Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I was rummaging through my desk at home this week, I found my old Eagle Scout award that I was presented some 40 years ago. The silver scroll at the top of medal is a bit tarnished now, but the red, white and blue ribbon which bear the metal eagle is still intact. Curiously, the award doesn’t say Eagle Scout on it. Instead, it has only two words embossed on the silver scroll, ”Be Prepared,” which is the Scout Motto. Someone once asked Scouting’s founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell the inevitable follow-up question. “Prepared for what?” His answer was simple. “Why, for any old thing,” he replied.
Jesus’ Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Bridesmaids has been traditionally taught as a lesson about being prepared. Be prepared to meet your Lord when he comes again. Be prepared to wait. Be prepared with God’s grace and mercy. But I believe that there is another message which the parable offers this morning. It is a warning of what may be when people with differing views on life cannot find a common ground. That is what I would like to share with you today.
When the evangelist St. Matthew penned his gospel, the church that Jesus had established was struggling for survival. The Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed and Jesus’ followers were suffering great persecution. Learned men were fighting over the direction of their cause. Still others were abandoning the faith. After all, Jesus had promised that he would return, but the years were waxing. The elders feared that many of their children and their children’s children would never experience the joy of Christ’s return. Jesus had said that he would come at an unexpected hour, so they should always be prepared. But for how long?
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids is an odd lesson for the church. After all, what can be uplifting and edifying about five wise bridesmaids refusing to share their oil with five foolish bridesmaids? “Go find your own oil” doesn’t sound like a Christian response to a friend in need. It certainly doesn’t lend itself to a spirit of cooperation and goodwill. When we look closely at the parable, we may even wonder where the bride is. No doubt, if she had been there, the bridegroom’s words would have sounded gentle and heartfelt. “Oh Jane and Mary, at last. It is so good to see you. We wondered if you got lost along the way.” Instead, we are startled to hear the bridegroom say, “Go away. Truly, I never knew you.” If the bridegroom had come on time as expected, nothing like this would have happened.
Jesus himself did not say that five bridesmaids were good and five were bad. The maidens were all the same. They carried the same lamps; they wore the same dresses, and they all drifted off to sleep. But there was one difference. Most biblical scholars would argue that the foolish bridesmaids were foolish because they took no oil with them. The wise bridesmaids were wise and prepared as they took flasks of oil with them. Like a good Scout, they were prepared for anything. They had a reserve of oil for that time or occasion if a crisis arose – especially if the bridegroom was delayed. But I would challenge that traditional interpretation of the parable.
Truthfully, the foolish action was not that they were ill prepared. No, I think the most foolish thing the bridesmaids could have done was to head off at midnight searching for oil when the trumpets had finally announced that the bridegroom was on his way. They should have just stayed there, a bit awkwardly perhaps, together with the wise bridesmaids who were carrying the reserves of oil.
Now you may be wondering: so what does the parable have to do with our present time of political uncertainly. Of course, there are parallels. The bridesmaids were split 50- 50. The groom had been delayed. The crowds were all tired and had fallen asleep. When the final announcement came, the bridesmaids said words to each other they could not take back. Five pleaded, “Give us what you have.” And strangely, the other five appeared downright stingy. “No! There will not be enough for you and us.”
Certainly, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids is about being prepared. Jesus encourages each one of us to ask the fundamental question: In the midnight hours of life, are we prepared to be welcomed into the banqueting hall? When we face a great trial and challenge, have we prepared ourselves with the words and grace and strength of God? We must ask ourselves, what is our relationship with God that gives us the power and patience and confidence to wait? Or simply said, have we kept the spiritual lamp entrusted to us trimmed and burning?
But I would dare say that there is an even greater and timely question being raised by this parable. My friends, as the church in this world, and in this nation, are we willing to share the rich resource of God’s light with others, and just importantly, are we will to have that light shared with us? We cannot be a part of a divisive discourse claiming who is foolish and who is wise. We cannot allow the thought of two nations existing in opposition to one another, and pretend that we are united. If we are to be one nation under God, then we need to act and speak to one another as a people saved and forgiven and reconciled under one God. The divisive, heated language of that midnight hour from both sides, from those with and those without, forced the five bridesmaids to run out and search for oil. How different the story would have ended had the ten bridesmaids, as one church, committed themselves to one another, and journeyed with the bridegroom together.
You see, the purpose of the church is to help provide men and women with the spiritual resources necessary to endure the waiting. It is to be the source of patience, hope, comfort forgiveness consolation and reconciliation for a trouble world. And at times, it is to provide the physical sustenance necessary to keep life going as well. As Christians, we build up a reserve for ourselves, in order to share it with others in the midnight hours- even with those with whom we may fundamentally disagree. That is being prepared. And when we allow God’s gifts to be used freely through us and when we speak to one another with respect and honor, then we truly become one people under God. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.