Be Prepared! Before we start quoting the Boy Scouts motto, being prepared is useful, but not always possible. Perhaps these five foolish bridesmaids were unprepared, or maybe they had more to do than the other five so-called wise bridesmaids. And these wise bridesmaids were not so good at sharing their oil. Isn’t that the essence of the Gospel? Love your neighbor as yourself, give a cup of cold water in my name. Have a heart, and share your oil. And what about the bridegroom shutting them out and saying he did not even in know them? That’s a high price for a lack of preparedness. I have bad dreams about a lack of readiness, like losing my sermon, , not studying for the biology exam, forget my pants. On the other hand, my prepared side gets tired of always bailing out the unprepared. How will they ever learn if I always bail them out? Fortune may favor the prepared, and yet how many of life’s major events can you really prepare?
Weddings take so much preparation today, many couples would rather elope. Jeanne did a great job preparing for our wedding, and then life happened. Setting a wedding date is complicated. We had kids going off to college, Jeanne’s parents and sister lived in Switzerland, and flights were booked months in advance. And my ex-wife was diagnosed with cancer. What do you do in the face of the unknown?
As her condition worsened, we had to arrange for possibly taking in my two sons, who were 14 and 13 at the time. We started adding a room in the basement, and noticed a leak in the ceiling. Turns out the builder installed the wrong tub and shower combo, and had put the window in upside down, creating a leak that threated the collapse of the entire corner of the house. The short story is the builder went out of business (what a shock!), a crane was involved, and the cost $20,000 totally blew our wedding budget.
Tragically, my ex-wife died two months before the wedding, my kids moved into the unfinished basement, and yet we forged ahead. I’ll leave the emotional complications to your imagination. Somehow the construction was finished the week of the wedding, one son chose to come to the wedding and one didn’t, family arrived from Iowa to Switzerland, and a thunderstorm rolled in making our tent in the backyard look very vulnerable.
But the rains held off and things moved forward, and while the pastor spoke, it was the first time I had exhaled in about four months. It was finally happening, and Jeanne was there with her beautiful smile. For 30 seconds, I left the crowd and had of timeless awareness. You could call it an epiphany, a God sighting. I saw a bee darting in and out of flowers, just another day on the job. I watched the bee, moving in slow motion in this time warp. I could hear its buzz, and my mind forgot the crowd or the pastor. I was in my own mystical time zone. And all I could think was that I was incredibly happy to be alive and have a partner in life. For a moment, the collapsing bathroom, grieving children, and thunderstorm and whatever else would happen did not matter. This moment mattered, and life was moving on, and all would be well even though it was chaotic.
Like many of the most important moments of my life, this was unplanned, more of a visitation than an accomplishment. So I am not ready to dismiss these five bridesmaids as foolish because they weren’t prepared with enough oil. After all, wasn’t Hannakuh the miracle that the lamps kept burning after the oil ran out? The irony here is that I am a planner by nature, but that only makes me aware of how feeble human planning really is. As the African proverb says, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.” You can’t always be on top of every possible detail or outcome. Is there something deeper going on here in the parable?
An important point we noted in Bible Study last Monday is when the bridegroom shows up in the parable, all of the bridesmaids have fallen asleep. None of the 10 stayed awake. In context, Jesus had just delivered the admonition in the last chapter to keep awake, for no one knew the day he would come again. And the last verse in this reading repeats, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13) In the very next chapter of Matthew, Jesus is at Gethsemane, urging his disciples to stay awake with him while he prays. But every one of them falls asleep. It appears to me that Matthew is foreshadowing the reality in this parable. We can’t be ready for everything, and we will all fail at some important moment. We can’t be always awake. We are not “woke” about everything, all the time. We will miss the big moment. We may not foresee how long real change takes. Nevertheless, we persist.
Matthew may be preparing his reader to stay focused and engaged even as history takes its own sweet time. Many of his readers were expecting the kingdom of heaven to break forth at any moment, expecting a second coming of Jesus, some were not even marrying as they waited for the Jesus as their bridegroom. The great Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by a Roman army just two decades before and they were waiting for a divine intervention to bring about a new world. They were impatient. Where is God? What isn’t change happening faster? When things take a long time, we all get sleepy. We wait and we become disillusioned. And we stop checking to make sure we have enough oil.
In other biblical passages, the oil lamp is an important symbol for faith and persistence. At the center of the holiest of the holy places, the ancient Hebrews kept a lamp burning constantly, their eternal flame and vigilance in faith. They kept the flame lit in the tent while traveling in the wilderness, and carried the flame into the first Temple. A group of priests had the sole responsibility for keeping this eternal flame lit and preserved through the centuries. 10 times in the Psalms and Proverbs there are verses about how the righteous must keep their flame lit in all circumstances. Psalm 119, which is long ode to the importance of continually studying scriptures and meditating on the ways of God, says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world.” Imagine that. You are part of this eternal flame. It’s not just in the temple being tended by the priests. “You are the light of the world, so let your light shine so all may see the glory of God. Put it on a lamp stand, set it on a hill, don’t hide your light under a bushel.”
I think these scriptures help us see the parable of these 10 bridesmaids in a different light. Each of you has a part to play in work of God in the world. Your little light helps increase the illumination of goodness, of justice, of love. Don’t let the value of your light be determined by your current circumstances. You might be anxious and afraid. You might not feel well, or you are weary of the burden you are under. You might be sick and tired of being sick and tired. The corner of your house might be collapsing, your wallet may seem too small to handle your size of your credit card. When you read the morning headlines you may feel like giving up hope. These are the times to tend your flame. Check your oil. Get more candles, buy batteries, make sure your matches are dry. Keep your light shining. Pray, be kind, don’t forget the sunrises and sunsets, be grateful and generous, write that letter to your elected official, show up, stay plugged in.
The spirituals sung by slaves really capture the spirit of the parable. Songs like:
“Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burning.”
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”
And here is the one we are going to sing next:
“Keep your lamp, trimmed and burning.”
You will notice in the hymnal note that this song is full of code words for the Underground Railroad. Two of the four verses were about climbing Jacob’s ladder, which was often a symbol for escaping and getting North. This is not a song about trying to be a good person so you can get into heaven. It is sung as a reminder to keep your dignity, keep your faith, don’t lose hope. Be prepared so when the chance comes for freedom, you must leave and take it right then. Run with all your might, and when you hear Harriet Tubman whispering in the night, you find her and grab her hand and go. So keep your lamps trimmed and burning.