I don’t like this story from Jesus. There. It is out there. I said it. I don’t like this story because the details are questionable at best. It is a wedding, but where is the bride? Why are bridesmaids waiting around for a groom without their bride?. Don’t bridesmaids and brides move along in a pack? And why is the groom late anyway? I mean a few minutes, okay. An hour, I am starting to think someone changed their mind. But hours? Who sticks around and waits for a groom that is hours late? Who is still standing there at midnight saying, no, Jim is just like this, he will be here don’t worry, have some more of those little hot dogs in the barbecue sauce. And where are five women in the middle of the night in a small Palestinian village in the first century expected to go to buy oil for their lamp? Were there 24 hour hardware stores open? I don’t think so.
Okay, the details are not my only problem with this story. I don’t like this story because of the ending. It’s harsh, right? The five foolish bridesmaids brought enough oil for a punctual groom, but not enough for a ridiculously tardy one. Is this how it works with God? One apparently arbitrary but defensible decision, not bringing extra oil gets you locked out of the wedding feast, kingdom of God, the ultimate party that we have literally been waiting all of our lives to attend. I have trouble with the implied fifty/fifty odds. Right now in your pew, look to the right and left. Either you are the foolish one between two wise ones or the wise one between two foolish ones. Which one? I’ll confess, if foolish or wise is decided by who is most prepared, I could be in trouble.
As I have mentioned before, I went on a once in a lifetime trip to Munich, Germany last month. Four guys planned this trip. Four really busy guys. Four guys who have never really planned a trip alone. At times we found ourselves woefully unprepared. Let me give you one example. once we landed in Munich, we had not planned how to get from the airport, way out in the countryside, to our hotel, in the center of the city.
Someone, suggested we take the train. Great idea. How hard could it be to use public transportation in one of the largest cities in Germany, without being able to speak German? We went over to train map, which was unhelpfully written in a foreign language and looked for something familiar. I noticed a stop on the map that had the same German word as our hotel name. Here is our stop guys. Nailed it. The word was west. We got on the train and went to that stop, each carrying two pieces of luggage. We get off train and find ourselves in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We are still undeterred. We see a busy road a block down and optimistically start walking. We carry our luggage four blocks. No hotel. We use my friends iphone. And he cheerfully tells us that it is just a half mile this way. So, we carry our luggage a half mile this way.
Let me cut to the chase. My friend, a smart guy with two masters degrees, an executive at a fortune 500 company, did not know how to properly use the map app on his phone. The train stop I chose was miles away from our hotel, I’ll own that, but he misunderstood the app and thought the next turn was always the last one. We walked for an hour and a half, on a sunny 80 degree day through neighborhood after neighborhood of Munich, carrying our luggage until we made it to our hotel. Imagine looking out the window of your home and seeing four foreign guys, sweating way too much, carrying two suitcases each down the street. This is what we looked like. All because we were not prepared. I am foolish bridesmaid material.
The story Jesus tells is an allegory, meaning each one of these characters stand for something. The bridegroom is the Messiah, Jesus. The wedding feast is the end of time party, heaven, the presence of God. The bridesmaids are you and me, believers, the church. And the oil? It would be good to know since it is the one thing we need to grab to get to heaven. It is bad enough when I forget my umbrella, only to be in my car later in the day, five hundred yards from the door while sheets of rain pelt my window, knowing I am going to be drenched for the big meeting. Not grabbing the oil means we are going to be locked out of the party for the rest of our life.
There are a lot of opinions about this, but what made the most sense to me in my reading this week is that the oil stands for discipleship, following Jesus, how we live our life in Christ after we say I believe. I know an easier answer would be baptism, a believer’s prayer, a born again experience, even good works or worship attendance. All those things are a part of our walk, but the oil is not any one of them. And, it is not a quantity thing, either. It is not as though there are jars of oil in heaven with our name on them filling up as we log another hour at Joseph’s Coat or sit through another sermon.
The oil is about discipleship and discipleship is a passion thing. It starts when we fall in love with the bridegroom, Jesus. This love is shown in a life of worship. Not everyone who worships in our churches loves Jesus, but everyone who loves Jesus worships in our churches. Discipleship is shown in our commitment to follow Jesus to the uncomfortable places his hope is needed. Listening and holding people who are grieving. Opening up our wallets to help feed people who are hungry. Forgiving people who have mocked us, hurt us, abused us, like the Jesus we love did for those who mocked, hurt and abused him. Discipleship is more than a six month streak of passion followed by months of ignoring Jesus because the rest of our life has gotten too busy. Discipleship is shown by day in and day out loving God and loving each other.
We are a waiting religion. We wait like the bridesmaids for the groom to arrive, Jesus. While waiting, we are called to be disciples, this is the oil we bring that keeps the light of faith lit. As disciples how we live our life matters. Our choices make a difference for our lives, but even more importantly for the lives of our neighbor, we are called to serve. How we live after we say I believe determines how much oil we have on a day of judgment.
We are the bridesmaids, some of us are foolish, some wise, some prepared for the end of time and some like me in Munich, woefully unprepared. In this room there are some committed disciples, some just beginning, some who the struggles of this world have made them question their commitment and some who can’t ever seem to get the disciple thing to fit in with all of the other things they want to get done in their life. Whether you are foolish or wise today doesn’t matter because the bridegroom has not arrived. We all still have time to reframe our priorities, fall in love with Jesus again, embrace the walk, the life, the way, he hopes for us. We have got time to make different choices. We have got time to fill our lamps with oil.
Finally, I need to say this. This story does not teach that God will make an arbitrary demand of us at the end of time. This story is not saying look out God is going to smoke us if we are not prepared. This story teaches us that our choices in life need to line up with the expectations of the God we trust with that life. On my best days, they do, and on my worst days I am the most foolish of foolish bridesmaids. But it is not a crapshoot, that we hope Jesus returns on a day we can be found singing hymns in a pew, not rolling dice at the casino. God’s judgment is about the entire breadth of our life. God’s judgment is full of grace, with a soft spot for fools…like me…I hope. I do know this. I give thanks for all of you who have committed to wait with me before the party begins in order to help me grow to become less foolish and more wise. Amen