Have you ever been to a wedding like the one in today’s parable? While living in the Holy Land, my daughter, Sarah, and I had an opportunity to experience a wedding like this. We waited with the women at the bride’s house, not knowing exactly when the bridegroom and his men would arrive. We’d hear a sound. Excitement filled everyone. Maybe it’s him. Is it him? Someone would look to see. No, it’s not him. We’d wait longer and longer. Would the groom ever arrive? There was a shout. There he was! Finally! Like the bridesmaids in today’s gospel, we did not know exactly when the groom would arrive, only that he would.
This parable’s use of the wedding imagery infers joy and fulfillment, not sorrow or dread. We see so many scary movies about the end of time that stir up fear. Jesus speaks about the end, but his return is meant to bring joy and not fear for believers.
Right from the beginning, we’re told that five of the bridesmaids were foolish and five were wise. All ten look and act the same, but only the wise ones were prepared.
Was the issue really about having enough oil? I think the larger issue is the ill-preparedness of the foolish bridesmaids. They had their own time schedule of when they thought the bridegroom should and would arrive. No delays. They did not anticipate a sudden change of plan. It’s not like someone could phone ahead and let the women know they were running behind.
Another way to translate “delayed,” is “a long time coming.” Delayed presumes a pre-arranged, expected, set time when the bridegroom would arrive. At Jesus’ time, there was no such custom. The unprepared bridesmaids were determining the timeframe in which the bridegroom could be honorably welcomed with lamps fully blazing.
The foolish bridesmaids’ lack of preparation was disrespectful and insulting to the bridegroom. They had not prepared for every possibility to ensure their presence at the wedding feast. They were more concerned for themselves and their convenience than for the bridegroom. They had not factored delay into their equation of waiting. “The feast was everything. This bridegroom was worth feasting with” (Mark P. Bangert).
How shall we faithfully wait for Jesus to return? For the bridesmaids, it was a case of having enough oil for their lamps. For us, it may be the good works resulting from our relationship with Jesus. This is faithful and obedient discipleship.
The oil could represent the power that produces good works. Throughout scripture, anointing with oil was symbolic of God’s Spirit being upon the person. When we baptize someone, we also anoint them with oil, saying “…child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We wait faithfully when we walk faithfully with God, allowing God’s Spirit to work through us.
Such faith indicates intimacy with God, the power behind our lives. In baptism, God entered into relationship with us, making us his own. But have we nurtured that relationship? Are we as invested in it as God is? God feeds us and gives us drink in holy communion. It is the body and blood given “for you,” for us. I love how personal and intimate that is.
In the final verse of today’s gospel reading, we hear, “Keep awake…” A better translation is, “Be prepared” (Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com). The verb is present tense, meaning it’s to be an ongoing activity. It’s about “seizing the day, loving God and loving neighbors in each moment, not a passive or speculative stance that soon despairs of a delayed return” (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A).
Sometimes it’s hard to be prepared. We may procrastinate or miscalculate how long a task will actually take. It’s not such a big deal if we’re not ready on time for some things, like a few minutes late for a social engagement. But if we’re late for work every day, we may lose our jobs. What about if our lives depend on our readiness? They do.
We can participate in and celebrate the many comings of Jesus—his presence in the Word, in the Sacraments, in gathering together, in our sharing the good news with others, his presence when we minister to those in need. These connections keep our lights bright for witness and service.
We live in a violent, divided day. These days following election day are stress-filled. We want to know who the winner of the presidency will be. As we struggle we wonder why God waits so long to show up—and yet, God already has, in the cross of Christ. In the midst of the waiting, questions, suffering, and pain of our lives, God is there with us and with all the struggling.
Do our neighbors know that God is with them? We wonder how our church can be attractive to a culture increasingly disinterested in organized religion (David Lose, …in the Meantime, davidlose.com). What if we offer ourselves as a community that will wait with those who are waiting? A community that celebrates together. That slows down to prepare together. And that waits together, making sure… that no one…has to wait alone?” (Lose).