I have a couple of different recurring dreams, which, I’ve discovered, other people have in various versions. One recurring theme is the “I’m not prepared” dream. One version is, I’m walking in the halls of my school, trying to remember where my science classroom is, because I know I have an exam today. The problem is, I don’t remember going to class or doing any of the reading. I think I can remember who my teacher is, but I don’t know any of the material and I know I can’t fake it. I usually wake up before I find the classroom. The other version of this dream must tap into some long-repressed aspect of myself, because in this one, I’m a cheerleader again, and either invited back to an alumni reunion pep rally, or just invited as a former cheerleader to join in leading the cheers. The problem is, of course, I didn’t come to any of the practices and I don’t know any of the cheers. A more current version of the dream is not being able to find all the things I know I’ll need to go to an event, and someone is waiting for me in the car. I’m not prepared.
Does anyone else have that “I’m not prepared” dream, or nightmare, as it sometimes is?
So we probably should have issued a “trigger warning” before reading today’s parable from Matthew about the 10 bridesmaids. “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this,” we are told. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. [Other ancient authorities add, and the bride.] Five of them were foolish , and five were wise.” The five were foolish because they didn’t bring extra flasks of oil for their lamps AND because they underestimated just how long it would take the bridegroom [and maybe the bride] to get there. Who knew it would take so long?
That’s what Matthew’s community was thinking–Who knew it would take so long for Jesus to return in glory and bring an end to all their trials? So Matthew adds this parable in the midst of Jesus’ late-in-life apocalyptic parables, in the midst of the tales of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and being thrown into the outer darkness. “Keep awake therefore,” he has Jesus say, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
It’s all a little ragged. After all, the wise maidens didn’t keep awake. All ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep (just like Jesus’ disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when he told them to stay awake). And is this the Bridegroom –capital B–that we’re supposed to be waiting for? Mark Davis cautions against making this parable into an allegory, where every character stands for someone else. “I have to say this bridegroom simply can’t be an image for God,” he says.
“God the lurker; God the waiter-until-some-people’s-oil-is-spent; God the ‘Gotcha Master’; God the forgetful–these are such unworthy ways of imagining God.” [Davis, leftbehindandlovingit. blogspot.com/2017/11]
The word used for “foolish” here is morai in Greek, from which we get our word, moron. No one is surprised that they weren’t prepared and so miss out when the bridegroom arrives. But it’s easy to point fingers when most of the time our own efforts have been sufficient, we’ve done our homework, gone to the practices, we’ve been prepared. But what about those situations when no amount of preparation is enough? What if a Category 4 hurricane slams into your home, like it did in Puerto Rico? Who’s prepared for those kinds of winds? Or what if a mad man walks into your church service and starts mowing people down, looking straight into the faces of the children as he shoots them? How do you prepare for something like that? Is the kingdom of heaven only for people who are “prepared”?
Maybe the bridesmaids–all of them–were foolish because they assumed that the oil in their own lamps was the most important thing, so 5 of them ran off in the middle of the night, just when the moment they’d been waiting for arrived and they weren’t there to do their part. The other 5, who had brought spare flasks of oil, were so proud of themselves that they clenched their fists and refused to share. They had bought into the scarcity mode–there’s only so much to go around, and I’ve got mine. While “their lamps were lit, their vision was limited,” as one commentator points out. [Audrey West, The Christian Century, 10/9/17] She also wonders if they didn’t diminish the wedding party itself. Would 5 full-strength lamps, with enough oil to burn beyond the time of entrance, necessarily have lit the pathway better than 10 lamps for just enough time? And what might those 5 extra maidens given admission to the party have added to the atmosphere? Imagine all 10 walking in together, instead of just 5. They all acted as if what they could buy was the most important thing.
The theme of our Stewardship Campaign this year is “Living Generously–the Way of Jesus.” We cannot judge Matthew or his community for their fear and concern about the apparent delay in Jesus’ return. The harshness and brutality of their images reflected the desperate times in which they lived. We have to lock the door. We have throw those who might betray us out into the outer darkness while we conserve our oil and huddle around that light. We have to be prepared–prepared to run, to hide, to keep ourselves pure, so that we won’t miss Jesus when he comes back to save us.
We can at least understand their fears and their drastic measures. After all, we live in dangerous times as well. Warped, angry, and disillusioned people with access to guns and bombs capable of mass destruction, lashing out at churches, concerts, nightclubs, schools, bike paths. Nuclear weapons on launchpads. Glaciers melting, sea levels rising, weather patterns getting wilder. Refugees fleeing war zones and economic disasters, straining the resources and capacity of their neighbors. Wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; the rest getting more and more angry and desperate. “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know the day or hour.” And we are the first generation to ask whether we will be the ones to bring the end, at least to life on earth.
“Living Generously–the Way of Jesus.” What a different feeling that has to the oil-clutching maidens! UCC pastor and poet, Maren Tirabassi, wrote this week a poem called,
“Pushing the parable.” I’ll admit it pushed me beyond my first reading, and opened up a whole
new perspective on this familiar story.
Thank God I was left out!
I know the damning conclusion
on Jesus’ cautionary tale,
but I was the lucky one.
My stingy friends?
Oil-rich to party hearty,
but I stood on the dark side of the door
with my empty lamp —
and my beautiful lesson.
Since that night, I’ve been certain
to bring enough time or energy,
hope or sleep or patience —
to be a friend, a wife, a mother,
your waiting child.
I missed the chicken dance –
but it changed everything. Amen. [Facebook post, Maren Tirabassi]
Waiting in the dark, in the unknown, can be a scary thing, but it is part of the Way of Jesus, knowing that parts of the journey will take place in the dark, in the places where the landmarks are hidden, where we do not know what lies ahead, where we can only walk by faith and not by sight. But we do not walk alone. We have a guide even in the darkness, whose Way is love and hope and generosity. We have companions on this journey, with whom we can pool our resources to provide this place of hospitality and mission, this community of fellow travelers who gather for worship, for prayer, for learning, for service, to be reminded who we are and Whose we are. We know that the fuel for our Light, the alternative energy of our lives, cannot be bought, but rather is renewed through prayer and praise, service and witness.
The party is already going on. “A party is happening,” Robert Capon reminds us, “already hiding in the basement, banging on the steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs.” [cited by Davis, op cit.] Bring your lamps. Bring all that you have and all that you are. The kingdom of heaven is coming, and now is. Let’s not miss it.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark