This morning Jesus speaks to us of a heavenly wisdom, personified in a group of (rather human sounding) women before a (rather human sounding) wedding. I admit I am always a little startled when Jesus uses wedding imagery to illustrate the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Yet he does so with notable frequency. For his contemporaries, as for us, there is a familiarity here.
“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. 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.’”
1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Before Scripture is read in the context of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, the deacon comes forward and announces loudly to the assembly, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” It is as if he is saying, “If your attention has wandered off, now is the time to bring it back. Get ready!” Though I’d be hard-pressed to define wisdom in the abstract, it has a refreshingly straightforward, tangible quality when I witness it in the life of an individual person. I hear an inner voice cry, “Wisdom, let us attend!” Wise people tend to be real people, people with “street cred.” There is a quiet authority that has no need to announce itself but is obvious to anyone whose wisdom-o-meter is in good order. A truly wise woman or man possesses presence like shade on a hot day. Their whole affect communicates a life lived well, deliberately, mindfully, wholeheartedly. On my first encounters with people like this – who are, truth be told, rare – my first impulse is to grow quiet, to listen more intently, to ask questions that are simple, questions that do not waste time demonstrating how much I think I know. I become aware that time is too precious for such drivel. I become aware that I am in need of oil. This person cannot give me that oil directly (if only it were that simple!) but can show me how to find some for myself.
Wisdom 6:12-16 / Matthew 25:1-13
So which am I? Foolish or wise? Am I ready to join in the marriage feast, to go into the banquet hall? Or am I unprepared, not even knowing the day or the hour? Is my lamp made ready with fresh supplies of oil to give light for the Bridegroom when he comes? Or will I be locked out by my own failure to know what is needed and to have it at hand? Are my mind and my heart open to the Wisdom of God who invites me? Or am I isolated in a foolishness of thinking myself to be awake, yet still living in the darkness of self-concern and complacency? Wise or foolish…which are you?
Jesus challenged his hearers with this question of wisdom and foolishness earlier in the Gospel according to Matthew. Indeed, he concludes the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of a wise and of foolish man, each building a house. (Matt. 7:24-27) The wise man builds on rock so that the house can withstand rain and wind and flooding. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like this one,” says Jesus. But “great will be the fall” of the house which the foolish man builds on sand, unready for the inevitable storms which human life brings, both literally and figuratively.
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Five of the bridesmaids Jesus calls foolish; five he calls wise. It’s not that the five wise bridesmaids knew when the bridegroom was coming. It’s the opposite. They were wise because they did not know when the bridegroom was coming, and so they were prepared for any eventuality. Jesus tells this story about the coming of the bridegroom as a kind of “heads up” about how to live our lives, not just in the end times but all the time: a kind of attentiveness to practice the presence of God all the time. In the scriptures, wisdom is the gift extolled above all others for how to make meaning of life. Wisdom is a deep knowledge, much deeper than simply information. We have today an information glut. As you well know, it’s possible to browse through an almost-infinite stream of information about life with simply the click of a computer key or a television remote control: an endless array of “horizontal information,” surfing life only at the surface, none of which automatically translates into wisdom. Information alone may make us smart, or make us look smart; information alone may breed arrogance; information alone may overwhelm us, information alone may make us conversant in multiple platforms, as they say. (1) Information alone is not wisdom.
Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78: 1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13
It was a hot summer afternoon and the little church where I served as the assistant curate was packed with people wearing their summer best. The groom and I were patiently waiting in the sacristy while the best man and the groomsmen were out exploring the cemetery. Time that afternoon seemed to have come to a standstill while we waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. The appointed time of the wedding came and went and the groom started to pace back and forth in the little sacristy. We waited 5, 10, 15 minutes and there was no sign of the bride. Even after 20 and 25 minutes there was still no sign of her. Finally, finally, finally half an hour after the wedding was to begin a car pulled up in front of the church and out jumped one of the bridesmaids. Her hair was immaculate, but she was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. She dashed into the sacristy and explained to the poor groom, now beside himself with anxiety, that the bridal party had only just returned from the hair dressers and the bride was only now beginning to get dressed. She’d be at least another half hour if not longer we were told. With that the bridesmaid dashed back to her car and sped off to continue her preparations. The groom collapsed into a chair and I went out into the church to release the congregation from captivity and send them out to explore the cemetery. Finally, more than an hour after we were to begin, the bridal party, with the bride in tow, arrived; the congregation took their places once more; and the groom, who by then had recovered some of his composure, and I headed out of the sacristy and into the church to begin.