesmaid in this allegory, called to hopeful preparation for the day of the LORD. Perhaps, in this passage, the Church is not the bridesmaids. Perhaps we are the oil merchants, tasked with equipping disciples for the journey ahead, even though we do not know how long the journey will take. The Church is a place where we can fill our lamps together with the hope all will be prepared and none will be left out when the doors are shut. The foolish bridesmaids were not present to join the procession when the bridegroom arrived, and so they missed the party. Remaining unrecognized was the judgement on their foolishness. But the wise bridesmaids are under God's judgment too. They were unwilling to share either the oil or their wisdom to take an extra flask. The wedding party, therefore, was only half the size it could have been. Maybe the incompleteness is God's judgment on them for their failings too?
As the foolish bridesmaids found out, you can't fill your lamp at the last minute. As disciples, we have to grab the extra flask of lamp-oil, we have to take the risk that we will wait a while, because there is an abundance for all who are willing to keep their lamps filled. "The wise ones in the church are those who are prepared for the delay; who hold onto the faith deep into the night."
Prepare for the future, not a future where we're on our own and have to scramble to hold on to what is ours, but a future where Christ is returned, and returns us to the messianic banquet where joy and amazement will be without end. God gives us hope so that we can act, not just for our own benefit, but so that God may be glorified and we will enjoy God forever. The stage is set for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, as we rush headlong into the season of Advent waiting. So we maintain our hopeful preparation, so that we may act in hope when the bridegroom at last arrives.