THE WISE CAN WAIT
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 9, 2014; 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Psalm 70; Matthew 25:1-13

“When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;
but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
Matthew 25:3-4

There are lots of things I love about being a pastor, but one of the things I love best of all is presiding at weddings. I’ve done well over 200 of them, during my years in ministry.

One feature of nearly all of them — the ones that take place here at the church, anyway — is the time I spend just before the ceremony with the groom and the best man. I’m sitting behind my desk, in the study. They’re sitting across from me, in various stages of anxiety.

Often, it’s the groom who’s most nervous. But more often than you’d think, it’s the best man. Sometimes the groom’s Mr. Cool-Calm-and-Collected — he’s got to talk his brother or best friend down from whatever anxious perch he’s climbed up to.

The best man’s only got one thing to do in the ceremony. One thing. He’s got to stand there, with the wedding rings in his jacket pocket, and when I ask him for them, he’s got to hand them over. He doesn’t even need to say anything. That’s it. One job. But you’d be surprised how that one little job can flummox a man six-foot-tall, in the prime of his life.

It doesn’t make things easier if the bride’s late — which, according to time-honored custom, coming from who-knows-where, happens more often than not. Sara’s out there, stretching the organ prelude a little longer — sometimes, a lot longer (she’s a pro, she can handle it) — while I try to keep the lid on the groom’s and the anxiety of the two principal male players.

There’s a different quality of time, in the minutes before the wedding begins. It doesn’t really matter what the clock says: because nothing’s going to happen till the bride gets there. At some point, we move off clock-time, and onto bride-time.

It’s gotten a bit easier now, in the age of technology. You know that old custom about the bride and the groom not seeing each other till the ceremony begins? Most people still follow that custom, but evidently it doesn’t apply to cell phones. Back in the day, we’d just sit there — the groom, the best man and me — wondering what was holding up the bridal party (or even, God forbid, if the bride might be a no-show). But no longer. At some point, the groom’s cell phone rings. It’s the bride. She’s in the limo. Maybe they got held up at the beauty parlor. Maybe they caught the drawbridge. Whatever the reason, she provides a block-by-block commentary on where, exactly, they are now. Kind of takes the edge off the anxiety. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”

*****

bridesmaidsThey could have used a cell phone in Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. There’s a whole lot of anxious waiting going on.

It’s not the bridegroom and the best man who are waiting. It’s that group of ten bridesmaids (and, presumably, the bride — though she’s never mentioned). The person they’re waiting for is the bridegroom — just the opposite of the way things happen with weddings in our culture.

Back in those days, couples were often engaged for many years before the wedding, by arrangement between the two families. Then they were betrothed for about a year — a more formal engagement. During the betrothal, the two families would negotiate the bride-price: lavish gifts the groom’s family would offer to the bride’s family, in exchange for their daughter. Now, this being the middle east, where people love to haggle, that negotiation could go on a good while: sometimes even late on the wedding day itself. It was considered bad form for the bride’s family not to haggle. Settle too quickly, and the whole village would know their daughter wasn’t much of a catch!

What would happen next was for the bridegroom to show up at the bride’s house, at last. There he would claim his intended and escort her back to his family’s house. That’s where the ceremony and the wedding feast took place. Because the down-to-the-wire haggling over the bride-price took so long, nobody could predict, exactly, when the wedding would actually begin — and remember, watches and clocks hadn’t been invented. Typically, it was well past sundown before the groom turned up and they’d get the show on the road. The bride, the bridesmaids and her entire family would take part in a giddy, joyous procession through the streets of the village.

Waiting with the bride, all this time, were her bridesmaids. The NRSV Bible talks about the “lamps” these bridesmaids carried, but they probably weren’t lamps at all (at least, not those little clay oil lamps first-century Jews used inside the house). The Greek word can also be translated “torches.” That’s probably what they were: wooden sticks with rags wrapped around the top, soaked in olive oil and pitch.

Those torches would only burn for 10 minutes or so, at best. If you were going any distance, you’d have to bring a flask of olive oil along with you, so you could rekindle your torch after it had burned out. For a first-century bridesmaid, packing a good supply of oil was just as essential as it is for today’s bridesmaid to pick up her dress from the bridal shop.

