A Very Long Pregnancy
November 6, 2011
Choices bring consequences. That would seem to be the moral of this unsettling parable. Ten bridesmaids each had available to them the same possibilities. All were patiently waiting for the bridegroom. All were dressed for the wedding. All got drowsy and fell asleep. All got excited about the bridegroom’s return. Yet the consequences for five bridesmaids were very different from the consequences for the other five bridesmaids. Why? It came down to one particular choice. Only five were prepared for the long wait by keeping oil in their lamps.
Think of the long wait of a pregnancy. At our last trivia night one of the categories was about animals. A question that caused a lot of consternation was “which animal has the longest gestation period?” In other words, which animal is pregnant the longest? The answer was: the elephant. Talk about waiting–An elephant has to wait a long time to have that baby. That came to mind this week while I was reading one commentator’s opinion about this particular passage. John Buchanan quoted something that the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke said.
Rilke was writing a letter to a young man who had lost his faith in God. “Why don’t you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching for all of eternity. What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy?”
I am captivated by the notion that the time in which we live, the age between the first and the second Coming of Christ, is really just a very long pregnancy! And we do get impatient and we do lose faith and we do get drowsy and fall asleep. But scripture says we must keep our lamps full of oil and lit. That brings to mind a key question about this passage—why couldn’t the oil be borrowed and shared among the ten bridesmaids?
Simply put, because by keeping oil in their lamps, it means that the five wise bridesmaids chose to live differently during the delayed return of the bridegroom. As Mark Labberton puts it, “the wise maids chose to act on what they could influence (whether or not they oil) rather than worry about what they could not determine (when the groom would return).” All had freedom to do as they chose, but five chose spiritual preparedness. Labberton says that when we use our freedom to love God with our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves…we are living “lamp-ready lives.”
Remember in what chapter we find ourselves here in this reading from Matthew. We are in Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches about the coming of the kingdom of God. In the cycle of readings just previous to this, Jesus has lamented over Jerusalem and denounced the religious authorities who have chosen to wait as the foolish bridesmaids waited…without spiritual preparedness. The oil of love, compassion, and selfless service to others has gone out in their lamps. They have placed burdens on others without accepting servanthood for themselves. And the door is now shut. In the words of the old African American spiritual, Not everybody talkin’ about heaven’s goin’ there!
Lord, when did we see you? Jesus tells us that we see him most clearly in the face of our neighbor. The foolish bridesmaids, like the Pharisees and scribes, refused to see God in the face of their neighbor. In their freedom to choose their own path in life, they chose to use that gift of freedom to be independent of God…independent of others. That puts us on an entirely different path in life than one in which the oil burns brightly in our lamps.
It takes hope to wait like this, during a gestation longer than that of an elephant. In Romans (8:18-25) Paul uses a similar analogy when he says that creation waits with longing for the revealing of the kingdom…the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains as we wait for redemption. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” In our patience we must prepare for the beauty that God is birthing in this world.
The foolish bridesmaids were waiting expectantly for the bridegroom but did nothing to prepare for his return. The lamp oil symbolizes preparedness. Lindsay Armstrong, in a commentary on this passage, observes that the oil in this parable can be understood as faith, good works, compassion for others, and the spiritual reserves that shine forth as we wait during this long pregnancy. “Just as we cannot share spiritual reserves (or)… preparedness, the bridesmaids cannot borrow the resources needed. Being prepared to welcome Christ is an individual matter…” I can’t give you mine, and you can’t give me yours. No one can live the kingdom life for us.
One could, and people do, explain away this passage into something else, and try to assure ourselves that Jesus doesn’t really mean the door will be closed. Can this really be the final word? Jesus does sometimes use hyperbole. However, one cannot read Matthew without hearing clearly in it that there is a judgment and we will one day all be judged. We ignore that teaching at our peril.
Now we have all had teachers who would give an extension on a term paper. And we have all had teachers who would not give extensions. Let’s just say for the purpose of discussion that Jesus could be one or the other. Which is the safer assumption? Which assumption is the basket in which we want to put all our eternal eggs? We are free to choose. Yet here we are on All Saint’s Sunday, remembering the saints among us who died in this past year, to testify to the fact that life is short and we do not know the number of our days.
Our book group just finished “Sarah’s Key” which is a fictional account of the events of July 1942 in Paris. The French police, under the Vichy government, go house to house rounding up Jewish families. Thousands of children and parents were delivered to Auschwitz in a shocking and now little -remembered collaboration with the Nazis. Tens of thousands were killed. It’s hard to project ourselves back into the climate of fear that must have existed, for all the French, in occupied France. But really, for French police to participate in the brutal murder of French citizens? I guess they must have thought the bridegroom wasn’t coming back and they were on their own to decide a course of action. I guess I can have sympathy for them because they looked at the power and might of the Third Reich and thought “this is what the world is going to be and I might as well go along to get along.”
It’s easy to believe that we are on are on our own here in this mixed-up, crazy world and that things will never change. It’s easy to believe that the bridegroom will surely understand that we had to make some choices. Those French police would have said, “hey, our lives are at stake here.” But choices have consequences. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that choice, and I’m glad I don’t have to live with the consequences of the choice those policemen did make.
But there were also those French residents who, at great risk to themselves chose to help the Jews escape. They hid them in their own homes, gave them money and food. Had they been discovered their lives would have been forfeit as well. I guess they believed that this life wasn’t all that there ever would be. They kept the oil of compassion burning in their lamps, knowing that the bridegroom would one day return, and would find them at their labors.
It’s been said that it is only in the long haul that readiness for the kingdom is determined. As Joshua put it to his people we can choose this day whom we will serve. That is a lifelong proposition, not just a proposition for one day. As one writer puts it to become a person in Christ means to put one way of life aside in order that the other can be put on. The wise and foolish bridesmaids all looked the same from the outside. Wisdom was distinguished from foolishness only at the end of their lives.
Some people get caught up in the “when” that Jesus is coming and they mine scripture for clues and signs. That is not what this passage is about. If we get caught up in the “when” that Jesus is coming, we will lose sight of “how” we are to wait. Think of it as a pregnant elephant has to think about it…it takes as long as it takes. And in the meantime we have to keep our lamps trimmed and burning.
Like all parables of the kingdom this one contains both warning and promise. The warning is that we don’t have forever to prepare. The promise is that we are invited today into new life, one in which the wedding feast has already begun.