The disciples ask Jesus, What sign are we to watch for – what is the coming of the Kin-dom of Heaven like? And Jesus tells them several chapters about just that. Today, we hear the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, or 10 virgins, 10 young women.
It goes like this: The coming of the kin-dom of heaven is like ten women who have been asked to bring in the bridegroom. They are to guide him through the winding streets in a parade to the wedding banquet where the beautiful bride awaits. All of the women come with their lamps – these are the signs of the procession. Think of a lamp hung on a stick you carry up above your head for lighting the path. It makes quite the show. Five of those who came actually brought oil to light these showy parade items and make them functional – in case the groom comes over night. Five of these women brought the lamps to be part of the parade, but didn’t bother with the heavy lamp oil. Maybe they figured since they left in the daytime, the groom would be along shortly. Who wants a parade and wedding feast at an unexpected hour like 2 or 3 in the morning?
But, as we hear, the parade is delayed because the bridegroom is delayed. As night comes, all ten women fall asleep waiting. The wise and the foolish both sleep.
In the middle of the night, someone shouts, “Here comes the groom! Come on out to meet him!” Everyone got to their feet to ready for the celebratory parade. They got their lamps and hung them on their poles, trimmed up the wicks, and got ready to be the light to guide in the bridal parade to the party.
But only five of the women were actually ready to do this. They thought they had an easy and fun job only. They brought the lamps, the symbols of their roles, but not actually the heavy and messy oil to put IN the lamps. The other five women had brought the messy and heavy oil and are ready to do the job they were asked to do.
The foolish women who realize they actually needed to participate in this, and not just show up, ask for some of the oil. But the wise women reply, “There’s not enough to go around.” If all ten lamps are lit with the oil, the oil will run out before they guide the wedding party to the banquet hall. Better to have 5 lamps last the whole way than 10 lamps that die out half way there and leave everyone stumbling in the dark. So the wise say, “You best go prepare now.”
But while the foolish women were gone getting oil, the groom came close enough for the parade to start. And so it did. And the five guides lead the people along to the party.
Meanwhile, the foolish women get their lamps started and come running back to the party, late, saying, “We’re ready to help with the parade! Look! We have our guide lamps lit!”
But the groom said, “It’s too late. The time for that has already passed. I don’t need bridesmaids to guide people anymore for the party has already started.”
And the bridesmaids were very sad and cried.
Now, normally, I hear this preached with the punch line: therefore stay awake! Stay vigilant! Keep watch!
You never know when Christ will return!
NEVER REST! NEVER SLEEP! WATCH! KEEP ALERT!
But you know what, I’m tired.
Always being vigilant, always on edge – that means always stressing. People who are in war zones and who must always be alert suffer from all kinds of physical and mental harm from constantly being “on” and unable to turn off. Resting is one of the hard parts for our veterans coming home to adjust to, and do – because they’re so used to being “on.”
It works for a computer – turn it off, let it rest, plug it back in again – it works for us, too. We need rest. Does Jesus want us to wait with such expectation that we all start showing the Blue Screens of Death?
We need to sleep sometimes.
Always being in emergency mode means our minds begin to re-write themselves to thinking this over-load of adrenalin and cortisone – this load of stress hormones – is normal. So we freak out even more easily next time something stressful happens. Sometimes we even begin to crave chaos and stress.
Our bodies age rapidly from these strong chemicals and we get aches, pains, high blood pressure and low immune systems. We turn to self medication to help us get by – alcohol, cigarettes, another cup of coffee, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little.
We get to feeling isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, angry.
Since Jesus is our good shepherd, who wants the best for us, and offers us to lie down in green pastures, who invites us to dine with him, I cannot think he was advocating we live our entire life in fear of the rapture, the End, and the return of Christ. I cannot think he was telling us to suffer from constant stress because we’re Christians.
The kindom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids… who fell asleep. Christ, the groom, came while they were sleeping.
So the difference is not who took a rest and who didn’t. All ten slept. The difference is who prepared for waiting and who didn’t. Who came ready to work, and who didn’t.
Some of the women came not just with the symbols of their job – the lamps – but also came with the hard part of the job, too – the oil.
Some Christians have the symbols of their faith – Easter, Christmas, maybe a cross – but wise Christians do the hard part of the faith too – the whole loving others bit.
