November 9, 2014

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

“Missing the Party?”

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is all about missing a party, specifically a wedding reception. In many ways, this parable goes along with another one that we are probably all familiar with, the parable of the wedding banquet.

In the parable of the wedding banquet, the guests are invited to come to the feast, but for various reasons, they all refuse. They are too busy doing other things, so they don’t have time to go to the celebration. They miss the party.

In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the guests have shown up ready for the party, but some of them do not come prepared to wait for the bridegroom. When they run out of oil for their lamps and have to go buy more, the party begins, and they end up locked out. They miss the party too.

Traditionally, this parable has been understood as an allegory of the “close of the age” – the “end of time”. The bridegroom represents the Messiah, and his arrival is the awaited Second Coming. Our minds automatically jump to conclude that the parable is about being prepared when Jesus returns so that we will get into the party that is heaven. Especially when we’ve just read the passage from Thessalonians about the coming of the Lord, this is a natural interpretation.

However, some biblical scholars suggest that it would have been impossible for Jesus’ original audience to understand the parable in this way. After all, Jesus was still with them. They wouldn’t have been waiting for a Second Coming yet. Also, the idea of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride was a comparison that came into use by the early Christians much later – after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It would not have been a familiar concept to the Jewish people to whom Jesus was telling the parable.

In other words, it may be valid to interpret the parable of the ten bridesmaids as having to do with the Second Coming of Christ, but there must be another meaning to it also – an original meaning that Jesus might have intended.

When Jesus told parables, he took everyday things, and used them to tell us something about God. So I think that there must be a simple straightforward message in the parable that Jesus addressed to his early-1st century Jewish listeners. Perhaps this message will be one that early 21st century Christians need to hear as well.

A good place to start is with the historical context of the parable. Remember how Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were “espoused”? This was a typical Jewish custom. The Jewish marriage then consisted essentially of two parts, what we might call the “espousal” and the “wedding.” The espousal was not like the modern “engagement”, a promise of future marriage. But it represented a valid though incomplete marriage, and the espoused groom and bride were considered husband and wife even though they did not yet live together. This time was probably used to set up a suitable home for the new family, and culminated in a second ceremony. This is the wedding ceremony in our parable.

There is a great deal of ambiguity around what exactly the ceremony consisted of. Every paper I read on this parable had a different story on what the Jewish wedding customs were in Jesus’ time. According to one author, the bride-to-be waited at home with her wedding party. Meanwhile, the bridegroom negotiated elsewhere with her relatives the various financial details involved in obtaining her as his wife. It was actually a mark of respect on all sides to prolong this bargaining. It showed how much both the parents and bridegroom valued the girl in question. So, when the bridegroom is late in arriving, this is not a surprise or something for the bride to be concerned about. The bridegroom was always late!

Several authors suggested that these weddings often had processions. Who was in the procession, and where exactly they processed is unclear, but the weddings likely took place in the evening or night, so lamps or torches would have been used to light the way.

At first, everything in the parable’s wedding goes as usual. The bridegroom was probably off negotiating with the bride’s family. The bridesmaids are waiting expectantly for the bridegroom to arrive and the party to begin. These young women have an important job, to guide the bridegroom to the house where the wedding feast will take place. The wait is long, and the bridesmaids fall asleep.

Meanwhile, their lamps are burning. Of course, these are not the lamps we’re used to. They probably consisted of a stick with a rag dipped in olive oil wrapped around one end. So, when the call comes that the bridegroom is arriving, all the women try to get their lamps blazing again. Some have brought extra oil for this purpose and have no trouble. The others have a problem. Their lamps won’t light without some more fuel.

Perhaps the wise bridesmaids will share their oil? No way! Imagine, the bridegroom arrives and the 10 bridesmaids with lamps blazing guide him halfway to the party, and then all their lamps go out. It would be better to have 5 lamps for the whole trip than to have 10 lamps that go out before reaching their destination.

Why didn’t the foolish bridesmaids bring extra oil? We’re not told. Perhaps they thought the negotiation in this case would be quick. Perhaps they decided to come on a whim, and didn’t prepare for the wait. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the foolish maidens have been careless. For whatever reason, they have not taken the wedding all that seriously, and their lack of preparedness means they end up missing the party.

I think that Jesus is saying something through this parable about the responses that people are making to his movement. The invitation that Jesus gave to follow his new way of life was like an invitation to a wedding celebration. However, the point of the party was not just to have a good time and eat good food and dance the night away. The point was to celebrate something wonderful and special.

