St. Paul’s – Proper 27 – November 8
The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this, Jesus said, and he told the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. I have to tell you, I hope the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be one big wedding reception. That feeling of mine might be something of an occupational hazard. So with all due respect to the weddings I have officiated at, the weddings I will do, the weddings in preparation now, the Kingdom of Heaven yet to come, and the glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven now—it better be more than beautiful attire, an open bar, and forever dancing to the song Shout!
Questions have always come to mind about this parable: why do the bridesmaids have to bring their own light to a wedding reception? Why are the “wise” bridesmaids stingy and mean? Why doesn’t the groom show up for his own wedding until midnight? Why does the bride — whoever she is — put up with such a ridiculous delay? Where even is the bride in this story? And why, after keeping his poor bridesmaids waiting for hours, does the groom blame them for lateness — and shut his door in their faces?
If you treat this parable as an allegory, you drain all the meaning out of it. You can squeeze it so tight that every detail means something; squeeze it until there’s not much life left to it. That Jesus is the bridegroom, that the maidens represent the church, that the banquet is the Kingdom, that the closed door is Final Judgement, that the delay of the bridegroom is the Second Coming. Well, if the Kingdom is all really about a wedding, if the Kingdom will be exactly like a wedding, then the delay of the bridegroom isn;’t about the Second Coming of Jesus, it’s just all about the photographer. Who are we kidding? When Jesus begins with the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this, it’s not the wedding that draws me in.
The core of the parable, the focus of the story, the creative center, the plot turn, it all has to do with the oil. It really is all about the oil. All ten maidens were ready for the ball. All ten had to wait. All of them became drowsy. All of them slept. All of them heard the shout. All of them got up and lit their lamps. These ancient lamps didn’t a lot of oil oil to begin with. The burning life of a lamp, the length of a burn, would not have been a secret to anyone. The wise ones took a flask of oil along with to keep the fire burning. It wasn’t gallons, but it was enough; enough for the wait, enough for the party, enough for the day, enough for the night. As one preacher put it, it’s not about how much oil you have, it’s about how much you carry with you. It is all about the oil.
When it comes to the history of interpretation of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens, in the history of an allegorical approach, the oil has been understood as good works, faith, spiritual practices, deeds of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. Hearers of the Word shouldn’t be asked to pick one. You drill down too far on the oil, you get too specific about what it means, and the parable loses some of its luster. What sets the wise apart from the foolish is not simply that they act on the teachings of Jesus. The parable goes deeper than the Epistle of James. It’s not all about the works. It’s about the oil. The wise draw upon the resource necessary to live the faith-filled life today, tonight, and tomorrow. The oil? Is it faith? Is it faith practices? Is it deeds of discipleship? Is it acts of love and mercy? The answer is yes. All mixed with a bit of grace and the Holy Spirit, a bit of fellowship and praise and a whole lot of prayer. A kingdom life. Yes, they all had to wait for the bridegroom to come, but when the lamps were trimmed, their light had to shine right then and there, right now.
I stood in line at the grocery store a couple of weeks ago behind a woman who was reading a magazine she picked up there at the checkout. The person working the register greeted her, and she said nothing, just kept reading. She held out her card to be scanned without looking up. After all her purchases had gone through, the clerk reached for the magazine to ring it up. Oh no, I’m not buying this, I’m just reading it, she said, without looking up. All of her groceries were bagged while she read. She waited for her receipt with her hand inn the air, still reading. The cashier said, Thank you, she said nothing. Never even looked at the cashier. Just walked away, back around the register, still reading, to put the magazine back. Someone should have tapped her on the shoulder and asked, Have you not had your grace today? A little dose of kindness. An act of generosity. A warm greeting. It all starts with being claimed by grace: God’s grace for each and every day. Good works, faith, spiritual practices, deeds of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. A life of faith-filled generosity…it can only start by you being claimed by God’s grace. The oil you carry. A spark of grace. A light that shines. Just a dose of grace, every day.
In the novel Gilead, the father and preacher and narrator of the text that is in the form of a letter to his son is Rev. Ames. At one point, Rev. Ames tells of standing in the sanctuary one Sunday morning after everyone had left the building. The elements were still on the altar and the candles were still burning, he writes. Your mother brought you up to me [in her arms] and said, You ought to give him some of that. (This referring to the bread and wine there on the table.) You’re too young, of course, but she was completely right. Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you. Your solemn and beautiful child face lifted up to receive these mysteries at my hand. They are the most wonderful mystery… Just a dose of grace.
Your faith filled life today, tonight and tomorrow. Good works, faith, spiritual practices, deeds of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. Now. Right now. Not their light, or his light or her light, not your grandmother’s light, or your child’s light, or your neighbor’s light. Your light, today, tonight, and tomorrow. A spark of grace and your Kingdom life that shines.
Maybe the lesson of this parable is: don’t allow your fear or your sense of inadequacy to keep you away from the party. With whatever amount of oil you have, be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and half-baked. The groom delights in you — not in your lamp. Not in the amount of oil you have. Your light doesn’t have to dazzle. Remember, God created light. God is light. And Jesus is the light of the world. Your half-empty flask of oil isn’t the point. You are. So stay.
I think it is important to remember that scarcity isn’t a thing in God’s kingdom. I’m not sure what it will take for us Christians to live fully into the abundance of God. But it’s clear that our assumptions about scarcity are killing us. We’re so afraid of emptiness, we worship excess. We’re so worried about opening our doors too wide, we shut them tight. We’re so obsessed with our own rightness before God, we forget that “rightness” divorced from love is always wrong. We live in dread that there won’t be enough to spare. Enough grace. Enough freedom. Enough forgiveness. Enough mercy. Somehow, we would rather shove people into the dark than give up the illusion of our own brightness.
What would it be like to stop? To stop all of this? What would it be like to care more about the emptiness in our neighbor’s flask than the brimming fullness of our own?
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, Matthew’s Jesus said after the parable was finished. That’s kind of odd, since the wise, along with the foolish fell asleep. If it’s all about the oil, make sure you carry enough with you for today, tonight, and tomorrow. Show up and live the life that Jesus teaches right now. AMEN
Invitation to the Offering
Listen to what the prophet Amos had to say about “Stewardship.”
Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream.
In other words, what we give to God in worship needs to be a reflection of what is happening in our lives. Are justice and righteousness part of our daily walk, or are we merely making a show of our faith? Ponder that as you return to the Lord what God has entrusted into your hands. Don’t just think about it, pray it…
You have trusted us with a great abundance,
O God. You have blessed us with immeasurable gifts.
Not only do we bring our tithes and offerings to the table.
We also bring our whole lives
asking that you would sanctify us and our gifts
for the work of your Holy Kingdom.
We have sung psalms
and spiritual songs
among ourselves this morning,
singing and making melody to the Lord
in our hearts.
Our giving thanks to God the Father for everything
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
continues on beyond this brief time together.
As we head forth,
remember the call and the promise
of that early Christian baptismal hymn:
“Awake, O Sleeper!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”