It drives us nuts to have to wait. Unless of course we’re waiting with a purpose...you know waiting to see how the film will end or waiting until you complete the next level in a video game before you take out the trash. I’ll ask my son to do something and it’s always, “In a minute.” I swear if we set our clocks to his time, we’d never grow old.
Although Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 election, he has to wait until Jan 20 before he can move into the White House. We all have to wait to see what will happen in between. And like Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
As we will see in today’s reading, Jesus tells a story about a belated celebration and what happens in the wait.
It’s a parable on faith, where he tells us to “keep awake,” always ready for the future by being ready now. That’s because faith is all about active waiting.
Read Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a] 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... Matthew 25:1-13
If I rewrote this parable for today, it would be about ten pundits in a room waiting for the election results to come in from Nevada. Wisely, Jesus chooses a theme for his parable that is more universal to tell us about the kingdom of heaven. It’s about a wedding that doesn’t go quite as planned.
I know from experience that even the best-planned wedding has the potential for mishaps. The weather can turn on a dime, catering can be delayed or simply not show up, or as it was in the case of my wedding, the organist plays “Here comes the bride” seven times before the bride actually comes...leaving the poor groom to wait at the altar while everyone stares at him.
Weddings were a bit different back in the day when Jesus told this parable. The groom would be escorted by the bridal party into a home where the bride was waiting. They would consummate the affair, and then when they were ready come out and the party would begin. It was a big celebration, but one that wouldn’t have had a definite start time. You knew it would happen on that day or the next at the latest. SO guest knew to come prepared for the wait.
It was custom for the bridesmaids to escort groom to the place where the wedding would occur. But it was also the custom for the groom to delay his arrival as a practical joke! We’re not sure what happened here in Mathew’s gospel other than these girls, dressed in their bridesmaid gowns, wait, and wait, and wait.
The sky grows dark, the evening hours pass. And before they know it, all of them are asleep. Suddenly, someone awakens them! And they quickly attend to their lamps. Five of them have enough oil, and soon their lamps are glowing in the darkness. The others five do not. They ask to borrow some, but there is none to spare. They run out into the darkness looking for oil, which I imagine wasn’t that easy to do. While they are gone, the bridegroom arrives - escorted by the light of the remaining bridesmaids to meet his waiting bride.
There’s something about this story that doesn’t sit well with us. The last are not first in this one. When the other five return, it’s too late. They are left outside. All dressed up, with no place to go. The story ends like a bad dream, with them begging but to no avail.
It doesn’t seem fair that the so called “foolish” bridesmaids take the blame in this story while the bridegroom faces no consequences for making everyone wait for so long or for not being considerate enough to wait for the oil-deprived bridesmaids to return. And the ones who had enough oil don’t catch any flack for their lack of generosity.
It’s a rather confusing explanation of the Kingdom of Heaven – one of hoarding, and a lack of compassion; a kingdom where one gets blamed for someone else’s carelessness. This is far from the things that Jesus has shared and shown up to this point. It makes me wonder if we’re reading this parable the way we’re should.
Maybe it’s not about the wedding, or these wise and foolish characters. Maybe it’s about something else in this story. There’s only one other thing in this parable that Jesus talks about...the oil. Some have it, others do not, or not enough. What does Jesus want us to have but not all of us possess? The way I see it, Jesus is talking about oil as a way to talk about our faith.
For example, the wise come prepared with enough faith to get them through the wait and uncertainty of tomorrow. The foolish don’t. They want the faith of the wise, only to discover it can’t be shared like that. My faith is uniquely mine. And yours is yours. What this parable is teaching me, is that it’s up to me to always be actively filling my spiritual reserves so that I will always be prepared to get through the long night of waiting.
I know what it’s like to wait; especially for God to reveal where I am supposed to be. And I know what it’s like to have your faith stretched thin. By the time I fell asleep Tuesday night (which was really Wednesday morning) my faith in our country, and in Christianity, was nearly all but gone. I had just enough oil in reserve to trim my inner light to get me through the night.
I had just enough faith left to know I can wait for God because I knew God is already here – working out the path that leads us to the celebration. In the midst of life’s joys and pain, in the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring, it’s our faith that keeps our inner, personal light shining. It’s our faith that helps us be prepared for when the time comes to enter into the wedding banquet.
Like oil in a lamp, we can run out of faith if we stop refiling our supply. Which is why Jesus issues a stark warning to stay awake. “Keep Awake!” Don’t let your faith fall asleep. Jesus is calling us to participate in the kingdom of heaven always. Actively engage in our faith – especially during this expectant period of waiting – by having mercy, offering forgiveness, walking humbly with our God; spreading the peace of Christ in the world.
Faith is our oil that allows us to shine the light of Christ into the darkest of days. What good is it if you don’t use it as we wait for God’s redemptive plan to be fully revealed.
Unlike when you put gas in your car and drive all over town, the more we practice our faith by being God’s love in the world, the more faith and love there is. The more you let your light shine on the Kingdom of Heaven, the brighter and longer your light will last.
Being prepared to wait isn’t about stockpiling – like many did with ammunition before the election. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a doomsday story. It’s God’s redemptive plan for all of us. To be prepared is to keep your faith awake, and to put it to work while you wait.
We’re all invited to the wedding, but only some of us will get in. Later in Matthew 25 Jesus lays out what this means. But it boils down to this: those whose faith is focused on doing the work of the kingdom will see the kingdom. Those who do not will be left in the darkness.
Faith takes work. We can’t sleep through it. We have to keep awake, stay active. We have to exercise our faith if we want to build up the muscle. The more we use it, the more we have.
As we wait for a new dawn to arrive in this moment of darkness, as we wait, unsure of what others might do or not do, as we wait with anxious hearts for God to come lead us home, Jesus says keep awake. Do not let the light of your faith fade.
It’s up to us to use this time of active wait to be active disciples – taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of Jesus.
There’s no better time to shine than now – when hatred and anger and brokenness need to the light of Christ to see a way to love and kindness and reconciliation. Every moment we let pass is time ticking off the clock before the doors are shut. For the real tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait too long to begin it.
The kingdom of heaven summons us today to build up our reserves of faith that prepares us to weather the unexpected timing of God. I also believe we’ve been given this time today to wait for God, so that we can let our faith shine brightly for others to find their way.
Today, we have been given the time to wait for God, so that God can work in us and through us for freedom, justice, and compassion because world is still crying out for help.
Today, we have been given the time to wait, to find our own unique way to be the heart of God, the light of Christ, and the very presence of the Holy Spirit in this moment.
So, I invite you to let your faith shine brightly today, light up the darkness so all can see the way of truth and righteousness as we wait to walk with the bridegroom who leads us towards God’s open arms for the greatest celebration ever.
Bartlett, David L, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville, Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 284-289.
Kelley, Shannon. Be Prepared. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/lessons/2014/09/21/be-prepared
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”