When Christ arrives, it is too late to suddenly go “be” Christian. The time for action is now. The bridesmaids who remembered they are to be guides – day and night – with their lanterns are able to respond to the call. They can rise and go. The women who were only committed for the good parts aren’t able to rise and go and participate. They have to go get oil. They have to go prepare, although the time for preparing has already passed.
The wise Christians come at the call, guide with their lamps, and enter the wedding party. Enter into Christ’s presence. The foolish Christians are delayed in responding to the call, and by the time they get their act together and come saying “I’m ready to walk with Christ now and do all that love-your-neighbor-stuff!” Christ tells them, “The time for that is passed. The party is already going on now.”
Often I hear this talked about in terms of the Last Days. I had a great-uncle who liked to sit us kids down and somewhat terrify us with images of The Apocalypse: The Day of Judgment: THE return. Picture that in the strongest Appalachian accent you can, now. And he liked to tell us about how death comes suddenly, unexpectantly, and you need to get right with Jesus NOW. Because you can’t get right with Jesus after you die. And he’d tell us that the Final Day will be essentially the cutting off line for everyone. No more chances to get it right. You either are in the party, or you’re not. Either Saved or Not.
Yes – one can understand this parable that way.
I understand it a bit differently. See, Christ was, and Christ will come again… but Christ also IS. Christ IS Risen. Christ told this parable. Christ will one day bring the full reign of God on earth as it is in Heaven. But Christ also is here, right now, as near as our shadows.
I think the clarion, the call to action, to rise up from our sleep and trim our lamps, is happening every day; because we encounter Christ every day.
Where? Lord? I did not see you?
What you do to the least of these you do to me.
Every day, we see some chance to step up and guide the kin-dom of God into the world. Every day, we see Christ. Some of us are prepared to act. Prepared to guide. Prepared to minister and amplify the voices of the silenced and be present for one another. And some of us… are not.
I’m not saying we’re doing this because we’re mean. Nor are we doing this out of blindness and not aware of the needs in our community and world.
I bet those five bridesmaids who didn’t lug the heavy oil were tired.
Had they known the wait was going to be that long, they would have brought the oil. But they judged the odds, compared how likely it was that the groom would come in the day or the night, and chose. They chose wrong. But I don’t think it was that they meant to be wrong.
They just… are mortals. Fallible. And tire.
When we’re in constant stress mode, our reserves are all drained out. Not just our physical reserves, but our emotional and spiritual too. If we know someone really truly needs us, we’re there for them! … But it’s the casual encounters, the strangers, the hard to notice people who society makes invisible… it’s they we forget. They we don’t prepare for. But it is they who are Christ, the groom, coming into our lives at unexpected times.
They are the sick. Colds never come on our schedules. Dementia is not wrote on our calendar “Oh, Dec 2017, time for a stroke!” Those with long-term illnesses are the most forgotten. Those suffering from depression, lack of mobility, and… that one we hate to admit the most… being old.
They are the imprisoned. Where are our prisoners? Who tells them of Christ’s love and forgiveness and mercy? Who welcomes in people with criminal records and says, ‘Yes, you can work here,’ ‘Yes, you may have a loan,’ ‘Yes, you are welcome.’ Incarceration may last five years inside a prison, but it is a life-long sentence.
They are the naked and hungry. Poverty is one of those things we try to hide. We as a society shame people in poverty and tell them it is their fault so we don’t have to see them. Seeing them makes us feel badly about our own wealth. We pass rules banning people from loitering and panhandling and yet don’t provide shelters that are open 24/7. Where are these people to go? Work. Get a job. Ever been unemployed and looking for a job? Try looking for a job without a phone, a mailing address, shower, warm meal, and reliable transportation. Then add maybe a criminal record or a illness you can’t afford the medication to treat.
You and I – we can’t respond – can’t reach out and help others – when our lamps are empty. When we’re running on fumes. We need time to fill ourselves with oil so we can be lamps to others.
We need time to rest, to sleep, to be able to serve.
We are getting ready to enter the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. Does the thought make you tired?
Then it is time for change. Time for rest. Time to build up those oil reserves.
For every day we are supposed to listen for the call – but we’ll only be able to respond if we’re ready.
Take time to be holy.
Take time to be still.
Take time to rest in the peace of God.