Lamps of a heavenly wisdom
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
This past Sunday morning we heard Jesus speak another of his enigmatic parables of the Kingdom, this one from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. My mother is a tailor, specializing in wedding gowns, so Jesus’ use of wedding imagery always reminds me of the humanity on display around marriages. Growing up, I crossed paths with many wedding parties. Brides, grooms, groomsmen, parents, and yes, bridesmaids. While I am sure very few of us have ever needed to take oil lamps to an evening vigil as the groom made his way to the home of the bride, we nonetheless know something about weddings and marriages in our own time and place.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”
Friends, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that we know this feeling of delay. In the midst of social division, pandemic, and so much more, it really does look like the bridegroom is delayed. It is easy to feel like the Kingdom is impossibly far off. We may fear that we have, like the foolish bridesmaids, forgotten to bring enough oil. The sun set hours ago, but the bridegroom still isn’t here. Do we have enough oil to keep our lamps burning much longer? With the psalmist we pray, “How long, O Lord?”
Yet the searching, patient wisdom of God that became flesh in Jesus waits at the gate of our hearts to teach us, oil flask in hand, in times precisely like this one. I warmly invite you to pray with this this parable from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew as you move through the rest of your week. The imagery is mundane and domestic, like a drowsy delay and a panicked errand for overlooked supplies. At the same time, it is textured and multifaceted, like the fine embroidery of a hand-stitched wedding gown or the warm glow and fragrant aroma of a lit oil lamp. Much like Jesus himself, the words he shares participate in both the richness of heaven and the dysfunction and messiness of human life, welcoming us to still ourselves and let both realities mingle with each other in unexpected ways.
Consider the readiness the wise bridesmaids. They don’t show any nervousness about the bridegroom’s arrival—they fall asleep like the foolish bridesmaids. They don’t read the horizon for signs of his coming, abandon their lamps, or make speculations about his progress and their predicament. They instead rest in the knowledge of their duty, ready to perform it no matter the hour. Yet they aren’t cynical or pessimistic as a result. The virtue of their readiness is hope. They trust that the bridegroom will arrive. But their wisdom allows for the fact that the desired event may not happen as expected or at their convenience. Unlike the five foolish bridesmaids, they don’t anticipate that things will necessarily go their way. Jesus tells us they wait, prepared to light their lamps whenever the moment comes.
It may feel difficult or impossible to live in a wise anticipation of the Kingdom, especially when the Kingdom seems delayed. But Jesus speaks to each of us at this time, inviting us to learn a hopeful anticipation, fragrant with the oil of our baptism, mysteriously domestic and familiar, yet aglow with the lights of hope, love, and charity.
As this season of trial and difficulty continues, I pray with gratitude for you, our friends and colleagues. Like a sweet-smelling oil, your witness and fellowship have helped keep the lamp of hope burning within me. The wisdom of God is at work, friends. And she works to make us bright with a wise anticipation.
Peace to you,
Br. Sean SSJE
Oh, how I needed the sweet smelling oil of this verse and your writing just now, brother Sean! Sending gratitude and blessings from Santiago de Compostela, España.
Brother Sean’s teaching on the wise and foolish bridesmaids dropped into my inbox at the precise right moment. I had spent time this morning flooded with anxiety over the passing scene and almost endowing the president with magic powers. The corrective, that God is in charge here, is immensely helpful. Thank you, Brother, and to all at SSJE whose prophetic voices guide us through these troubled times,