Watching & Waiting
A meditation on Matthew 25: 1 – 13
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church November 12, 2017
One summer my sons were participating in a summer camp experience at a school on the other side of town. Another mom and I had worked out a carpooling plan, and for most of the two weeks, everything went very smoothly. Until one afternoon. I got hung up at work, and, much to my horror, realized I was going to be very late picking up the guys. As typically happens, when you are running horribly late, you are either low on gas or miss every single traffic light, or both…the 30 minute drive turned into 45ish.
I pulled up to the school. Five faces looked up. It was that expression: the one you sometimes give to your kids when they have disappointed you, only they were using it on me. Now these were not little children – they were older elementary, junior high age kids. (I wasn’t a complete slacker in the parenting department.) They opened the van door, climbed in with various “hellos.” I apologized for being 15ish minutes late. Everyone buckled up and one of my sons’ friends said, “Our mother has never been late to pick us up. Never.” Their mother of four, with all their many commitments.
I apologized again. I also apologized to their “never late” mother. In their defense I remember one afternoon of waiting by myself in front of Grahamwood Elementary School. “Had I been forgotten? What should I do?” Being forgotten is a terrible feeling…but did those boys really think I could forget all five of them??
I remembered agonizing hours of watching my mother worry about my brother when he was in college. Andy typically ran a little late when it came to traveling. This tendency was greatly increased when he inherited our grandfather’s relic of a car. We lived in Memphis and he was studying architecture at Georgia Tech. He would be hours late getting on the road to head home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and then that car would have a minor break down going through Monteagle, Tennessee. Every single time. Before the days of cell phones.
My mother’s philosophy was that if someone is late, something terrible has happened. The worst thing you can possibly imagine has happened. So if you are waiting on someone, and that someone is running late, according to my mother, your initial response should always be fear/worry/compassion, rather than frustration/anger/disappointment. Of course, there isn’t always a good reason why someone runs late. My husband says I run late because I have to do “five more things” before I go out the door. He’s right. And he’s patient.
This parable? It feels like a punch in the gut. Shouldn’t the bridegroom have compassion for his wedding party? When the five young women are late (and we are talking very young – imagine 13 year olds out at night searching for oil for their empty lanterns), shouldn’t he have sent servants out to find them? Could he really enjoy the wedding celebration after slamming the door in their face, leaving them in the darkness?
It wasn’t the bridesmaids’ fault that the groom was running seriously late. Maybe we could blame their mothers? Wouldn’t their mothers have been the ones to provide them with the oil and lanterns? It all feels very unfair. And if these weddings were often an opportunity for young singles to meet (much as they often are today)…well there are going to be some friends of the groom who aren’t thrilled by the revised guest list.
For some preachers this parable is very cut and dry: be ready for the Lord’s return. You remember those people who stockpiled for the Y2K that didn’t happen? Be like them with your faithfulness. Be always ready. There’s that message…
We have occasionally had members of the congregation act out our scripture readings – or do a readers’ theater version of the scripture. We did this with the parable of the forgiving father and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Each experience gave me new understandings of the scripture, and I wonder how this parable would strike us if we could watch it unfold before us. If we could see the weariness of the women, hear the panic of the five who have run out of oil, witness the moment of decision for the five who choose not to share, and hear the finality of the slamming door, as five are left out in the darkness; if we could see all this, what would we do with this parable?
Rev. Raj Bharat Patta, a minister of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India remembers women from his church enacting this story when he was a child, and a powerful moment that has stayed with him throughout his life. “The groom arrived,” Patta recalls, “and took the five women who had their lanterns burning with him and entered the wedding banquet. When the other five women came and knocked upon the door, calling him ‘Lord, Lord,’ the reply that came was that he did not know them. The facial expressions of the five women who made it into the wedding banquet were gloomy, as their five other friends couldn’t make it inside.”[i]
Patta remembered those expressions. He remembered the young women’s sorrow that their friends had been left in the dark. And yet these sad women were the same ones who wouldn’t share their oil. Audrey West, writing for the Christian Century:
This fear of losing blinds the so-called wise bridesmaids to the truth that by hoarding the oil, they diminish the event. Five lamps at full strength provide no more light than ten lamps at half strength. But five extra people at the party would almost surely result in a more substantial celebration.[ii]
So many seemingly innocent choices that resulted in pain and loss.
A truly mysterious parable. Weariness and vigilance. Darkness and light. Outsiders and insiders. Heaven and…hell? I can’t say I believe in a literal hell. There is enough hell on this earth; I don’t believe God needs to create a special place dedicated to pain and suffering. And heaven? From Jesus’ own description, it seems to be the most expansive place imaginable. It needs no doors, for there is no reason to keep anyone out.
In all my reading on this parable, I found one question to be particularly intriguing. It is posed by Liz Milner, a staff chaplain in the Santa Clara County jail system, and, It goes like this: what if, instead of running off in the darkness to who knows where to find more oil for their lamps, the five “unprepared” young women, had gone straight on to the groom’s home with their five friends. Remember why they got in trouble – not for having unlit lanterns, but for being late. What if they had stood before the groom and said, “We are truly sorry, and mean no disrespect, but we have run out of oil.”
Milner writes: Could it be that waiting in the darkness, even if their lights had gone out, would have been a more faithful way to stay engaged with the role assigned to them by their master? If Jesus is to be found amongst the naked, hungry, thirsty, and criminal, could it be that He would respond with compassion to the five maids who might come trembling before Him confessing they had run out of oil? We will never know, since those five fled rather than risk waiting on the groom. However, my experience of Jesus, and my wrestling to understand this story in the context of Jesus’ other teachings and ministry, invites me to wonder if it might be better to stay in the darkness rather than flee the scene from fear of being found wanting.[iii]
“Fear of being found wanting.” Why should we fear to be our true selves before the one who knows us more honestly than we know ourselves? Why do we continue to buy into the belief that we have to be – not just “good enough,” but practically perfect in every way? Some time ago, a friend of mine became the pastor of a church with a secret. My friend knew the secret, but no one talked about it. The secret? The previous pastor had been an alcoholic. The “secret” had been widely known, and the pastor deeply loved. Yet none of this could be discussed. If that pastor had been diagnosed with cancer, open discussions would have been held about how to care for and support the pastor. But this was an addiction issue, and addiction issues still carry a level of shame and an unspoken vow of silence.
What if, when the bridegroom, who does seem to be taking his sweet time to return, does return, we came running, just as we are. With our empty lamps and our wounded hearts and our shameful mistakes and our broken promises. What if we came, having never read the Bible all the way through, and with the doubts that have kept us up at night? What if we came just like that…and allowed everyone else to come just like that, too? What if we came to the party, and took turns going back out into the darkness to tell the ones still searching for oil that there was plenty of light at the party already.
What if we believed that the bridegroom was already here?
What if we believed the celebration had already begun?
What if? What if? Thanks be to the God of endless possibility, the God of endless light, the God of endless welcome. Amen and Amen.