Thus, our weekly readings begin to point to end times. And so it is that we hear Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, a story which speaks to the wedding banquet that is part of the promised reign of the Messiah. Of the ten bridesmaids, five were foolish (they didn’t bring extra oil for their lamps) and five were wise (they were, in fact, prepared with extra oil).
The foolish were excluded from the wedding banquet hall with these chilling words from the bridegroom: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Then the parable ends with this punchline: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
In addition to the gospel passage from Matthew, the first reading from Amos also points to the last days with reference to the day of the Lord, biblical phraseology that refers to God’s great judgement day. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light…. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18, 20)
The prophet then goes on to offer God’s word of judgment on the people who preferred the trappings of their festivals and assemblies to pursuing justice for all of God’s people.
Today’s second reading points to the end days as well with the promise of the resurrection of the dead. Hear it again: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18)
Given all the tribulation, the ordeal, that precedes the day of the Lord, despite the wonderful resurrection promise of being with the Lord, the various words from scripture today may not seem very encouraging.
Maybe it’s that the current days in the life of the world seem more and more to reflect the prophetic words of scripture. I don’t know about you, but I have an increasing sense of foreboding about what is before us as a nation, as a species.
And who knows how much news will have changed between my recording this sermon video on Wednesday and you viewing it on Sunday!
But here we are amidst whatever is before us. We are left with this unsettling word: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” – when the day of the Lord will be upon us, when the bridegroom comes, sometime in the darkness of the middle of the night, as suggested by today’s parable.
How do we live with this uncertainty? What in particular does it mean to be wise, and to be foolish in the language of the parable? What does it mean to keep awake? What makes for readiness to enter the banquet?
Attempting to respond to these queries in relation to the parable puts me at risk of allegorizing the parable and reading too much into it. But I cannot help but go out on something of a limb – since that’s pretty much where we seem to be spending our time these days…. Indulge me in some playful exegesis, in the spirit of biblical modes of interpretation from the early centuries of the church, and with Lutheran sensibilities in mind.
I am drawn to reflect on oil, that is, oil for the lamps referred to in the parable from Matthew. What makes the difference between being wise and foolish, prepared and unprepared, seems to come down to having enough oil for your lamp in order to see in the darkness, to look for the bridegroom’s coming.
A parallel to our own day is this: have enough fresh batteries for your flashlight. Readiness has to do with having an ongoing source of light – oil for your lamp in the parable, batteries for the flashlight for us in our day. But I am going to stick with oil, since that’s the biblical image.
In a playful, imaginative, free-associative kind of meditation on the parable, I cannot help but think of the blessed, scented olive oils that we use liturgically – to anoint catechumens preparing for baptism, to anoint the foreheads of those baptized, and likewise those in need of healing.
The administration of holy oils is accompanied by prayer and laying on of hands. In the case of baptism, oil is part of a rite of initiation into the dominion of God in the church. Application of oil seals the deal in making us Christ’s own, he who is the bridegroom in the imagination of the church down through the centuries.
In the case of oil accompanying rites and prayers for healing, the oil is a reminder of baptismal promises, but also part of conveying in word and prayer the healing properties of Christ’s presence in our lives in the power of the Spirit.
We use plenty of oil in church. We are well-stocked. In fact, the vessels that contain blessed oils are called oil stocks. Having plenty of oil on hand for anointing is part and parcel of our wisdom, our being prepared, ready for whatever is before us, but most of all to connect us to Christ Jesus.
You see, oil is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. In the case of oil in the lamp, oil is burned to create light to show us the way, to illuminate the darkness otherwise all around us.
Our light, of course, is Christ, the One who is our beginning and our end, the Alpha and the Omega, our divine wisdom over against the foolishness of the world. Christ is the one who keeps us well-stocked with plenty of oil, of fuel that reveals his light.
I also think of the image of oil lamps that appear in stained glass windows and on college and university seals. The lamps are associated with study, with scholarship, most principally for us, engaging the scriptural word about the word made flesh, again, Jesus Christ.
A final feature of the story that pertains is the exhortation to keep awake. Wakefulness makes for readiness for apprehending the coming of the bridegroom now and on the day of the Lord. And it’s easier to stay awake when the lights are on, our ways and days illuminated with the light of Christ shining all around us.
I could go on, but you get the point: being ready and well-prepared for whatever is before us in the coming days, weeks, and months, years and decades as we look to the consummation of all things has everything to do with Christ, our light. The oil of anointing in our various rites of worship sealing us in covenant with him in a relationship that lasts forever, our oils burning with the illuminating, warming brightness of the Son, that is, God’s Son. Amen.
And now for your reflection and conversation at home:
- Where do you see evidence of the light of Christ amidst the night shadows all around us?
- How does this illuminating brightness help you endure the rigors of our days?