Jesus taught with many parables, stories that catch attention. Ten young women waiting for a wedding party, waiting into the night. Five thought ahead and brought extra oil for their lamps. Five did not. When the groom, presumably escorting the bride, was late, they all fell asleep.[i] When the couple arrived, those who thought ahead used their extra oil. Those without had to go get more oil. Late, they were shut out of the party and told “I do not know you.” Pay attention. Don’t get left out. Don’t be forgotten. Keep awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
All ten of the young women, wise and foolish alike, fell asleep in the night. Half brought extra oil. It seems like the point is: Be prepared, for you don’t know the timing. Being thoughtful, wise, and planning ahead is being engaged, aware, and alert. Perhaps this is being awake: alert and engaged to God, self, and neighbor for a late parade to the party.
This story comes amid others with a similar theme. The previous story says be at work for the master returns at an unexpected time. [ii] Don’t beat fellow slaves and get drunk. The master will throw that one out. The next story says risk investing whatever amount the master entrusts to you.[iii] Don’t hide the talent you’ve received. The master will throw that one out. Keep awake. Be faithful at work. Be prepared for the best. Invest what you’re given. Be alert and active. Jesus is coming, and you don’t know when.
These stories grab our attention with hard words like the shut door. Some preachers use them to stoke fear. What will happen to you at the end of time? Will you be left behind? Shut out? Thrown out? Stock up on oil, whatever that is, to make sure you get inside, to save yourself.
Over and over through the arc of scripture God says: “Do not be afraid.” God goes to extraordinary lengths to seek and save the lost. Even when it seems too late, God still hears our cries and comes. This parable gives warning but not to fear. It urges to live for the party, not just to plan to attend later, but to live now alert and generous. God’s kingdom, the new way of living, is not a ticket to exit later, but a life of celebrating through sharing now.
In the last part of this chapter, we hear about Jesus coming in glory. [iv] “When I was hungry, you gave me food and when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.” What? When? “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. And when you didn’t do it them, you didn’t do it to me.” How we live now matters. Be wildly generous like a late groom who parades the bride through every street.[v] Be faithful and give your work your best. Risk using all God has given you for good. Care for the poor, the sick, the hungry. Listen for God’s invitations.
How might you be asleep, distracted, absorbed, or afraid? Keep awake for Jesus is coming. You may not know what you need. Ask for help. Make attention your intention and your petition.
I suggest two prayers. First, we will later sing:
Redeemer, come! I open wide
My heart to Thee, here, Lord abide
Let me Thy inner presence feel
Thy grace and love in me reveal.[vi]
Second, pray the prayer we use in Holy Baptism for yourself:
Heavenly Father, thank you that by water the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on me your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised me to the new life of grace. Sustain me, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give me an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and gift of joy and wonder in all your works.[vii]
Do not be afraid. Live remembering your baptism and dressed for the wedding banquet. Feed. Clothe. Love. Pray. Pray with grateful trust to keep awake.
[i] Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p271.
[ii] Matthew 24:45-51
[iii] Matthew 25:14-30
[iv] Matthew 25:31-46
[v] Bailey, p272.
[vi] Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by Georg Wessel (1590-1635); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, p308. Thanks to the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde for the suggestion to pray it personally.
Are you ready?
The wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are ready when the bridegroom comes. They have foresight and plan appropriately, and so can follow the bridegroom into the banquet hall. They are ready.
Or were they? Or, rather, is this readiness?
In his retreat address on “Readiness,” our founder, Fr. Benson, sounds a seemingly odd note. Readiness is doing your best under the circumstances that face you—which may mean that you fail. It may mean you fail most of the time. But, Fr. Benson continues, “it may be that [your] failure is the way in which most is to be done. It may be that [you] will effect more than another person who might have brought some natural gift to the work and have succeeded in it.”
Readiness, then, is not the preparation and training for success, but rather the presentness of our attention and the immediacy of our response to God’s call. This kind of readiness would have seen wisdom not in bringing extra lamp oil, but in waiting on the bridegroom—waiting and trusting that what he sought was not a lit lamp but a listening heart.
Nat Geo’s ‘Free Solo’ Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urRVZ4SW7WU
In June of 2017, American rock climber Alex Honnold did the unthinkable: He climbed Yosemite National Park’s “El Capitan,” a rock face that rises 3,200 feet above ground level. For laymen, we might think that is pretty impressive, but then again, a lot of people climb El Capitan each year. The difference is that Alex climbed El Capitan, from bottom to top, without any ropes or safety equipment. The only thing he had on his body besides t-shirt, shorts, and climbing shoes was his chalk bag to keep his hands dry in order to grip the oftentimes slight crags in the limestone. This type of climbing is called “Free Soloing.” Climbing El Cap with ropes, harnesses, and even a climbing partner equals impressive. Climbing El Cap free solo equals…well, we might say that’s foolish.
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.