The charming thing about the parable that Jesus lobs among us this morning is that it reduces most attempts to provide commentary on it to a shoulder shrug. Just about every Bible scholar I read in preparation for this morning says in various creative ways that the whole thing is more or less baffling, as far as a straightforward answer goes. (Which is great for me: it means that whatever I say might be right!) The trouble is that the parable is full of inconsistencies; to start, the end doesn't match the middle--Jesus says this is about staying awake; but all the bridesmaids fall asleep, even the apparent heroines. The problem is an oil crisis, not missing the alarm!
And while we're on the subject of what went wrong, I don't remember Jesus saying that the kingdom belongs to the especially well organized (thanks be to God). Having been at his feet when he was going on, not so long ago, about the blessed riff-raff who are the building blocks of heaven's new world order (remember the mourners and the meek and the merciful?) it's hard to imagine that he forgot to add "Blessed are you when you keep all your extra oil to yourself." "Blessed are you when you make prudent decisions with your resources, even if it leaves others out in the cold," seems a long way from "Sell everything you've got and give it to the poor," which is another thing Jesus said.
Of course, it's the ending that tends to get folks who share my particular theological biases all tied in knots. And there is something distinctly off about it. On the one hand, it does echo the end of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is quite clear that not everyone who says to him, "Lord, lord!" will enter the kingdom, but then it doesn't sit especially well with the promise, "Knock and the door will be open unto you." It doesn't quite line up with the judgment that's coming in the great sheep and goat situation later in the chapter, in which damnation has something to do with a failure to welcome the stranger.
So what are we supposed to do with this? Can we wrestle a blessing out of this powerful and squirmy word?
Perhaps we should pray: Holy God, ready us to hear your word well. Satisfy the desire of our hearts to know you more fully; teach us to make you more fully known. Bless us as we wrestle with your Word. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be faithful and true to who you are. In the name of Jesus, in whom you make yourself known: Amen.
I suppose that it shouldn't be that surprising that once again, Jesus doesn't submit to our logic, that he resists our desires for straightforward, plug-and-play answers. It shouldn't be a surprise by now. But it's such an unnerving pattern for those of us who make a living explaining scripture into submission, so that it can be easily handled. He's just relentless in his manoeuvring around our attempts to pin him down.
So, maybe we should start there. Maybe we simply need to start by allowing that when the Word of God shows up among us, when we come face to face with God's ways and thoughts which are clearly not ours, we're being brought into contact with a reality that is a bit beyond us. We're being invited to get in on what God is up to; we're being called and wooed and dragged into the company of the God who is perfectly at ease doing more than we'd dare ask or imagine. Maybe we should allow that, fortunately, Jesus doesn't call us to stand back and make sober and detached judgments about just what he thinks he's saying and doing. He calls us into the middle of it all.
In this section of Matthew's gospel, Jesus is talking about the end and renewal of all things--which is a situation a ways outside our everyday experience. If anything makes perfect sense, under the circumstances, it's that he has to keep piling on images and analogies, metaphors and poetry, layer after layer in order to say anything at all about the Divine plan; to give us just a glimpse of the way things really are and will be. It's worth remembering that whenever Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." he's also implicitly saying, "The kingdom of heaven is not like..." The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or a farmer or a housewife, like a baker and a bridesmaid, like a son and a servant, a coin and a pearl, a shepherd and a Samaritan, and it's also very much not like those things.
These images give us hints. They get into our hearts and minds and tease us into a God-shaped life. I'm pretty sure that this parable isn't about heavenly logistics or divine guest lists; I think it's an invitation into cahoots with the One who's preparing for a wild, world-renewing, tear-drying, belly-filling banquet--a wedding party in which heaven and earth will be made one. It's about holy urgency; it's about readiness, longing, eagerness, anticipation that snaps us out of laziness and disinterest and puts us on high alert that God is on the move, even here, even now, and that that's got something to do with us.
I think that the Church in general would do well to sit in this parable and others like it a little more often. Not so that we can join the ranks of those who are manically concerned with end-time details, but to remind us that we're actually dealing with a God who is living and active, who is calling us into that life and action; a God who is forever coming towards us, catching us up in his festal parades when we least expect it. I'm afraid that the Church is often plagued by the sneaking suspicion that God doesn't and won't really do anything, and therefore doesn't and won't expect very much of us. And although that might allow us a comfortable pew and a kind of freedom to do more or less whatever we feel is right, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we're made for more. He keeps denying us a distant and disinterested God.
I think the Church needs the challenge of this parable; I think we as individual Christians need the challenge of this parable. Rather than offending our sensibilities, it ought to shake us out of apathy. If this parable teaches us to live wide-eyed and passionately, if it teaches us to number our days and so live them fully, why would we push against it?
