|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|"Parable of the Ten
| When I
was in elementary school, I was a cub scout for about three years. I
never became a full-fledged Boy Scout, but I nevertheless knew quite a
bit about scouting. And one thing I knew was the scout motto: “Be
That is a rather simple guideline, and most of us would probably admit that it IS a good idea. But following that instruction is more difficult to do.
In my own life, I know that being prepared would make many matters much easier for me, but I nevertheless continually find myself UNprepared.
It is this problem of being prepared that Jesus addresses in his parable of the ten bridesmaids; or, depending upon your translation, the ten virgins. In any case, ten young women.
Jesus tells us, in the opening to the twenty-fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew,
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom,” and some translators indicate that the bride was also to be met.
According to Palestinian custom, a bridegroom would bring the bride from her parents’ home to his own. So, there is a special occasion to take place, a marriage feast.
And then we are informed that “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” Now, I’m not so sure that wisdom is all that evenly distributed. In fact, I would suspect that there is considerably more foolishness in this world than there is wisdom.
But in the more routine and mundane tasks of life, I believe that there is a power which watches over us to save us from our foolishness; and what might pass for wisdom in the sight of others may be nothing more than the grace of God acting to save us from ourselves.
Think to yourselves of all those times in your lives when you marvelled at how you managed to make it through events. It was not your wisdom that helped you muddle through--it was the grace of God.
In our parable Jesus tells us that “when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” This might be considered something similar to starting a long journey by automobile with a nearly empty gas tank.
But to be fair, I think that there are two kinds of foolishness.
I think that we might be said to be foolish when we do not plan for the obvious. But second, we can be made to LOOK foolish when we are not prepared for an expected turn of events.
It would appear, therefore, that there may be three kinds of people with respect to preparation: those who seem to be almost never prepared, those who are prepared, but only for the expected, and those who seem to be prepared for almost anything.
So do the so-called “foolish bridesmaids” fit into one of these categories? Obviously, at this point in the parable, we need more evidence.
But Jesus goes on to tell us that “the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” And one thing is obvious here. Those who took the flasks of oil are more wise that those who did not, because they are better prepared for contingencies.
But I think that it is important here to be careful of how we speak of wisdom and foolishness. In this one respect, the taking of the oil, I would contend that we see only relative wisdom.
In fact, I don’t believe that there IS such a person who is totally prepared for everything. We can only seek to be prepared, and pray for God’s grace in meeting our shortcomings.
And I do believe that as we seek to be prepared in our lives, and as we go to God for help, God will help us. Life is too complicated for us to do it all on our own. There are too many possibilities for things to go wrong for us to be able to anticipate them all.
But to return to our story, we discover something does indeed go awry in the plans of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom. the bridegroom is delayed. Now, on the one hand, we can look at this and say, “Big deal! A simple matter of delay is not a thing to be prepared for.”
But on the other hand, I might argue that a simple delay can create all kinds of other problems for us.
In my work with a newspaper, in which forty pages needed to be assembled each week by three o’clock every Friday afternoon, I learned to live with a world in a constant state of delay.
And I learned usually to expect delays as normally as I would expect the on-schedule events. But I am not alone in doing this. All of us have similar experiences, and we learn to develop ways of adjusting, of coping, so that disruptions in our lives can be manageable.
But all of this is extremely minor when we consider the most significant delay in the history of the world, the delay of the return of Jesus Christ. And it is this delay that I believe this parable is all about.
But in the parable, we learn that “As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.” We must assume, therefore, that they all consider themselves totally prepared for his arrival, that nothing further needs to be done but wait.
Don’t we wish that we could handle all our delays that easily? Well, we really can’t. And the bridesmaids without the additional oil prove the point. They are assuming that he’s going to show up any minute, and they really are not prepared for a long wait.
Then, the bridegroom finally shows up. “But at midnight there was a shout. “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Now, we don’t know how long the bridesmaids have been waiting, but we do know that it is the middle of the night, and we do know that they will be needing their lamps. “Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.” And this is the moment of truth. This is what they’ve all been waiting for and preparing themselves for. But it is also a point of revelation and discovery. It is a test of how well they have prepared themselves.
