So apparently the average person - over an average life span - spends about five years waiting in queues of one sort or another, including (most annoyingly of all) about six months waiting at traffic lights. In our individualistic, "me first" Aussie society, paradoxically enough, we meekly queue up and wait for almost a sixteenth of our entire life expectancy!
And this, Jesus tells us, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. More waiting! By way of background, wedding feasts in rural Galilee in the 1st century were chaotic, multi-day, whole-of-village events, at some stage of which the bridegroom would be escorted to the bride’s home where - well, you can use your imagination but in any case the young girls of the village would bring him inside amidst general merriment and that would give them good luck in finding a bridegroom of their own. But the point is that what with the eating and drinking and the endless speeches nobody really knew when the bridegroom would be coming and - inevitably - they would nod off.
Here’s the first thing. Jesus tells us five of the girls are sensible and five are silly. But they all nod off. Eventually they wake up again because the sounds of the party are getting closer, the bridegroom’s equally sozzled mates are cheering him along the back laneway. The girls wake up to find it’s about three in the morning and their lamps have run out of oil. The silly ones forgot to bring extra. So what the sensible girls don’t do is share, their mothers have taught them always to be prepared and they don’t plan to miss out on the party. The silly girls try their best, they go out to beg, borrow or buy more oil but of course by the time they get back the party’s in full swing, the bridal couple aren’t too pleased to be interrupted and sorry but no, you can’t come in. You shouldn’t have run out of oil.
And that, Jesus tells us, is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Trouble is, most of us have been coming to church so long we listen to Jesus’ parables but don’t really hear them. Bridegroom equals Jesus, heaven is a party, if you are not ready you miss out. OK, but - really? Are we missing something?
Hopefully, with the benefit of my somewhat tongue-in-cheek retelling of the story, you’ll have worked out I think this parable of Jesus might be a bit difficult. Now, I know the usual way of telling this story is to make the point that we as disciples who are the recipients of God’s over-the-top love need to make a response of our own - that we need to be prepared for the real cost of being disciples. And so we need extra oil, or at least make sure our smartphones are fully charged, or something. And fair enough, of course over the last few weeks I’ve been focussing on the obligations of discipleship. But still - the sensible girls who got into the party - they really weren’t very nice, were they? And the bridegroom? He certainly isn’t the same character as the one we meet in Jesus’ other parable about the kingdom of heaven, the long-suffering father of the prodigal son who limps home feeling sorry for himself after running away from home and spending the old man’s inheritance - the father who runs out onto the road to meet his wayward son and throws a party for him. The bridegroom in today’s story who shuts the door on the girls who ran out of oil isn’t like the father who forgives his son for his foolishness and his faithlessness just because he loves him. And the sensible girls certainly weren’t listening to Jesus when he told us to give to everyone who begs or wants to borrow from us, and if anyone wants your coat then give them your cloak as well. Jesus’ over-the-top commandments for love and forgiveness and generosity don’t seem to be much on display in today’s little story.
Jesus is telling this story in the last week of his life, and in the context of his criticism of the Pharisees who, he complained, were very good at being pernickety over the little things, tithing the inconsequential stuff like herbs and spices but were neglecting the real business of the Law of Moses which is justice and mercy and faithfulness (Mtt 23.23). You give the appearance of faith, he pointed out to the Pharisees, you ostentatiously follow all the rules but you neglect what the Law is really about, which is love. And to tell the truth the wise virgins and the bridegroom in today’s story actually seem more like Pharisees themselves, sticklers for rules but not so big on generosity and compassion. And yes, to be honest, behaviour like this happens all too often among people who claim to be a part of God’s kingdom. If God’s kingdom is like a party then it isn’t a party where the bouncers at the door scrutinise the invitations too carefully, and actually everybody is invited, even me. If you knock at God’s door, Jesus tells us in St Luke’s Gospel - even if it’s late at night and the lights are off and everybody is in bed - if you knock the door will be opened to you.Lk 11.5-13
The other part of the context of today’s parable is Jesus’ teaching on the Second Coming, which incidentally is also the context behind the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that we read this morning. This letter beyond any real doubt is the earliest ever document that made it into the New Testament, and all scholars agree it was written by Paul himself perhaps as early as 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion - and as the passage we read makes clear Paul and his Christian community in Thessalonika are waiting day by day for Jesus to return. It is an imminent expectation, so much so that Paul finds it necessary to remind the community they do still need to work and to get on with life in the meantime. But they are waiting, quite literally, to be snatched up into the sky to be with Jesus. If you read Paul’s later letters you get the sense that, well, we’re not quite sure why it’s taking so long - and a dawning realisation that following Jesus is about how we live our lives, not about how we wait around to be raptured. But the imminence of Jesus’ return, and the hold-your-breath sense of expectation is the mood of this earliest New Testament letter - and something of that sense also comes into the way that Matthew shapes this parable.
Well, two millenia later we are still waiting for that, and even in the parable they all nod off. This sleeping thing is actually very important because in Matthew’s Gospel, in fact in the very next chapter, Jesus will be pleading with his disciples to watch and pray with him in a garden as he awaits his arrest. But they all go to sleep, and so do we. We are not so alert. In modern jargon, we take our eye off the ball. Especially when we figure we have other more important stuff to do.
But - what if the faithful waiting is the whole point, and how we spend the in-between time, not the party at the end? Actually, Jesus himself sums up the point of the parable in our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel, and the big surprise is this: people, it’s not about the oil, it’s about the waiting! After telling the parable, Jesus turns to his disciples - this is in verse 13, the final verse of today’s reading, and he says, ‘keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. It’s not about how much oil we have, Jesus’ critique is for disciples who fall asleep on the job. Which in the parable, and in the garden in the next chapter, is all of them.
Being awake, it seems to me, is the spirituality of attentiveness, of being available, the spirituality of the extra mile. What if it is in serving and loving, in forgiving and being forgiven by those around us that we see the face of Christ?
What if the kingdom - and the encounter with Jesus - happen in the waiting? There is an old Russian story - which no doubt you’ve heard before - about a rabbi who dreams that the following night the longed for messiah will visit him. ‘Oi vey!’, he thinks to himself, ‘I’d better stay awake then’. So the following evening he builds up the fire and lights the lamps and opens the front door. Then he settles himself to wait. Midnight comes and one o’clock and two o’clock and no messiah - and inevitably the old man goes to sleep by the dying fire. He dreams again, that the messiah is sitting next to him in the living room. ‘Why didn’t you stay awake?’ The rabbi protests, ‘I tried Lord, but you didn’t come. Nobody but an old woman needing bread, and my neighbour, Yiitshak, wanting to borrow a blanket. But you - you didn’t come!’
Stay awake!