In the parable the point is to celebrate a wedding – to celebrate the commitment of two people to love and care for each other and raise a family together for the rest of their lives. And the wedding represents the celebration that Jesus invited his followers to – a celebration of God’s love and care for the people of the earth – a celebration of God’s promise to be ever-present and involved in their lives, and their commitment to make their lives centre around serving God and each another, rather than serving only themselves.

The call of Jesus is to radically change our lives, to drop our former priorities and to look to God for our instructions. It is no easier for us to respond to this call than it was for Jesus’ first disciples. When the call comes, we need to be wholly committed to do what is demanded.

In the parable of the wedding banquet that we know so well, the people simply refuse the invitation to come. In this parable of the 10 bridesmaids, the people come, but neglect to take the event seriously. They don’t come prepared.

Many of us have already said “yes” to the invitation to come to the celebration, but we may still be missing the party. Like the foolish bridesmaids we have not taken the invitation seriously and have come unprepared. Like the foolish bridesmaids brought a little oil with them, we have come, but have made a half-hearted commitment to the new life that Christ has called us to.

Our friends and neighbours may look at us and say “wow, she goes to church every week”, or “that’s amazing, look at all the time he gives to serving meals down at the shelter”. This makes us feel good about ourselves, but the good feeling does not last. It’s not the celebration that we were expecting.

Back when I lived in Ottawa, I used to get around the city on the city buses. I was never a big fan of riding on buses. When I lived in Toronto, I found that I preferred the subway, but I took the buses back then because they got me where I needed to go. One of the things I hated about the buses was transferring from one to another, especially when the bus schedules were unpredictable and I was worried about being late for something.

It was not unusual for me to be sitting on a bus, say the #7. The bus is just pulling into a transfer point at the mall downtown and I suddenly realize that the #4, which will take me much closer to my destination, is stopped just ahead of the bus I’m sitting on. I have a very quick decision to make. I could get off the #7 and run like crazy in the hope of catching the #4. If I run fast enough and the light stays red, I just might be able to catch it and save myself a ten-minute walk at the end of my trip. But, I also run the risk of missing the #4 and then missing the #7 as well, and waiting another 15 or 20 minutes for the next bus. My other choice would be to play it safe. Stay on the #7, get to my destination a little slower, and do the 10 minute walk.

Whatever I decide, I have to jump in with both feet. Catching the #4 bus is the best way to get where I’m going. If I’m going to do it, I have to do it whole-heartedly. I have to decide, that’s the bus I want, and I am going to run like crazy and catch it. If I sit there pondering the decision, or give it a half-hearted effort, I will no doubt miss the bus, and if I haven’t come prepared with my bus pass or transfer, the bus driver won’t let me get on.

When we make the radical choice to leave our comfortable, status quo lives, and respond to Christ’s invitation to the party, we have to jump in with both feet. We can’t just give a little time and a little effort to church stuff, and let the rest of our lives continue on as normal. It just doesn’t work that way. Christ’s call is to give our lives to him, not just some percentage of our time and energy.

It may seem unfair. Why would a loving God want to punish us by refusing us admittance to the celebration? Wouldn’t God want us all to be there? Isn’t that what forgiveness is all about? The thing is, I’m not talking about some party that takes place after we die. I’m not talking about heaven and hell, or a reward for being a good follower. I’m talking about the party that is going on right now that we may or may not be enjoying. It’s the joy that comes from knowing God’s love. It’s the peace that comes from serving God with our whole lives. It’s the celebration that flows from the knowledge that we are in the presence of God who loves us.

Were the wise bridesmaids being mean when they refused to share their oil with those who had come unprepared? I don’t think so. The choice to take the invitation seriously and to jump in with both feet is not something that can be shared. We each need to make that choice for ourselves.

Like most examples, my example of trying to catch the #4 bus does not match exactly with making the choice to follow Christ. With the bus, I ran the risk of missing the #4 and the #7 completely. When we choose to jump in with both feet, giving our lives over completely to following Christ, it will feel like we might miss the bus completely. We have left behind our old lives (like the #7) and it may feel like we only have a slim chance of catching onto our new life in Christ (like the #4). The difference is that when we choose to take the risk, and to run like crazy to catch onto our new life, we won’t miss it. God doesn’t care how fast we are, or how skilled we are, or how close to perfect we are. God cares that we jump in with both feet and 100% effort. And that is the only way that we will find our way to the party.

The invitation has been extended, and there is so much to celebrate.