At this point, it is revealed to them whether their preparations were adequate. They discover in that revelation who they have been in moving toward this moment.
And we can put ourselves in the place of those maidens at those times in our lives when we re-discover Jesus Christ. Our past, our preparations, are truly revealed to us; and we discover who we really are. It is as if we have been asleep, and we are awakened to ourselves and our relationship to our God.
But in this parable, the foolish are separated from the wise. “The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” And we recognize that the preparations of the foolish had been inadequate.
But we can also recognize that the foolish had the time for making additional preparations, but instead slept that time away. Of course, we can argue that the wise were sleeping along with the foolish, so should we not find fault with them also? I don’t think so. I would suggest that the sleep of the wise is a sleep earned for their labors in preparation; while the sleep of the foolish and the unprepared has not yet been earned.
But let us go one step further to look upon the lamps as symbols, and we may be seeing the foolish as asking of the wise, “Give us of your visions, that we may see; for our visions have grown dim.”
And as a last-minute request of the foolish, we see fully revealed the darkness of the world without God, the world of those who have not prepared themselves.
And how do the wise respond? “But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” Now, I think we need to ask, Is this selfishness? I don’t think so.
If I were told that some of the bridesmaids were wealthy while others were poor, or if I were told that some had more time for the preparation than others, I might interpret this differently; but I see the bridesmaids on equal footing, with equal resources of money and time.
But notice also that the wise bridesmaids are saying that they are unsure that there will be enough oil for each of them if it is redistributed among all of them. Therefore, I think it appropriate that the foolish be told to go buy their own.
“And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.”
Now, I must admit that I have some trouble with the image of God closing the door on us. Because I don’t believe that really happens. In the parable the shutting of the door symbolically marks the beginning of the celebration of the marriage feast, and it symbolically marks the exclusion of those who are making last-ditch superficial attempts at preparation for the occasion. In fact, I think that folks often close the door on themselves. For example, there are those who do not feel a part of the church. But they are usually those who seldom participate in the activities of the church and seldom involve themselves in the concerns of the other members of the congregation.
God has not closed the door; they’ve done the job themselves.
But in our parable, “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” What are we to make of this? Does this contradict what I just said? I don’t think so. And I believe that they key word here is “open.”
When church members want the church to be “open” to them, they sometimes forget that openness works both ways. God can only be open to us if we are open to God. If we seek only superficial, last-ditch efforts at getting inside that door, it will be closed.
When we move beyond the superficial, when we truly dedicate ourselves, we find that door opening. The foolish maidens want the Lord to open his door to them when they have not truly opened their doors to him.
And I think this is well-stated by the bridegroom: “But he replied, “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.” Does God know us? Have we given God the opportunity to know us? Have we demonstrated to God that we are faithfully making our preparations for feasting with God, or are we half-heartedly on the journey? If we have difficulty with understanding all of this, perhaps we should examine how we know other people and how other people know us. Are we only on the surface of one another’s lives, or do we truly involve ourselves?
Do we involve ourselves in caring for one another, or does the involvement cease when there is nothing in it for ourselves?
There are those who believe that they can buy the friendship of others, and there are those who believe they can buy the fellowship of the church. But no one truly knows them. They are foolish bridesmaids off buying oil for the lamps while the marriage feast has begun.
Finally, Jesus concludes by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” But I would go further. I would say, “Keep awake therefore, for every day and every hour God is with us.” It is only in believing this way that we can be fully ready and fully prepared for God. For me, God is not an event in the possibly far distant future, but a presence on my immediate journey. It is that presence that causes me to continually question how I carry on my life.
I know that I cannot wait until tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year to run a checklist to determine whether I’m ready for God.
I may not be ready, but I know that I must be in the process of getting ready, and the example and redemptive power of Jesus Christ serves to lead me in that process.
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