I’m bad at waiting. Anybody who knows me well will confirm this statement as unassailable fact. Ride with me while I am driving in heavy traffic and you will see it for yourself. I don’t like to wait in line at the grocery store. I don’t respond well to being put on hold on the telephone. I get impatient with what passes for “customer service” these days. I recognize this as a problem, and pray often for patience. It goes something like this: “Lord, please grant me patience…. Well?”
I’m bad at waiting.
You may be bad at waiting, too. I have known people who are even more impatient than I am. My father, for instance. Unfortunately, a lot of our lives are taken up with waiting in one form or another. We wait in line at the store, at the bank, in the drive-through. We wait for news about the job we interviewed for. We wait for our children to come home from their night out with their friends. We wait for a call or email from a child or spouse serving in the military in a combat zone. We wait for the results of our loved one’s biopsy.
As the people of God, we wait as well. During this season of Advent, we wait for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, as well as for the day when peace will reign and evil will be vanquished forever. We wait for that day when God will wipe away the tears from the eyes of all God’s children. We wait for the return of Jesus Christ and the consummation of all things. Some of our waiting ends in fulfillment. Some of our waiting goes on and on and on.
We wait for some things for so long that it doesn’t even feel like waiting anymore. It just feels like the way things are. The church has been waiting for Christ’s promised return for just shy of two millennia now, and how many of us, if we’re honest, could say that we even think about it all that often? How many of us really believe it will happen at all?
The parable of the ten bridesmaids addresses the problem of the delay of Christ’s return. More specifically, it talks about how we are to behave during that delay. It suggests there is a wise way and a foolish way to conduct oneself while we wait for that long-promised consummation.
Matthew wrote his gospel in the latter third of the first century; probably during the eighties. That’s about fifty years after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, and ten or more years after the end of the disastrous Jewish revolt against Rome. Matthew was compiling his gospel in part because Jesus had not yet returned. One theory as to why none of the New Testament gospels appeared until at least forty years after the crucifixion is that by that time the first generation of disciples was dying off, and the church felt a growing need to preserve some link with Jesus, through eyewitness testimony and so forth. Before this time, the stories of Jesus’s ministry had circulated in oral form, and that seemed sufficient, given the expectation of Jesus’s imminent return. But now it looked as if that return would be delayed indefinitely, so they started to think, “Hey, maybe we ought to write some of this stuff down.”
Another reason they wrote the gospels when they did is because of the war. The Jewish revolt against Rome ran from 66 to 73, but its climax came in the year 70, when after a prolonged siege General Titus and his legions sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and left as many as a million corpses in their wake. It was without a doubt the most cataclysmic event in the long history of the Jewish people until the Holocaust of the twentieth century. In its aftermath, Judaism had to reinvent itself and the church, which still existed under the umbrella of Judaism, had to re-evaluate what it believed about Jesus, the church’s mission in the world, and the end times, including the return of Jesus.
We can see this re-evaluation going on right here in this parable. Matthew took this story of Jesus’s and placed it here in chapter 25 in order to comment on and interpret chapter 24. In that chapter, Jesus offered a very detailed and frightening series of predictions of events that would precede his second coming. Most of these predictions matched up with things that actually happened during the war: the rise of false messiahs, famines, persecution, and so on. But Jesus had depicted these events as a prelude to his return. He said:
Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory (Matt 24:29–30).
That clearly did not happen, of course, and so Matthew and the other evangelists had to come up with a different interpretation. Jesus hadn’t been talking about the war, they concluded; he had been talking about the end of the age, which obviously was still to come. We see hints of this new interpretation in chapter 24, when Jesus says, “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt 24:43–44). He also tells a brief parable about a slave put in charge of his master’s household while he is away, and he says, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (Matt 24:46). The converse, of course, is true as well. The slave who abuses his authority and is not diligently at work when the master gets back will be punished.
The bridesmaids parable has the same contrast. Five of the bridesmaids are called wise, and the other five foolish. The wise ones bring extra flasks of oil with their lamps, while the foolish ones do not. It was the tradition at the time for the bride to wait at her parents’ house, attended by her friends, for the bridegroom to come with his attendants. When he approached, it was the job of the bridesmaids to go out to greet him and escort him to the bride’s house, lighting his way with their lamps. The groom would come at night, but not at any set time. The bridesmaids had to listen for the call announcing the groom’s approach.
