“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” William Blake ca. 1800. Public Domain.
Matthew 25:1-13 1‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In general, humans are not very good at waiting. If you have had children or been around children, you’ve noticed that we do not come preloaded with patience or calmness when we need something.
Some of us have been taught or learned to be more patient over the years, and some of us have not. Regardless, the idea of waiting probably makes us feel a little squeamish and evokes images of standing in a line at the DMV or watching the coffee maker take it’s good old time as it slowly percolates this morning’s coffee.
The great theologian Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers tell us that:
The waiting is the hardest part Every day you see one more card You take it on faith, you take it to the heart The waiting is the hardest part
In many ways, 2020 has been a lesson or ordeal on waiting, as we’ve longed for better news about the pandemic, have waited to see family and friends, or have waited to return to work. We’ve entered the bonus round this last week as the election took place, but several states are still counting ballots. And even when all the votes are counted, there is a strong chance that we will endure recounts, and court hearings before it’s all sorted.
What makes waiting so tricky is that it can make us feel powerless. We wait for the results of a medical test and can’t do anything to ensure a positive outcome. We wait as the mechanic diagnoses the problem with our car, knowing that the fix could be expensive. We wait for the healing of a relationship, knowing that such things are not in our control.
Our gospel passage for this Sunday is another of Jesus’ parables. This one deals with waiting.
If you remember, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employed parables or stories to teach an important lesson about the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s new way. The early readers of this gospel believed that Jesus Christ would return soon once and for all, overthrowing the foreign occupation and righting all wrongs. But now, near the end of the first century, the gospel’s earliest audience has begun questioning that belief. It’s been a generation or more since these stories took place, and the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better. What is Jesus waiting for? Why are people still suffering? Were we wrong about Jesus altogether?
So, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding. The bridegroom is set to arrive at some time in the evening, but the exact time is unknown. Friends of the bride have been commissioned to keep watch and keep their lamps on so they can both recognize the bridegroom and his party when they arrive and so they can bring the bridegroom to the place of celebration.
Some of the bridesmaids come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event the groom doesn’t arrive until early in the morning. Others do not bring extra oil, so when the wedding party comes at midnight, they have to run out to buy more fuel for their lamps. In doing so, they miss the arrival and the festivities altogether.
Waiting on Jesus was a serious issue among the early Christ-followers all over the Mediterranean world in the mid to late first century. Several of Paul’s letters address this issue, and it is apparent in the book of Acts that this issue divided some of the church’s early leaders.
It appears that some of these early followers were so convinced that Jesus would return and fix the world soon and very soon, that they sold all they had, and simply waited, in ideal. As time wore on, and Jesus did not return in the way they imagined, communities of faith were stretched thin to support their brothers and sisters who were now destitute. Those that were so sure of Jesus’ return had become a financial burden to their communities.
Matthew still believes that Jesus will return triumphantly, but he sees waiting as an activity, something that does more than standing around, waiting for Jesus to return and fix a broken world. Jesus’ message in this parable, then, is to remain prepared by doing those things that you’ve been commissioned to do. Just as the wise bridesmaids prepared for the possibility of a long night and then got to participate in the festivities, early Christians were to prepare themselves for a late-arriving savior, knowing that their work would be essential and allow them to participate in a better world.
I wonder if this parable gives us some insight into our hopes and desires as we wait for a better world. Are we wasting time, holding on to the hope that the pandemic will simply lift, and everything will be back to normal soon and very soon? Or are we finding ways to remain healthy and still connected, busy by caring for ourselves and others in gracious and hard-working ways? Because what we do now matters, and it is essential to be good to yourself and gracious with others right now.
What about the election? Did we were doing our part simply by casting our vote? Did we drive ourselves a little crazy this week pressing the refresh button over and over on the CNN website, or have Fox News on 24 hours a day? Or did we go about our lives, offering prayers and kindness, love, and goodness, as we brought a little light to those in our grasp?
Are we waiting on the world to change, to be more loving and just, more peaceful and civil, more sustainable and inclusive, or are we actually participants in the changing of a world that cries out for something better?
As we wait, for the end of a pandemic, for election results, for a better world, may we wait actively. There’s work to do, essential work, and no reason to be ideal. For the love of God and all of God’s creation. Amen.