At the Worship Committee meeting last Sunday, someone asked me why I choose to preach from the lectionary, that three-year cycle of Biblical readings. My response to that question has always been the same: I preach from the lectionary because it keeps me honest. Without its discipline, I would be tempted to just preach about those things I like. And I would never choose passages like the ones we heard today.
What these three readings have in common is their apocalyptic fire. They speak of last things and final judgments. And recent events have me thinking more about the Apocalypse than I ever have before: fires and hurricanes, floods and assault weapons, terrorist plots and a warming planet and reckless, dangerous leaders with nuclear codes.
So while I may not naturally choose to preach from an apocalyptic text, perhaps there is something in these ancient and mysterious words that might actually illuminate our path in these rather dark times.
Once upon a time, there were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five were girl scouts – always prepared. And five were drop outs, never prepared. The smart ones took extra oil for their lamps. The foolish ones didn’t want the bother of carrying something extra on such a busy day. But as often happens on wedding days, things got slowed down. In fact, the bridegroom was so delayed that it got dark. Natural body rhythm kicked in and all the bridesmaids fell asleep. But about midnight, someone shouted: “Here comes the bridegroom!” Startled awake, the bridesmaids realized that because of the delay, their lamps were now low on oil. Panicked, the foolish ones demanded of the wise one: “Give us some of yours!” To which the wise ones replied: “Take a hike.” So the foolish ones did take a hike and ran off to the store. While they were away, the bridegroom arrived and took the five wise bridesmaids, along with everybody else, into the banquet hall, and locked the door behind him. A few minutes later and out breath, the foolish ones returned and began to pound on the door. “Hey! Let us in!” they pled. But the bridegroom replied, “I don’t even know who you are.” And Jesus ends the story with these words: “So stay awake, because you don’t know the day or the hour when the wedding party will begin.”
Over the years, I have heard many explanations about the meaning of this parable. Most of them have to do with being ready for the return of Jesus. There is a lot of emphasis on keeping your own lamps full of oil; the oil often being interpreted as the Holy Spirit. So, stay full of the spirit, stay awake, stay alert, because you have no idea when Christ might actually return to this earth and you don’t want to be left out because you weren’t ready. In this interpretation, the bridesmaids are the main characters. It’s really all about them and their individual responses. And that interpretation fits perfectly with popular American Christianity so often focused on personal salvation.
But is that what this story is really about? Is it about these individuals or is it about the group event of the wedding? And if it is, then in order to understand what Jesus was trying to say, we have to understand what a wedding banquet in first century Palestine was like.
The wedding festivities always began at the bride's family’s house. On the evening of that first day of celebration, the groom would arrive to escort the bride and her father to his father's house in order to haggle over the final amount of the dowry. And sometimes this haggling over the price of the bride was intense and delayed the festivities.
When the financial agreement was finally reached, the groom would go to fetch the rest of the wedding guests to lead them back to his father's house for the ceremony and reception. But it took a long time to gather all the guests because the groom would take the longest possible route through the village, stopping everywhere along the way to receive the well wishes and gifts of their friends and neighbors. And at each stop, the town crier would proclaim the arrival of the groom.
The bridesmaids, probably cousins or sisters of the groom, had two tasks: the first was to welcome the guests as they arrived. But the second was the most important job, and the one about which Jesus was speaking. The bridesmaids were specifically tasked with lighting the way for any guests arriving under the cover of darkness. They would be spaced out along the route. That is why their lamps were so important. That is why it was essential that they have enough oil for the duration of the wait. You see, the streets were dark and dangerous. Robbers and thieves waited in the shadows. And so did the Roman soldiers. So getting sleepy while you waited for the party to begin was not the problem. But failing your guests by leaving them in the dark – that was a big problem.
And here’s one more thing to consider: there were lots of guests to take care of. Unlike today when brides and grooms fuss over the invitation list for months, in Jesus’ day the whole village was invited to the wedding. Even bitter rivalries were set aside for the feast. In a time when life was very hard, a wedding was not to be missed because there would be plenteous food and wine and music and laughter. And the guest list included everyone
But then just as now, welcoming folks and actually making sure that they are safe and have what they need are two entirely different things. All the bridesmaids had to do was light up the darkness. The wise women took their responsibility seriously and did what they were required to do, even if it was a pain in the next to carry around extra oil all day long. But the foolish ones only thought of themselves and how inconvenient it can be to have to think of others and their needs.
But their self-centeredness cost them a great deal indeed. While every else was dancing and feasting, they were locked out in the cold. And to add insult to injury, the bridegroom said: “I don’t even know who you are.” We too sometimes say that to people we know who do things that are selfish or dangerous or mean-spirited. “I don’t even know who you are.”
This story ends like all apocalyptic stories – with a word of warning; a word of judgment. But notice that the judgment rendered is not upon the whole world, as the loudest voices in our culture so often proclaim. And judgment doesn’t fall on the guests. Judgment falls on those who knew about the needs of their neighbors but who didn’t care about the needs of their neighbors.
Judgment stories can be frightening… but also helpful in these apocalyptic times. They are actually instructive. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the nightfall in our world. It’s easy to think only of yourself in the shadows of this time. But the Spirit is calling the church to wake up! The Spirit is calling us to wake up and keep your lamps lit. Wake up and lift your light high. Because God has prepared a feast of goodness, mercy and justice for the whole world. And all we have to do, all we have ever had to do, is light the way.