Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Keep your lamps trimmed an burning, keep your lamps trimmed an burning, keep your lamps trimmed an burning for the time is drawing nigh: the words of a great African-American Spiritual attributed to Blind Willie Johnson who recorded it in 1928. It conveys the spirit of today’s Gospel message:
The Lessons today and for the next few weeks are a response to questions of how the disciples would know the coming of the end and Christ’s return to our world. The details of today’s story reflect the wedding customs of first century Palestine. On the date appointed for the wedding, the groom would go with his friends to take the bride from her home, usually at night. The return of the groom and bride would begin a celebration that lasted for several days.
Young women of both families would attend the bride. There was no set time for the wedding entourage to appear so no one knew exactly when they would arrive. Ten bridesmaids wait with lamps to light the way for the bridegroom. The “wise” ones have come prepared with extra oil and the “foolish” bridesmaids have brought no oil with them.
They waited and waited and eventually dozed off until midnight when the arrival of the bridegroom was announced. The unprepared bridesmaids had to trek off to the local hardware store to get oil but the bridal party appeared while they were gone and the feast began without them—and upon their return they found that they had been locked out of the banquet hall. That was the practice for guests who did not arrive on time.
The church has looked on this parable as a strong warning to be ready for the day of judgment—the return of Christ and the end of time as we know it. But the Good News here is that God does not wait for the end to come into our lives. God comes to us in the present, in moments of truth, holy encounters, and even in challenges we may not want but that surprisingly help us to flourish.
The first lesson today gives us a ranting from one of the oldest Hebrew prophets who takes umbrage at the way the people revel in their elaborate worship but show no authenticity in their lives nor concern for justice in God’s world. The Apostle Paul’s message to the Thessalonians addresses by contrast their concern and mercy towards others and offers hope in the face of loss.
These texts are fairly easy to understand. We would likely be offended by worship that does not encourage us to be ministers of God’s grace and love in the world and we all understand the pain of loss and longing to be united with those who have entered into glory. But what do a late-coming bridegroom and a handful of forgetful bridesmaids have to do with us?
I think it certainly prompts some questions. Who is always wise and who is always foolish? Most of us can recall times when we have been proud of our wisdom as well as embarrassed by our imprudence. Why would you come with no oil to the wedding celebration knowing that your responsibility was to provide light for the newlyweds? It’s like inviting folks for a cookout and forgetting to fill the propane tank. And just who are we in the story? That’s an exercise that could provide some interesting perspective.
The Scriptures can often be mysterious and I’m not sure that this parable isn’t one of those times. We can certainly find a somber and ominous outlook to it. There are signs around us that might make us wonder if the clock isn’t running out for the promised return of Christ at the end of time.
The threat of nuclear war is very real. Nations are warring against nations. Americans are waring against fellow Americans right in this country. Our Natural disasters are becoming more commonplace and fierce. There is serious climate change. Gun violence has reached new heights in our nation. Terrorism prowls the world ready to raise its ugly head at any moment as it did this week in Vienna. Amos’ cry for justice seems to fall as much on deaf ears as it did in 700 BC. while some who claim to worship as Christians oppress the “have nots” and those who have historically been targets of discrimination.
Yes, I could easily find myself reading this parable as a strong alert that the end times are a comin’. As Willie Johnson’s spiritual says, Darker midnight lies before us, darker midnight lies before us, darker midnight lies before us, for the time is drawing nigh.
Then I recall that God’s timing is not ours, that God is still speaking to the world, that God is not done with us yet. Jesus’ call to “keep awake” was a reminder to his audience to take seriously the reality of the sudden appearance of the Kingdom of God, yet he made it very clear that no one knows the day or hour when that will happen.
The readiness to which the parable calls us, the “having oil in your lamp” is living the Gospel life today in hope and expectation that God’s reign will be near—not as an end but as a beginning. Even if we drowsy lamp- bearers nod off or forget to buy or run out of fuel, God will still come to us because our relationship with God is not entirely up to us; it’s up to a living God who is always awake and always bearing light into the world.
Priest and Author, Robert Farrar Capon, writes in The Parables of Judgment: ‘“Watch, therefore,’ Jesus says at the end of the parable, ‘for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ When all is said and done—when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party.
“And the party is not just down the street making up its mind to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way into the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace.
“God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
Who can say that it won’t be today—but if it isn’t, we will be better people if we live as if it is.