Most of us have been to a wedding, and many of us have been in a wedding. I’ve been a groom, a groomsman, usher, and co-best man. I’ve also officiated at a few weddings. Like most pastors who have officiated at a weddings or two, I have stories to tell. Most of these weddings went well, though I did have a wedding where the bride almost went up in flames. There was the time when the wedding was delayed when the bridal party was an hour late because one of the brides maids got sick on the way to the church. I don’t have too many horror stories, but there are plenty of them out there. I can say this, however, I’ve never been to a wedding where a group of bridesmaids got locked out of the church.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, we again find Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. It’s still Monday of Holy Week, and he’s teaching the people about the coming kingdom of heaven. As Jesus often did, he told short stories that raised as many questions as they answered. This parable focuses on ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the coming of a groom, who is delayed. The parable seems fairly straightforward, at least at first glance. But maybe it’s more complicated than it looks.
Sometimes Jesus will start off by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like . . . ” You get the feeling that the realm of God is already present. But this parable is different. Jesus uses the words: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” This is a forward-looking parable. It reminds us that while the realm of God is with us, it isn’t fully revealed. In fact, the kingdom we’ve been praying for might be delayed just a bit.
In this parable “ten bridesmaids,” or more literally the “ten virgins, go out to meet the bridegroom. They take lamps with them to light the way to the wedding banquet. It was often customary in that day for bridesmaids or virgins to accompany the groom to the wedding site. It appears that they were ready to do their job, but the groom was delayed. As the night wore on, they got sleepy, and all ten fell asleep. These are human beings, after all. Then, in the middle of the night, a shout rang out, letting the women know that the groom was coming. So get ready to welcome him. Light your lamps so you can accompany him to the wedding banquet. It’s an exciting moment, except that five of the virgins didn’t bring extra oil with them, and so their lamps go dark. They ask the other five to share, but the wise virgins refuse. Maybe there’s only enough for them. According to Jesus, one group was ready, and he calls them wise. The other group wasn’t ready, and Jesus calls them foolish. The wise bridesmaids told their foolish companions to go to a 24-hour convenience store to see if they could get more oil for their lamps. That is if they could find a store open at that time of the night. But by the time they find a store and fill up their lamps, the groom has come and gone, accompanied by the five virgins who were prepared for this moment. As for the foolish bridesmaids, they tried to get in, but were turned away. They knocked on the door to the wedding banquet, as only Sheldon Cooper could, and cried out, hoping the groom would open the door. But the banquet had started, and they were locked out.
It’s an intriguing story, but what does it mean for us? What does Jesus want us to hear? What does Matthew want us to hear? When it comes to the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, what does it mean to stay awake because the hour and the day of its arrival is not known?
There are a couple of important elements in this story we need to take note of. It’s good to remember that none of these ten women stayed awake the entire time. They all fell asleep. So, this isn’t a word about being on a constant vigil. It does appear that the groom is a bit unpredictable. We know he’s coming. We just don’t know when. Five of the women seem to understand this truth, and so they bring along extra oil. The other five seemed to be of the opinion that they could predict the hour of his arrival, and so they didn’t bring extra supplies. Perhaps the foolish bridesmaids were a bit presumptuous to think that they could figure out just when the groom would arrive. While we might want the five wise virgins to share oil with the other five, this isn’t a story about sharing. It’s a story about expectations and making preparations for an unknown future. That seems to be what Jesus wants us to hear. Be prepared. Know that timing is everything. You don’t know when the wedding banquet will start, so be ready at all times. Otherwise, you might get locked out of the banquet. If you bang on the door, and cry out “Lord, Lord, open to us,” that won’t help your cause. The groom will simply say: “I do not know you.” These words sound harsh. They carry with them a sense of judgment that many of us find disturbing, but here they are, on the lips of Jesus.
We know that the earliest Christians expected the kingdom of God to come quickly. Some of them may have lost hope when the return of Christ was delayed. We see this fear present in Paul’s letters. He had to assure the Corinthians that they hadn’t missed the resurrection when they witnessed the deaths of church members. He had to tell the Thessalonian church to come down off the mountain and go to work, because the hour of Jesus’ return was unknown and might be delayed. Jesus reminds us to keep an extra bottle of oil handy, so our lamps won’t run dry. Expect the unexpected. Keep the flame kindled!
It’s easy to lose hope during difficult and challenging times, like the ones we’re experiencing right now. There is a lot of fear and anger and anguish in our midst. People wonder, where is God in all of this? As the flame of hope begins to flicker and go out, we may wonder whether we’ve missed something important. The world around us seems dark and foreboding. Stories about sexual assault by powerful men and shootings in churches disturb our faith. We know that Jesus promised to bring the realm of God into our midst, but where is it?
We’re not the first people to ask this question. We just commemorated the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. People were asking a similar question during that age, and Martin Luther was a firm believer that he was living in the last days. When will the kingdom come in its fullness? That is the question we seem to be asking, and Jesus simply says to us—stay prepared. Have an extra bottle of oil on hand, so you’ll be ready when the realm comes in its fullness.
Be prepared. Be patient. Good words to take to heart, at least until something occurs like last Sunday’s shooting-spree at a Baptist Church in a small town in southern Texas? That little church isn’t much different in size than ours. If an active shooter came into this room, we could do very little to stop it. It is easy to lose faith—to be distracted from the gospel of Jesus—when things like this happen. We may begin to wonder if God’s realm will ever come into existence. We might decide to take matters into our hands, and make choices that run counter to the Gospel. That happens when our oil reserves get low.
I read messages on Facebook and Twitter this past week that suggested that prayers are irrelevant. After all, this massacre took place in a church. The people who died were gathered for prayer and worship. What about the people who were murdered in a Charleston, South Carolina church, while they gathered for prayer? I agree that action is needed, but is prayer really irrelevant? The voices I heard after Charleston and after Sutherland Springs were words of faith and trust and hope. Yes, the people grieve, but they also put their trust in God. They had oil in their lamps.
John Buchanan, the former publisher of the Christian Century writes of the parable:
The point is living expectantly and hopefully. Christian hope rests on trust that the God who created the world will continue to love the world with gentle providence, and will continue the process of creation until the project is complete, and will continue to redeem and save the world by coming into it with love and grace in Jesus Christ. [Feasting on the Word, p. 286]
The wise virgins were prepared with extra oil to light their lamps when the time came to greet the groom, and go into the wedding banquet. Since they had sufficient oil in their lamps, they could continue to live in hope that God’s realm will come and break into their lives, bringing peace and wholeness to creation. May that be our posture, as we continue the vigil, waiting patiently for God to reveal the realm of God in its fullness.