1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18; Matthew 25: 1 – 13


Running late – we’ve all done it.  Some people are late from the get go.  Fortunately, that can be useful in the long run.  In this technological age, our excuses for being late have become more sophisticated.  In our “post-truth” era, who’s to say what’s impossible.  We all remember when this was a problem… late books that is, although maybe remembering is now a problem in itself.  Being late can be the source of relational problems.  Of course, there’s an easy solution to that.  Sadly, there are some things for which one will never be prepared. It’s just plainly too late.  And for some, lateness is a way of life.  But being late can be a critical, life and death problem as in today’s parable.

Jesus offered this story as an illustration of The Kingdom of Heaven.  The K of H is communion with God.  In Scripture, marriage, the spiritual intimacy and union of two people, symbolizes this.   A wedding, was the biggest, most joyful celebration in the ancient world:  After a betrothal (i.e. the “legal” marriage), the bride, who was often a child, continued to live with her parents.  As the time to consummate the marriage drew near, the groom would take the longest route through town, visiting and greeting well wishers.   After a day or two days or even 2 weeks, the groom and his friends would walk to the bride’s home, where the bride and her bridesmaids were waiting.  Part of the fun was to catch the bridal party off guard, so the groom would show up at unexpected times, even in the middle of the night.  Out of a sense of fair play, a groomsman would go out ahead of the groom, banging a drum and shouting, “The groom is coming!”  The groom would then fetch his betrothed who would be accompanied by her bridesmaids.  Instead of flowers, the girls would carry lamps as they processed to the couple’s new home, usually a room within the groom’s family’s house where a wedding banquet would be held.  Jesus said what happens in the K of H is like what happens to the 10 bridesmaids in this story.  In the parable, 10 bridesmaids waited with their friend with their lamps lit and ready to go.  While the groom partied his way through town, the girls laid down and slept.  Notice they all slept.  They were awakened by the announcement of the groom’s arrival.  The bridesmaids woke up, discovered their lamps had gone out and re-lit them.  The lamps sputtered and the light flickered.  At this critical moment, the oil had run out.   Now 5 of the bridesmaids had thought ahead; knowing the groom may be late, they’d brought extra oil.  The other 5 bridesmaids panicked. They begged their friends to share the oil.  The first 5 refused; if they shared their oil, their lamps would go out during the processional.  There just wasn’t enough.  Rather than taking that chance the 5 prepared bridesmaids told the 5 disorganized bridesmaids to go into town and buy their own oil.  Having no choice, the 5 girls did just that.  In the meantime, the bridal party headed up the street to the banquet.  Once inside, the door was locked.  Later, the 5 tardy girls showed up too late.  The door would not be opened for them.  They had missed the narrow window of opportunity.  Unprepared and late, they would not be welcomed into the bridegroom’s home.

Like most Parables, this one speaks on many levels.   First, it was a message to people of Jesus’ day who were responsible to watch for God’s visitation and entrusted with welcoming the Messiah when he appeared.  In Jesus, God had come to claim his bride, Israel.  The time of God’s visitation had arrived but they missed it.  They weren’t prepared, so they didn’t recognize Jesus as the One sent from God.  Just as the 5 unprepared bridesmaids missed the wedding feast, so these people missed the Messiah.  They were too late to get into the kingdom.  The Parable also served as a warning to Jesus’ disciples who would be entrusted with making the Church ready for Jesus 2nd coming.  The Church believed Christ’s return would be imminent.  They needed to remain at the ready or they too would miss the critical moment.  The parable still speaks to us today.  Like the groom in the story, Jesus is taking his time getting here so, our tendency is to grow complacent.  Our faith falters.  The longer Jesus takes, the greater the temptation to let our guard down.  We are warned to “Keep awake” (vs. 13) to be spiritually prepared and attentive.  The parable cautions us that a lack of vigilance leads to a lack of preparation which leads to distractions which will result in our missing the critical moment of Christ’s return.  If we’re not attentive to what God is doing, we’ll find ourselves locked out and denied entrance to the Kingdom.  Rather than communion with God, we’ll be told, “I do not know you” (vs. 12); I’ll have nothing to do with you.  The Parable reminds us that the bridegroom’s delay is even more reason to be ready and prepared when Jesus arrives.  We are to keep trust, to fulfill our task, to remain vigilant, to keep our eyes open for his return because the consequences of missing it are both epic and eternal.

