Based on 1 Thess. 4:13-18 and Mt. 25:1-13
Among the things for which Jesus is known—and there are a few! — he is known to have taught uniquely with parables. His method was unique because parables could have many dimensions of meaning. Jesus meant them to “crack open” the hearer’s imagination. Indeed, he meant them to engage a person’s or a community’s own history so not only to stimulate imagination, but to illumine the very presence of the reign of God.
Parables intend to be new sightings of God in our lives, and so also, they are prompts for deep reflection about our own lives. Parables are potent with new revelations for any people at any time.
So, even if we are now celebrative, I don’t find it comforting that the bridesmaids’ math of 50/50 meets us today in a country politically divided at 50/50 +/-. The uncomfortable correspondence involves not only of a great divide between the foolish and the prepared. In the parable itself one can see a complicated hostility, and not only of one binary set.
Put aside for the moment the implicit misogyny in this parable of the bridesmaids. Not only is it about the foolish and the wise. Not only is it a scout slogan that we should “be prepared” to the nth spiritual degree. Implied also are the haves and have nots, for which there could be many reasons. Half are well-supplied and the other half don’t even have storage flasks. Half depend on the kindness of midnight dealers. The other half, for whatever reason of necessity or spite, are not generous at all. There is a door open and a door shut; opportunity taken and lost; “wokeness” and relative apathy; lives alert if still sleepy, and lives anesthetized to the electric excitement embedded in every moment.
Are not the prospects of God’s presence to us presented similarly? And are we not similarly divided? Somewhat more than half the country wants to see government serve God’s purposes of serving “the least” among us. Somewhat less than other half just wants government to leave them alone. Hardest for me, frankly, are the half who consider themselves to be good people, even “Christian” people, but are more afraid of losing comfort, position, and power than they are of harming the least among us. And, yes, I am disheartened too by the half and slightly more of us who claim meritocracy more than grace, but in our happier spirit after so long a resisting wait, we easily brush broadly the other half as fools while we pride ourselves for our wisdom. But note this. There is no indication whatsoever in the parable that the so-called wise bridesmaids were innocent.
It does seem to me that the 10 bridesmaids did not play well together and surely did not regard each other highly. And the framing is of the parable’s telling is oh so important. Jesus told this parable to his disciples. Why them? Were half on the front side of the grading curve and the others, well, quickly sliding? Was Matthew recalling Jesus’ parable so to address division in his own congregation or a certain lassitude, familiar today in advocates of cheap grace; or worse, a kind of nurtured spiritual glaucoma that clouds the very sight of God only six feet away? In just waiting and waiting and waiting for promises finally to fulfill, do we lose the character of alert joy in the waiting?
Worse, in our own experience of waiting and waiting and waiting, have we slowly morphed into personas other than who God created us to be? Are we now other than who we were when we received the wedding invitation? Are we different from then to such a degree that the one who invited us now claims no familiarity? If the bridegroom who invited us now does not recognize half of us,—and now I’m speaking of the revelation of the truth of God through the most surprising figures, like women who were so rarely given voice and credibility back in that day—if the bridegroom who invited us quite intentionally by name, like the name given in baptism, does not recognize us, is the matter that he might not recognize us his fault?
The parable shakes our biases toward privilege. It calls us to deeper sincere self-awareness as much as it calls us to the delighting awareness of God with us. It calls us to get our eyes and our heads and our hearts checked; to do regular maintenance not just so that our batteries are charged or our tanks are full. Jesus also asks us about the quality of the oil. Surely our flasks are not to be filled with the tear gas of hate and division and retribution. The oil for this wedding party burns clean and lights the world into the joy of seeing God in each other.
Half the bridesmaids knew they had to be ready for the Lord. Half figured they could just coast. That arithmetic applies to so much, like to climate change, for example. Well more than half know of that exigency. But America’s 4.29% of the world’s population chokes the globe’s seas and lands with 26% of the world’s plastic pollution. I rarely see anyone at the check-out counters of HEB or Kroger’s caring about that. And back to religion in politics, would even half of us admit that an occasional MAGA person might convey God to us and the other half affirm that God is with the suffering, the losers, and the humble? Cannot both halves agree that 100% of us are both saint and sinner, and God calls us to live the higher expectations of the Beatitudes, that thereby we could and would see God more clearly in each other and even in ourselves?.
We never know when God might show up clearly because actually we are too used to being 50/50 inside ourselves. Which is to say, we never know when God might show up clearly because God is with us all the time and it is our vacuity of spiritual wokeness that leads us to such silly literalism of Jesus “coming again” as on clouds with flying horses and maybe even a levitating throne. That language is necessary drama for the impoverished soul. It is wine and bread and oily salve for the suffering, for those who have waited so long in resistance, so long under the hard boot of an oppressor; so long suffering others’ apathy at COVID, too long unemployed as a down-chain consequence of COVID; too long suffering in any way, including the unnumbered many newly suffering a devasting personal diagnosis. The drama of scripture, whether parable or apocalyptic, is important precisely because it addresses our suffering and our worry, which is much more holy than a literalist’s misuse of Thessalonians as a blueprint for egotists still striving for control of God’s business.
The rapture that God will have us know is waits for all of us at the divine wedding feast. So let the language of true faith in this way, as at a party. Let praise go wild with grace and imagination! Let it flower and pop and resonate through all the chambers of dulled minds so to awaken sharply to God with us! Each of us is maybe 50/50 foolish and wise. Sometimes, of course, the differential is blessedly or dangerously unbalanced. But at our best, as we wish, oh we so wish, we are prepared to see Christ among us and to declare his presence as a wedding party for the world.
I have hope amid the terrible and hopeful prognoses of persons and politics, because the risen and reigning Christ gives us overflowing reason to fill our lamps. With what do we fill them? With humility, truth, hope, kindness, and the love that can come only from God. And there are new ways for that wonderfully and surprisingly to happen even in the somberness of the human dusk. Even at midnight, at the darkest moment, by God’s strange wisdom, an oddly timed party, but a party nonetheless, can be had, because, in Christ, promise-ladened joy can accompany the deepest lament.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX November 8, 2020