JoAnn A. Post
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 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.' 10 And 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Nazi paramilitary forces smashed their way through cities in Germany and Austria, shattering the glass storefronts of Jewish-owned businesses. 91 people died; over 30,000 were incarcerated in what would later come to be known as concentration camps—concentration of evil. It was the first salvo fired in a war that would rage across five continents, claiming over 70 million lives. That night, that night of broken glass, felt like both the end of the world to those who endured it, and the end of the world as we knew it.
November 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall cracked, allowing first a trickle and then a torrent of German citizens to flee the oppression of the East for the relative freedom of the West. It is now believed that the wall’s breaching was a mistake an order misheard by a border guard. But whether it was intentional or accidental, a whole generation of East Germans watched their tightly-controlled, well-ordered, highly-regulated world crash into a pile of rubble. Though the world they knew was demoralizing and dehumanizing, it was the only world many of them knew. We recognized the Fall Wall as a beginning, but it was most certainly also an end.
November 9, 2014. Is today the end of someone’s world?
Liturgically speaking, we are only weeks away from the end of the church year with Christ the King Sunday in two weeks. A week later we celebrate the beginning of the new year on the First Sunday of Advent. Biblically speaking, we are entering the home stretch of Jesus’ public teaching in Matthew, only verses away from his betrayal, denial and death. The calendar speaks a certain end; scripture texts expose a threatening horizon; our hymns strain toward a distant light; our prayers are for a glimpse of God’s face.
But for most of the world, these days are like all others. God is neither nearer nor farther away; the end of the world is a reality only for survivalists and movie actors; the days are darker, but that’s only a function of the earth’s regular rotation, not some sinister gathering storm.
So it is hard to take the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids very seriously, to capture the urgency of their circumstance. I imagine them, all dressed up and no groom in sight. As the evening wore on, their carefully-coiffed do’s lost some of their loft; their color-coordinated shoes and dresses sported scuffs and wrinkles; their posy bouquets wilted in the Middle Eastern heat. And their lamps—oil-fired, hand-held lamps intended to light the path for the groom and his bride, began to flicker. The disappointed attendants slumped like drunken sailors against the wall, despairing that they would ever be pressed into service. Never even a bridesmaid, let alone a bride.
But at midnight came the cry, “It’s the bridegroom! Fire the lamps! The wedding is about to begin!” And the rumpled women leapt to their feet, straightened their dresses and pulled out their Bic lighters, like a scrum of nicotine-addicted Jersey girls. So far, I can imagine the scene. But then the story grows implausible.
Five of the bridesmaids—it was a large wedding party—had oil enough even at that late hour. Five did not—their lamps had gone out. But rather than sharing their oil, splitting their fire so all of them could join the party, the five well-oiled bridesmaids turned up their powdered noses at the five whose lamps were not as efficient. Leaving five young women groping in the dark, the rest of the wedding party galloped to the event, oblivious to the sorrow and the danger to which they relegated those five ill-oiled would-be attendants.
I hate this story. You already know I’m not a fan of big weddings—ten bridesmaids is enough to make any pastor’s stomach lurch. But it’s not the size of the wedding or the tardiness of the bridegroom that bugs me. I am put off by the arrogant attitude of the other attendants, and the image of the bridegroom—a thinly-veiled stand-in for Jesus—as a selfish cad—and his equally selfish friends, abandoning some to the dark without a backward glance.
Is that how it will be when Jesus returns? Is that how it is now? Some are taken and some are left? Some hit the jackpot and some get hit?
Without question, Jesus is painting a harsher picture of himself than he normally would. Remember, this same Jesus has a soft spot for children and the poor, for the uneducated and the outsider. This cavalier attitude is not typical of him. The issue is, from Jesus’ standpoint, that his own end is very near. Only a few parables from now, Jesus’ path will turn toward the cross. And he’s a little impatient, a little irritable, a little more pressed for time.
How might he have told the story if his horizon were not so dark, his demise not quite so imminent?
I like to imagine that the five wise bridesmaids would have regarded their foolish counterparts in a little softer light, that those who “have” would have been more tender toward the “have-nots,” that there would have been oil enough for all. That is the Jesus I know. That is the world in which we are privileged serve. That is the challenge toward which we press.
In fact, time is short. Today is the end of someone’s world—whether in fact or in feeling. Does it ever trouble you that there is food enough in the world to feed us all, but some starve because the distribution system is skewed our way? Does it ever bother you that the safety and peace we take for granted is unimaginable for those who live in the path of war? Is your sleep ever disturbed by the inequities among us—inequities of wealth and nutrition, housing and education, inequities even of oil?
The church is straining toward the end of its year, our message growing more urgent. Christ is King and some have not yet met him. Christ is King and some do not know his peace. Christ is King and some are oblivious to his love. As a bridegroom longs for his bride, fighting off the darkness to gather her close, so Jesus longs for us, fends off the darkness to gather us into his light.
We are those wise bridesmaids—blessed with light and warmth to share. We are those who look forward to the last day when the bridegroom will arrive, when the trumpet will sound, when, as the song says, “The clouds be rolled back like a scroll.” We say that we long for all souls to be well, all rivers to run with peace, all sorrows washed out to sea. But do we?
November 9, 2014. It is the end for some, a beginning for others. It is in our power, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to light the way of those who are lost. Look, the bridegroom is at hand. Together, we go to meet him.