Incredibly, this is the crisis that overtakes 5 of the 10 bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable. They’ve got their torches, but they don’t have any oil to soak them in. It’s past midnight when the bridegroom finally shows up. They rush out to try to find some extra oil-flasks, but it’s no use. Where are they going to find a shop open, at that hour? It’s the ultimate bridesmaid’s anxiety-dream, come to life.

The 5 foolish bridesmaids miss the torchlight procession. And when they finally do show up at the bridegroom’s house, in the wee hours of the morning with no lit torches, it’s no wonder the bridegroom won’t let them in. There are no streetlights. Dark is really dark in the first century. There’s no light of any kind, except for the stars. The bridegroom can’t even recognize the shadowy figures standing outside his door. Even if he can, these bridesmaids have insulted his new wife by not being properly prepared, so he’s not inclined to think kindly of them.

*****

Jesus tells this parable to explain what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It seems an odd choice of stories. There’s a lot that seems just plain wrong about how the characters behave: why the wise bridesmaids don’t share their oil with the foolish ones; why the bridegroom is so unforgiving. It also seems strange that Jesus, who said on another occasion “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” doesn’t seem to take his own advice and include that detail in this story. We look for a happy ending, but there just isn’t one.

It’s possible to over-analyze a parable. Sometimes Jesus’ stories are allegories with elaborate symbolism — each character standing in for someone else. Sometimes, though, the parables are just stories. They’re stories that have a single, very simple point. Take the symbolism too far, and you end up with way more questions than you have answers.

I think this is that second type of parable. I think it’s about just one thing: the spiritual discipline of waiting.

Waiting is what those bridesmaids do — all ten of them, those who have oil and those who don’t. They wait a very long time, well into the night. The question is, which bridesmaids are prepared for the wait, and which are not?

This parable only occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, so it’s useful to ask what it would have meant to Matthew and his church. Why was the question of waiting so important to these early believers — so important, Matthew wanted to make sure they heard this parable?

Matthew’s writing for a second-generation church (maybe even a third generation). It’s a church undergoing persecution. It’s a church that has seen Roman armies destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, forever changing the spiritual landscape of their world. It’s a church that’s wrestling with a difficult spiritual problem: after all the death, after all the destruction of everything they hold dear, how much longer must they wait before Jesus returns and makes everything right?

*****

Waiting is not something most of us do well. We’ve forgotten how. The smartphones in our hands fool us into pretending we can have it all, and have it all NOW.

My email was down for a few minutes this week, on a couple of occasions. Some kind of glitch with the service provider. The words “Unable to process your message at this time” strike me as dreadfully unfair — bordering on an insult! I click on “send” and nothing happens. I sign out of the email service, then sign back in. Still nothing. I reboot the computer. No dice. The fact that I can’t send is one thing; but what if someone’s trying to send me a message?

The service was down for all of about 15 minutes. Back in the days before email was invented, I didn’t even know what I was missing. But now, having lived a wired life, it can be awfully hard to unplug from that fire-hydrant torrent of instantaneous information.

It’s hard to conceive of a time when sending a letter from the East Coast to the West Coast took a couple of months by clipper ship — that is, until somebody came up with a new technology called the Pony Express. The Pony Express could carry a letter from St. Louis to Sacramento in fewer than 10 days: it was practically the text messaging of its time! Then, just a couple years later, somebody strung telegraph wires clear across the country. Suddenly, the wait time was counted in minutes, rather than days — and the Pony Express was out of business. Unbelievable!

Today, we can dispatch an email to the other side of the world in less than a second. A laptop that takes more than 20 seconds to boot up is considered inferior technology.

I was at Ocean Medical’s Urgent Care Center — the satellite emergency room — the other day. I was getting a routine blood test. A sign told me I can sign onto the Meridian website and find out, even before I leave home, what the wait time’s going to be. That struck me as strange. If I really need the emergency room, I’m not likely to go online and check out the wait time. But, to each their own.

The information, the sign informed me, is updated every 15 minutes. I actually found myself thinking that 15 minutes is just too long. It only takes me 5 minutes to drive there!

As a people, we’ve come to expect a world without waiting. But that doesn’t seem to be part of God’s plan. God doesn’t seem especially troubled by long waits.