While I don't like the response of the wise bridesmaids, perhaps the unexpectedness of it on Jesus' lips ought to be a sharp remind that what we do as, his followers, actually matters. How we, as individuals, live our lives matters cosmically. That's an incredible thing to say about us! I don't think that the "wise bridesmaids" is Jesus sanctioning self-centeredness and greed; I think it's a strong reminder that we actually get to have some personal responsibility to be ready for the kingdom party. I can't follow Jesus for you; you can't love my neighbor for me; the Church can't live the intricacies of grace for us. We are each called to do those things. The kingdom of heaven isn't about sliding into the party on someone else's saintly coattails.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples here, and the reality is that to be a Christian is an intimate, personal call. Of course there are communal dimensions--the image is a banquet, a party. Christianity is never individualistic. If we're becoming like Jesus (which is what disciples do) we're going to be turned outwards, no doubt. But Jesus also takes each of us with radical seriousness. Jesus loves us personally, intimately, and he calls us that way, too. And I suppose we can hear that as a threat or a promise, but I think we'd be better off tending towards the latter. Jesus calls us in perfect love and perfect love drives out all fear, as St. John puts it. Plus, I don't think it's terribly good news if we have a God who doesn't expect or want anything of us. That's useless religion, not abundant life.
And, the testimony of the gospel is quite the opposite. Jesus says, "Come, follow me. You: come, learn to do what I do; come, learn to live and move in the world like I do; come grow into uncommon love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, generosity and self-control. Come die to a dead way of living, and rise to live life that is truly life." Jesus calls us to be alert: to have our eyes open for what God is doing, where God is showing up, to know the hope that we have even if it feels like it's a long way off, even if we can't see it yet--we know the Bridegroom is coming!
Jesus calls us to take extra care in our readiness for heaven and earth to be one. He calls us to look strange, to carry an extra jug of oil when there's no expectation that we'll need it. He calls us to heap on extra grace, to outdo each other in self-giving, to carry an extra dose of mercy, to walk an extra mile, to give an extra coat, to be extravagant in generosity and unexpected in love. He says, "Only you can do that for you; only you are being equipped to do what you've been called to do; only you are sufficient to play your role in the party--it wouldn't be the same without you." And that's so much more than Hallmark card feelgoodery. It's the wild claim that we are profoundly, impossibly, beautifully caught up in what God, who can do more than we can ask or imagine, is up to; that we're sufficient in these bodies, in this time and place, to be signs and symbols of God's passionate way for this broken and beloved world.
The kingdom of heaven is like folks who are eager and ready for God to do God's new-making thing, for God to show up unexpectedly; for Jesus to show up and say, "Let's go. The party's on"; for the Holy Spirit to tear open the heavens and come swooping in, lighting the whole place up. The kingdom of heaven is like folks who look weird enough now that when the kingdom comes in its fullness, when the banquet we've been waiting for is finally set, we'll fit right in.
The kingdom is visible when folks are lugging around their extra oil flasks, even when a lampfull seems like it should be enough--when we're praying and singing and meditating on God's Word a bit too much; when we're getting a little carried away in love; when we're unaccountably generous and unflinchingly kind; when we have a light ready to go, even in middle-of-the-night darkness.
The kingdom is close enough to touch when we allow the grace we've received, the love we've known in Jesus, to take shape in us and make us eager for more and more of it, eager for the party to come when his will and way will be default, here as in heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like folks ready for God's action, ready to move when God moves, determined not to miss out on what God is doing for anything--even if the party doesn't start until midnight, we're gonna be there.
When we sit with this parable, meditating on it in the light of the rest of Scripture, and the ultimate promises of the gospel--that God was, in Christ reconciling everything in heaven and on earth to himself; that a people once shut out in the darkness have seen a great light; that the One who sits on heaven's throne is even now making all things new, and his kingdom's gates never shut; and that we are brought into all that by grace and grace alone--then we have to know that this is not about earning our way in--it can't be. It's not about comparing our readiness to our neighbor's--it must not be. It's about living in appropriate response to those promises, trusting that we've only begun to see them fulfilled; it's about nurturing a holy eagerness for the Bridegroom to show up, like he promises he will. This Bridegroom does not get cold feet! (If his other party parables--not to mention St. Peter's opinion--are anything to go by, the Bridegroom's probably late because he keeps stopping to invite more people. It's going to be quite a shindig.)
It's about being wise in the way of Jesus, which as often as not looks like foolishness to the world--a bit too much love, a bit too much grace, a bit too much peace and joy and hope--which will look just right, when it's all said and done.