In the parable, there are ten bridesmaids. All ten have their lamps with them, but only five have thought to bring an extra flask of oil. They wait and wait, but the bridegroom is delayed, and before long all of them fall asleep. They are jolted awake by a shout declaring that the groom is on his way, and they all hurriedly trim their wicks and try to light their lamps. Unfortunately, the groom was delayed long enough for all of their oil to be consumed while they were sleeping, and the five without extra oil can’t get their lamps to light. They ask their friends to give them some of their oil, but they refuse, saying there won’t be enough to go around. So out they go in the middle of the night, vainly trying to find a vendor who will sell them some oil. When they finally get back to the bride’s house, they find the door shut and the party already underway. They knock on the door, and the bridegroom answers. They plead with him, “Lord, lord, open to us” (v. 11), but he says, “I don’t even know who you are,” and closes the door on them again. They are literally left out in the cold. Jesus concludes with this moral: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13).
When you think about it, though, that doesn’t sound right. After all, verse 5 says that all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. No judgment seems to be weighed against the five “wise” bridesmaids for having fallen asleep. What he means by “keep awake,” then, must be more like, “Be prepared. The groom will come unexpectedly, so don’t get caught without enough oil.”
But what does it mean to be prepared? And what does the oil represent? How can we put into practice in our lives this advice to be prepared?
I think it has to do with being faithful in doing the will of God. Notice the exchange in verses 11 and 12. The bridesmaids say, “Lord, lord, let us in,” and the bridegroom answers, “I don’t know who you are.” Doesn’t that have an eerie ring of familiarity to it?
If you answered yes, you’re right! These verses are reminiscent of something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount back in chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told the crowd:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:21–23).
In that passage, Jesus warned against flashy religiosity in the absence of obedience. In the parable of the bridesmaids he warns his listeners not to be caught without oil for their lamps. In both instances a group of people claim some kind of relationship with Jesus that he does not acknowledge. The two stories go together to tell us how we are to act during our times of waiting. We are to be faithful. We are to be vigilant. We are not to count on our spiritual achievements to get us on the guest list, but rather we are simply to be obedient. Sounds kind of boring next to casting out demons and working miracles, but that’s what Jesus wants from us. Simple obedience.
Consider in this context our reading from Amos 5. The prophet rails against the people of Israel for their hypocrisy and evildoing, and concludes with these justly famous lines:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21–24).
Amos rattles off a litany of religious activities that the people of Israel practice regularly, and all of them are not only commendable, but commanded in one place or another in the Old Testament. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers spend a lot of time (and I mean a lot of time) giving precise instructions about how to celebrate the festivals and solemn assemblies, and the right way to bring their offerings to God. And many psalms urge the people to sing and make music to glorify the Lord. Now here’s Amos, claiming to speak on behalf of God, saying that God hates the very behavior God commanded in the first place! What’s up with that?
The prophet is using hyperbole to make a point. God does not hate Israel’s acts of worship, any more than Jesus hates when his followers drive out demons in his name. What God hates is worship in the absence of justice. Throughout the book, Amos indicts the rich and powerful over and over again for taking advantage of the poor and not taking care of the vulnerable. What God hates is piety that masks corruption. To try to worship God while committing violence and perpetuating injustice toward God’s children is blasphemy, and God will not stand for it.
The bridesmaids’ oil, then, represents acts of kindness, compassion, and justice toward the poor. The oil represents peacemaking, sharing of resources, and advocacy for God’s most vulnerable children. The oil represents the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—which can only grow in soil that is cultivated through regular prayer, Bible study, worship, and acts of obedience. That is how we are to conduct ourselves while we await the coming of Jesus. We are to be prepared and alert, and we are to stock up on oil to weather the delay. We may get drowsy and fall asleep sometimes, and that’s okay. If we have been cultivating our soil, we’ll be ready when we wake up again.
The foolish bridesmaids had failed to cultivate their soil. Their empty lamps resembled the empty worship of the people of Israel, and their punishment was to get shut out of the party. The wise bridesmaids did cultivate their soil, did grow the fruit of the Spirit, did obey and do God’s will. They brought extra oil. Their reward was to share in the joy of the wedding feast.
So I guess the question confronting each of us today in light of all this is, “Got oil?”