An Unhappy Ending
If you like happy endings, then I suggest that you skip over today’s Gospel lesson. If you prefer the parables that end with grace, then file this one under “Awaiting Further Light”. Go back and read again the Parable of the Eleventh Hour worker, where God acts like God, and over treats everyone equally. It will make you feel better! For this one ends with the sound of a slamming door, locked tight, and the image of five young maidens shivering outside while the party goes on without them.
Quite a text!
Now, this parable starts out happy enough. Nothing was more joyous than a wedding feast in first century Palestine. Beginning at nightfall to escape the heat, ten young women dress up for what was, in that day, a sort of undeclared holiday. Even the religious leaders, who had the most difficulty letting their hair down, excused themselves from their sacred duties and got into the act. And notice – the groom is the center of attention.
The climax, then, was the parade, usually with family and friends of the bride who went by torchlight to the groom’s father’s house, where the couple might well live at first. As the party drags on, and the hour approaches midnight, the bridesmaids get drowsy, as one might suspect, and their heads begin to nod.
Finally, they all fall asleep. The difference was that five of them had brought extra oil for their lamps – and five had not. Like so many of Matthew’s stories, the people of this story are divided into two groups – the kind we want to be like and the kind we don’t want to be like.
And, finally at midnight, a cry breaks through their slumber: “The bridegroom is come; wake up!” Five of them discover that their lamps are dying and ask the others if they may borrow some oil. “Sorry,” comes the reply, “that wouldn’t leave enough for us . . . go and buy some for yourselves.”
Words that sound foreign to our ears – what with all of our talk about sharing! Wouldn’t it be nice if the five had done just that – shared what they had.
But according to this parable they did not.
Then, too, wouldn’t it have been nice if the door hadn’t slammed shut in their faces? But according to this parable, that is just what happens.
So! How do we, as Christians, followers of the Christ, understand this discrepancy? What are we, who are so well-versed in the idea of sharing and inclusiveness . . . what are we to make of all of this?
We wrestle with the idea that it would have been much more “special” if those girls had simply said, “share and share alike . . . we’re all in this wedding thing together . . . here, take some of my oil and keep an eye out for eligible groomsmen.”
Or, if the bridegroom had said, “Look, I know what it feels like to run out of oil . . . I’ve run out myself many times. Come on in, the party is just getting started.”
But that is not what happens here – and we are left to deal with it. So, let’s consider the setting of the Gospel. Matthew was writing to a community of people who expected Jesus to return – and soon!
That was the Number One question of this New Testament community. When is Jesus coming back? When will the bridegroom come? People can only hear the announcement so many times, before they lose interest, and fall asleep.
This, then, is another one of those troublesome stories about the End Times.
The parable is set amidst a whole group of teachings about not growing lazy or inattentive. Remember, Jesus had said: “Some of you standing here will not taste death before the Son of Man returns . . .” And Paul had been saying that for 30 years before the writing of this text that: “The time is short!”
But how long can people wait? And, what happens when the urgency is gone?
Matthew was saying: “Be ready!”
And, we have been hearing this same thing for more than 2,000 years now. How much longer can we build a meaningful Christian faith on just such an urgent expectation?
Could it be, I wonder, that while Matthew meant the parable for one purpose, God meant it for another?
You see, this parable says something else, something much more fascinating than a warning about the End of Time.
It says, “sometimes it is too late.”
That’s not a prediction of doom – – it is a statement of fact! The parables of Jesus, whether purely his own words, or words elaborated upon by the Gospel writers, are always very honest. Some are upbeat and some seem to end on a note of sorrow with no chance of ever getting the toothpaste back in the tube, so-to-speak!
And life is exactly like that!
When we are young, we think that there is always another chance – always another opportunity to do things differently. And that is true – most of the time.
But sometimes, it is just too late.
For example: I finally realized why so many of us, myself included, dislike talking to an answering machine. It’s because we can’t take it back – oh, I know there are ways to do that these days and in certain situations, but how many of us take the time to figure out how to do that. So, basically speaking, there is no way can we go back and do it over. If we are stymied for words, the recording will prove it, if we give a wrong date, or day, or time, the recording will reveal it, if we stutter and stammer, the recording will portray us as a fool. And we can’t take it back!
Sometimes our church’s weekly newsletter, The Messenger, is sent out – and a note, or thought, is missed or wrong. The key on the keyboard is pushed – and it’s simply too late!
And, to consider a heavier subject, sometimes a loved one will die, before we have a chance to tell them how much they mean to us. Yes, sometimes, it is too late!
And so, we have the parable of the ten maidens . . . five foolish ones who did not take the extra oil . . . and five who did. The parable begins with a ceremonial scene of a happy event from daily life and creates an atmosphere of excited, joyful anticipation . . . like the church in its infancy. But then it boils down to boredom and a strange sense of do-it-yourself. Over the centuries, from time to time, that has happened in the church. I hope and pray that it never happens here!
But maybe, just maybe, the idea of not sharing is the way in which Matthew attempts to challenge each and every one of us, then and now, to continue to be prepared – even for the unexpected.
And how do we do that?
According to Matthew, that is done by doing good works. Yes, I said “good works”. In chapter 5, verse 15, Jesus calls his listeners to let their good deeds shine before people – – so that God will be glorified.
Not so that we will get into heaven!! But so that God will be glorified. In other words, those good deeds will be the torchlight by which others will see the bridegroom.
Good deeds? Could that be like preparing a message before we get to the answering machine – just in case? Could that mean writing an article for the newsletter – and making sure that all of the necessary information is included – before sending it out?
Could that mean saying “I love you” before it’s too late?
I believe that the author of the Gospel of Matthew would have it so.