Nor does Jesus. He tells this parable about those 10 bridesmaids who wait so long for the bridegroom to arrive, they all fall asleep. He doesn’t seem to blame them for snoozing, though. The 5 bridesmaids with their flasks of oil are ready to go as soon as the bridegroom arrives, and that’s all that matters. The problem is with the 5 who aren’t ready.

*****

So, what can those 5 wise bridesmaids with their blazing torches teach us about how to wait — about cultivating a faith with staying-power?

The first thing is: they don’t go it alone. The bridesmaids wait together, in community. If there’d been just one of them, maybe she wouldn’t have lasted. But with her sisters by her side, the hours pass quickly. When she looks at the others, all waiting as she is — all filled with hope and expectation — she feels the power of the group. From them she draws the faith she needs to press on.

The second thing we can learn from the wise bridesmaids is: they pace themselves. After a time of active waiting, inevitably there comes a time for rest. There comes a time for sleeping. Neither the wise bridesmaids nor the foolish ones attempt to stay awake, regardless.

Third, the wise bridesmaids strive to live as though the bridegroom is already there among them. That’s what the full flasks of oil are all about. Jesus says again and again, in this Gospel, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” These women strive to live as though they’re already in that kingdom.

Fourth, there’s one thing we don’t see the wise bridesmaids doing. We don’t see them prognosticating about when the bridegroom is finally going to show up. Whole denominations within Christianity are obsessed with trying to predict Jesus’ return. They’re forever searching the scriptures for clues, matching those clues with current events, trying to predict when that day will arrive. (As though knowing about it ahead of time will make things any different.) Yet, Jesus’ whole point here, with the bridegroom’s delayed arrival, is to say we can’t know. (So, why waste your time with all these end-times prophecies?)

A few verses earlier, Jesus has been teaching about the last things. “But understand this,” he tells them: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

There are plenty of things you and I can’t know in this life, and one of them is when, exactly, some crisis will come upon us and we’ll need to tap into the resources of our faith. Yet, the good news is this: when we come to worship on a regular basis, when we cultivate spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible-reading, it’s like filling up those flasks of oil, filling them to the brim.

But what of those who seldom come to worship? What of those who’ve barely opened a Bible since their days in Sunday School, years ago? What about those who are so wrapped up in the dailyness of life, they can’t see the forest for the trees? Why, they’re a lot like the foolish bridesmaids. They figure that, when something happens to them suddenly, and they need the resources of faith, they’ll muddle through somehow.

And what are those resources? We’ve got an old phrase, in the Presbyterian tradition, that describes them. The phrase is: “the means of grace.” The means of grace are Word and Sacrament. Neither of those can we cultivate on our own, as freelance Christians. God’s Word in scripture can only be fully understood when we read the Bible in community, when together we hear sermons that expound that Word. And the sacraments — principally the Lord’s supper, but also baptism (as we remember together the meaning of our own baptisms) — can only be received in the worshiping fellowship that is the church.

This isn’t a place where we come to be entertained — no matter how lovely the handbells may sound, no matter how much a sermon may be pleasing. This is the place we fill our oil flasks, so the lights we bear may one day push back the darkness.

The scary thing about this parable is that sometimes, in the moment of crisis, it’s just not possible to muddle through, to make up for years of neglect of one’s spiritual life. It’s just not possible to borrow somebody else’s spirituality. Sometimes, sadly, the door to the bridegroom’s house remains closed to those who aren’t holding a torch in their hand.

*****

There’s one other observation I’d like to make, based on this parable — and with this final thought, I’ll leave you. Remember where it is those bridesmaids are going, with their torches. They’re going to a party, a celebration! The night may be dark and cold, but seeping through the cracks around the the bridegroom’s door is golden light. Inside is love and laughter.

Maybe that’s the best news of all: the Kingdom of Heaven, of which Jesus speaks in his parables, is not a grim place at all. It’s a party! You and I are all invited. Our task is to prepare ourselves, to make ready: to live, as best we can, as though the Kingdom were already here.

Let us pray:
Lord Jesus,
help us to watch.
Help us to wait.
Help us to trim our lamps,
to keep them burning:
that, as night comes upon us,
we may stand in awe
of your greater light. Amen.

Copyright © 2014 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.