Babies are bad at waiting, which is almost certainly not a surprise to most of you here. Try as I might, I can’t convince Pepper to calmly accept that I need to finish my spaghetti before I can feed her, nor does it work that I promise in my calmest, most loving voice that I just have to grab a load of diapers from the dryer before I can change her. For Pepper, there is no such thing as a five-minute grace period. Instead, it’s zero-to-60 tears and then screaming if I don’t catch her drift soon enough.
Despite the fact that we’re all adults here, I think it’s fair to say that we’re not very good at waiting either. Or, at least, we don’t like it. It’s tiring, uncomfortable, and often annoying; and yet so much of our lives is spent doing it. We wait for the mail to arrive. We wait for a favorite movie to come out on DVD. We wait to hear who actually won the election for POTUS. Some of us count the minutes, checking our phones for the latest updates. Others gnaw fingernails or wander from room to room in their house, unable to concentrate on one set of chores long enough to finish anything. Still others of us give up, allowing a sort of malaise to wash over us. What does it matter when this or that will happen? It hasn’t yet. Maybe it never will.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us a parable that really does nothing to contradict our dislike of waiting. It begins innocently enough. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like 10 bridesmaids who are getting ready for the year’s biggest wedding celebration. They’ve donned their best robes and their most precious jewels. They’ve thought of the right things to say to the bride and the groom to express their excitement for this new season in their lives. And they’ve trimmed their lamps in preparation for the journey to the nuptial feast.
The 10 young women are ready for the ceremony to begin; but, as happens way too often in weddings, one of the two main actors isn’t ready. The bridegroom is delayed, so the bridesmaids settle down to wait. Times passes. At first, the ladies chatter quietly, looking up with expectant eyes for the appearance of a messenger at the door. But, as the minutes turn to hours, the talk ends as one by one, the women fall asleep.
Suddenly, who knows how much later, the call comes: “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” The women shake themselves awake, readjust their clothes and check their hair, and head for the door, when they realize that their lamps are guttering. The bridegroom had taken so long that their oil has all but run out; and five of the women have forgotten to bring any backup. Looking to their fellow bridesmaids, the five women without oil ask, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But these women, who had just poured the contents of their extra flasks into their own lamps said no. “There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And so our 10 bridesmaids part ways, as five women head to the marriage banquet, and five head to the corner store.
The ending of this parable is remarkable in its ominous severity. After obtaining enough oil to light their way to the banquet hall, the five remaining women arrive at their destination. They’re late, but light now haloes their faces. They knock on the door, expecting to be let in, only to have the Bridegroom himself open and declare with no explanation: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” He closes the door, leaving the women outside in the dark, too astonished to say anything as the light glistens on their tear-marked faces.
And the moral of the story, Jesus tells us, is “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
What do we do with this parable? What do we make of it? Do we, like generations of pastors and theologians, try and identify what the oil actually symbolizes? Is it good works or faith or a secret knowledge only the wise possess? And why, we might wonder, does Jesus conclude his tale by warning his listeners to “stay awake” when all 10 of the virgins—both the foolish and the wise—fell asleep?
These questions, like so many in life, have no easy answers—but that doesn’t mean we’re left out in the cold with our doubt and our fear like the women at the end of this story. The key to finding the hope in this parable, I think, lies in our Epistle passage, in which St. Paul comforts the Thessalonian Christians, who worry that their loved ones who have died before Christ’s return won’t rise with him when he does.
As the days slipped by following Jesus’ ascension, his followers waited for his return. “It is soon,” they thought, “very soon. Any day now.” But then their loved ones, those men and women who first heard and believed in the message of the Apostles, began to grow old and to die. The Thessalonian Christians didn’t know what to make of it. Their Bridegroom was delayed, and the wait was growing longer. Had he forgotten them? Had those who died done something wrong? How long would it be before Christ came back? And would they even survive to see him again?
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died,” Paul writes, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. . . .Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Their endurance was not pointless and their wait was not futile. Paul doesn’t explain why Jesus is delayed; but Paul does give his listeners hope. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Take heart, Paul tells his spiritual children, the Lord won’t forget you.
The difference between the quiet calm of Paul’s message and the grim ending of Jesus’ parable spark against one another, as a professor of mine once said. Here we have reassurance, and there we have tragedy. What elements are missing from one or the other? Do they have anything in common? And how in the world do we make sense of both?
Ten virgins wait for the bridegroom. The Christians of Thessalonika wait for the coming of Christ. Five women have forgotten extra oil, and the elders of the church have begun to die. Will the door be shut when the party finally begins? Or will it be open? Paul tells us that Christ can overcome even death—why then does he not overcome a little tardiness?
“Later the other bridesmaids came to the banquet hall also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’”
What if this foreboding parable isn’t about possessing the right quantity of the right substance in order to be admitted into heaven? What if, instead, it’s about waiting and waiting well?
Each woman fell asleep as the time for the Bridegroom to arrive passed. The wait was too much for them; they couldn’t help but close their eyes. And when the cry suddenly came that he was there, all of them woke up just as disoriented as the other; but five had oil and five did not.
And now I want us to pause and ask a strange question: What would have happened if the five foolish virgins hadn’t left to buy more oil? What if they had just stayed, acknowledging their lack of control over the situation and risking the anger of the Bridegroom, but also banking on the chance that he might forgive them or have some light of his own? What if they had believed that this man was one whose judgment was true and terrible but who was also gracious and merciful? What if they had believed that he who can overcome death can overcome anything—even a shortage of oil.
And that’s where the hope is in the midst of a hard reality: We don’t know when Jesus is coming back. We don’t know when he will return to right the wrongs and fight the final battles that will result in a world washed clean of sin and death. But we do have the promise that he is coming. The wedding has been scheduled, and no amount of delay will put it off forever. We all, each in our own way, will wait. Some may check their phones every five minutes. Others may gnaw their fingernails. Still others may give up and eventually forget. But the Lord is coming regardless, coming with justice and with mercy, that he might open the gates wide to all who would enter in. And until then, we pray just as David once did: “O LORD, make haste to help me! . . . Hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!” AMEN.