Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Today I am in a bit of a rush to get this to the press. Not something a competent writer should admit, I know. Perhaps you are here looking for last minute sermon inspiration, and will not judge me too harshly. My ideal self would rather be dealing with something a little lighter than the end of the world, when I’m in a rush, but my predicament is making the point quite nicely. Whether I am ready for this passage or not, the deadline approaches… In the previous vesrse Jesus has been urging people to take the end of time seriously and to get ready. I take it that 1st century people found the prospect as unlikely as we do. They too got on with their busy lives and imagined that tomorrow would always be there to greet them.
Some have said that the early church’s preoccupation with the end of the world and its subsequent failure to come about (at the time of going to print) is a challenge to the validity of the Christian faith. Why would Jesus talk about it if it wasn’t going to happen soon? It has been suggested he was a charismatic mad man and that just as he was wrong about this, he was also wrong about being the Son of God and myriad other things. I mean, who brings up the end of time if they are in their right mind? I’m even embarrassed to write this blog post.
In this parable, we are told that preparing for the end is precisely an issue of being in one’s right mind. The ten virgins are not described as faithful-treacherous, loving-neglectful, dutiful-selfish; they are described as being wise or foolish. The foolish do not prepare for the task they have been set, which is to participate in a wedding by bearing lamps to light the ceremony. Ultimately they find themselves pawing at a closed door and they are not admitted to the banquet. It was unwise to be unprepared for this moment and the consequences have been serious.
Still, the thought of the end feels odd to talk about. It belongs in younger Bruce Willis movies, soundtracked with Aerosmith songs. But is it that unbelievable? Our species practically invites the end of human life on the planet by our treatment of creation (and Christians, in particular, are usually found amongst the leaders in the denial of climate change science). That’s not to mention our propensity to put veritable cartoon villains in charge of nations, armies and ever more powerful bombs since the earliest days of human civilisation. However, that much conceded, it still feels like none of this will effect us and that we can throw these concerns onto the next generation and not spend too much time thinking about it.
Look, I haven’t started building my bunker in the back garden yet, but maybe it is not altogether unwise to think about the end. The parable tells us it is easy to stand around, holding your lamp, playing the part without really being ready to participate. Without freaking ourselves out and living lives of anxious anticipation of the Second Coming, is it such a bad to thing to imagine from time to time that you might meet your maker in an unexpected, immediate way? And it may not have been the end of the world, but which of us has not lived through the end of a world of our own? A time when the plan was disrupted and our expectations were shattered? Endings come unexpectedly throughout our lives.
I’m not brave enough to bring up the subject of the end times at the staffroom coffee break on Monday. No matter how I spin it in this post, it’s still a weird subject. But what I’ve been challenged to reflect upon is whether or not it is wise to think about it from time to time. I won’t try to attach a particular meaning and interpretation to what the oil represents in this parable. I think leaving it open might give God more room to speak to your spirit. What I will say is that we all identify with the idea of playing a part from day to day and leaving truly important things in life undone or neglected. Even if we do have the privilege of dying with white hair in a warm bed, would we not have lived a wiser life by imagining an end from time to time? The reality is that there is a timeline on all our choices in life. The symbol of the closed door should be shocking, but not for the sake of making us feel guilty or scared, rather to wake us up and give us a decent chance at participating fully in the life Christ invites to.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.