I struggle with the apparent injustice in this story.  The groom is late and that’s okay; a couple ditsy bridesmaids show up late and they’re locked out of the party forever.  I can only resolve that by looking that the roles of the groom and bridesmaids.  They differ.  It’s the groom’s prerogative to show up whenever he does; he can’t really be late.  The bridesmaids are charged with lighting the way for the bride.  They need to be watchful, prepared and ready to go.  Given Christ is the groom, what does this mean for us?  Sometimes I have a stress dream where I’m enrolled at university but haven’t been to a class or read a book and the time has come to write the exam.  I’m not prepared.  Being prepared spiritually means we can’t leave our relationship with God to the last minute.  So many people ignore God all their lives but expect to pass the entry exam to heaven.  We have time now, in fact Christ’s delay is an act of God’s love which allows us time, to decide who Jesus is to us, to develop our relationship with God and to acquire the fuel that will light our path.  We’re not preparing for the Kingdom when we make our spiritual life our last priority.  And it’s not enough to have the right equipment.  Many people own Bibles they’ve never read; go to Church out of habit; pray because they want something from God other than God himself.  If you want to build a bridge, you don’t grab some guy off the street and give him the material.  You need an engineer who has studied and a construction foreman who is practiced in his trade.  Our spiritual life is more than showing up with the outward materials – we need to consistently study and practice our faith.  We need to exercise our devotional practices by being open to the Spirit, obedient to God’s will and growing as Christian people.  We need to put our faith into action.  Wednesday night Karen told a story about a ½ finished school in Malawi.  People on a mission trip came and started it but didn’t stay to finish it.  Like the bridesmaid’s oil, their energy and enthusiasm ran out.  We’re called to stay the course and keep going until the Bridegroom arrives.

I also wonder why Jesus didn’t condemn the bridesmaids who refused to share their oil.   Isn’t the K of H about taking care of the needs of people, sharing our things, and risking our security to help others?  Shouldn’t those who are prepared be willing to rescue those who have messed up? Apparently not.  Rather than condemn these women, Jesus described them as “wise”.  Is Jesus suggesting that being selfish is good?  Have we missed something?  In some ways, we’ve reduced the Christian life to “co-dependency at its best”.  We’re quick to rush in to pull people out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves only to find we’ve fallen in.  We do this when we cover up for people or make excuses for them or intervene in some way so they won’t have to bear the consequences of their actions.   We do this when we think we can help an addict without realizing our own addictions and weaknesses.   We do this when we give people aid, without helping them to develop a sustainable lifestyle.  Karen gave the example of a church buying a motorcycle for a village without teaching them to fix it.  We do this when we do for others what they are, or could be, able to do for themselves.  The wise bridesmaids didn’t get sucked into the dysfunction of their foolish friends.  If they had, they’d have also been locked out.

Beyond that the parable tells us some things can’t be borrowed.  Faith may be offered through baptism when we’re infants but at some time we must own our own faith.  We can’t borrow it from our parents.  A relationship with God can’t be borrowed, we each develop our own. Christian character isn’t something anyone can lend.  Repentance is something only you can do for yourself and we certainly can’t do it for another.   Only you, with the power of the Holy Spirit, can attend to and develop your spirit.  Others can remind, encourage, guide and direct you, but only you know what you still need to do to be ready for Christ’s coming.   Only you can prepare.  Only you can keep watch.   When Mary of Orange was near death, her chaplain came in to ensure that she repent and accept Christ as her Saviour.  Mary’s response was, “I have not left this matter to this hour.”  Whether Christ returns or we meet him through death, there comes a critical moment for all of us.   May we be ready and waiting for our bridegroom’s arrival.