Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
Confession time: I’ve always been a bit obsessive about my calendar. It’s not so much that I’m looking to fill every available minute; if anything, I try to find those sacred moments when I don’t have to schedule anything. No, for me it’s that I like the certainty – or as much certainty as possible – about when events or meetings will begin and end. If I’ve been asked to attend a meeting that is supposed to start at 11:00 and last one hour, I carefully block that one hour off on my schedule and am prepared to be involved for that one hour.
Now, I’ve got a second confession. No matter how much I prepare for specific starting and ending times, I’m not really the one in control of my schedule. It took many years for me to learn that lesson, but it was an important recognition. My schedule isn’t the only one; those with whom I interact have their own schedules and their own distractions. Things invariably don’t start or end on time.
For years that bothered me. As time passed, however, I learned it’s okay for things to start late, or for meetings to run a bit long. As I moved further into my first career, I learned another valuable lesson: when things are delayed, use the time to prepare. Whether it’s doing something more for the meeting or getting a jump on something else entirely, I learned to take advantage of the extra time and continue my preparations.
Things may not necessarily start on schedule – on our schedule – but it’s not a reason to sit and wring our hands. It’s an opportunity to continue getting ready.
That’s the point of today’s Gospel reading. What we have in this imagery of a party of bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom is a parable of patience and of being prepared for a delay. There are a few important points about this parable worth noting. First, a wedding procession such as this would have taken place at night, rather than during the day. Out of that arises the need for the lights that the bridesmaids are carrying, and they wouldn’t have been small lamps. The bridesmaids would have been carrying what were essentially large torches, perhaps sticks wrapped with rags dipped in oil. Such lights would have required a great deal of oil if they were to be burned for a long period of time.
So of the 10 bridesmaids, only half prepared for the delay in the groom’s arrival. Just five of them brought enough oil to get them through in the event he was held up. Even though they all thought the groom would arrive at a particular time, he didn’t. But for some, it didn’t matter; they had thought ahead and prepared. The story ends on a down note for those who were unprepared; those who hadn’t prepared received no help from the others, and in fact were locked out of the banquet.
You may recognize this parable in a different form, a story many of us may have heard from a very young age – perhaps even before being aware of the Gospels. It’s the fable of the ants and the grasshopper. Knowing that winter would come at some point, the ants spent all their time preparing – getting ready for the day when the cold weather would arrive. The grasshopper, on the other hand, was content to play his fiddle and wile away the days of summer. He did nothing to prepare. When winter arrived, he wasn’t prepared and found himself hungry. Depending on the version of the fable you read, the ants turned away from him. “Making music, were you?’ they cried. ‘Very well; now dance!’”
Bridesmaids prepared with oil and ants stocking up food for the winter. Bridesmaids who didn’t prepare and a grasshopper who played rather than getting ready. Two different narratives, but each telling the same story and in their own ways sharing the same lesson (and here I use the words from Luke: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
The Bible is a living, breathing collection of books, something that we can use to help guide us through our lives in today’s world. But in reading and studying it, it’s important to remember that the individual Gospels and books were written for specific audiences. Today’s parable, for instance, used imagery of a situation the listeners of the day would have encountered or been familiar with: the night-time procession with the groom. Even beyond that, it was used to address something for which the disciples and the early Christian community would have been anxiously awaiting: the return of Christ.
At the time of the writing of this Gospel, roughly 50-60 years after the crucifixion, the return of Jesus was expected to be imminent. His followers fully expected that he would return very soon, even though – as we read here and throughout the Gospels – they were told that the specific day and hour of his return were known only to God. Regardless, this parable is an instruction to continue doing the work needed in this world. Just as the five bridesmaids prepared for the delay by ensuring they had enough oil on hand, we are tasked with continuing to work even as we await Christ’s return.
None of us know when Jesus will return – and just as much as we may be concerned about time, just as much as humanity longs to know the where and when, time means nothing to God. What already seems like a long time for us is very much that feeling of imminence to God – and because we don’t know the day or hour, we have no way of knowing whether it will be next week, or next month, or next year.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be content with the preparations we’ve made for the day of his return. We shouldn’t simply look back at the good works we may have accomplished in our lives and consider that being sufficiently well-prepared for his arrival and our judgment. With that in mind the question you may have is, “Well, what should we do?” I’ll offer a simple answer, one I try to act on every day (even as I remind myself that not every moment requires something to fill it). I’m going to remain busy, and I’m going to continue preparing. Even as I await the return of Christ to the world, I’m going to try and let the Holy Spirit guide me to actions and work that show what it is like to already have Christ in the world.
We’re invited to continue acting on the call to do good works and serve others while respecting the dignity of every human being. It’s not sufficient just to look back on our good works; we must continue our work in further good works. We should make sure we have enough oil to keep lit the flames we carry as God’s torches in the world. When we do, we’ll be the prepared bridesmaids accompanying the groom – the lights of the world walking in procession with Jesus – through the doors to the heavenly banquet.
 Luke 12:40 (NRSV).