Keep awake! You foolish bridesmaids
Christianity is a religion of looking forward! Perhaps it is hard for people sometimes to recognise that. Much of our talk is, of course, about event that took place 2000 years and more ago. But all of those events, in fact, have a bearing on the future. Christianity is a religion of looking forward, forward to a point when the world will be made again. It will be remade, by God, without all the negatives that we currently see and sometimes experience. In that world-made-new there will be: no more want; no more sickness; no more suffering; no more oppression; and even, especially, there will be no more death. Our faith is directed towards that unknown certainty.
The way, as Christians, we have usually talked about this future, is to speak in terms of Christ’s return. The Son of Man will come back and will establish once and for all God’s perfect reign on earth. Again and again Jesus himself pictured this future world. He callsit “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God.” But he pictures it in a particular way. Over and over he says: The kingdom of heaven will be like this. . . And more often than not the picture he offers is that of a wedding banquet. Rather than simply the removal of negatives, Jesus offers us a picture of great celebration. Jesus pictures that certain future as a wedding banquet, hosted by God, with himself as the bridegroom at the centre of the celebration. Our experience of celebrations might give us a more concrete, a real sense of how that world will be. Our experience of wedding receptions, at their best, andfamily celebrations more broadly offer to us a small foretaste of what God will create for us. And perhaps our life together as a church should have more of that quality of celebration than it often does, to remind us that that is what we are looking forward to.
Jesus’ followers, the first people he told his parables to the first generation of Christians anticipated that their “looking forward” wouldn’t last long. They expected that Christ would return within their lifetime. The world made new would come about for them and for their own generation. They would all live to see the promises fulfilled. But the bridegroom is delayed. The fulfilment of the kingdom of heaven has happened, yet. That world made new has taken place, yet. Christ is still to return. God’s rule on Earth still hasn’t come about. It still remains in the future. It is still to be looked forward to. It is a certain, but as yet unrealised possibility. Christians of every generation, ours included so far, have experienced a long night of waiting with always the same question: What do we do? How do we sustain ourselves in the meantime? How do we wait?
As Jesus tells his parables of the kingdom, as he pictures for the wedding banquet, the concern of his teaching about the wedding feast is most often: Who is invited? Who actually turns up and gets in? Who gets to stay and participate in the feast?
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five of themwere wise
On other occasions Jesus is concerned about those who have received invitations but who for various reasons don’t show up. Here though he is interested in those who do show up. Indeed these are bridesmaids. They are membersof the wedding party. Perhaps, after the bridegroom, they areones who have anticipated the banquet most keenly. Just for once it is not all that difficult to figure out who Jesus is referring to. The bridesmaids are the church. They are all the Christians who in every time and place have been looking forward to the return of Christ and to the establishment of God’s rule. They are us. And Jesus imagining of this church like this has been fully realised in Christian history. The bridegroom has been delayed, beyond that first generation who expected to see Christ’s return, on into centuries, and beyond centuries now into millennia. There have been long ages of Christians looking forward. Of course living for so long with unfulfilled expectation is hard to do. Christians have often stopped looking forward and sometimes they have started to look back. And they have startedimagining that the better world that God promised us is behind us not in front, Sometimes they have tried to take themselves, and others around them back there. Like the bridesmaids in that long evening of waiting: As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them [wise and foolish alike] all of them became drowsy and slept. For even the most hopeful, the most forward looking of churches and Christians it is hard to keep being a religion of looking forward when what we are looking forward seems no nearer now than ever so that we might suspect it will never come. It is really hard to be a religion of looking forward.
Of course with Jesus a promise is also always a warning:
But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom!”
The great arch of the Christian story is one of those “just when you least expect it” stories. At the very moment when the Church and Christians have abandoned all hope of Christ’s return, then shall he appear! God’s rule, the kingdom of heaven, the great wedding feast, is a certainty. The great challenge is that its timing is unknown. But its time could come at any moment. Its long delay tempts us to think that it is less certain. Whereas in reality it must always mean, as St Paul puts is:
It is nearer to us now than when we first believed
The other picture and the other name for the arrival of the kingdom, the return of Christ is: judgement day. Which is why Jesus’ promises are always also a warning. And why he reminds us that in the party of bridesmaids there are both wise and foolish. Within Jesus’ picture of the wedding banquet and the universal invitation that he makes to be part of it, within that picture there is also the warning. Just being invited, and just turning up, doesn’t mean you get to stay. Shockingly in one of Jesus’ stories a guest is tossed out for not having the right clothes on. Here we find the contrast between the two groups of bridesmaids. One group gets to take part in the banquet and the other gets left outside. Notice where that division cuts. One part of the Church some Christians will participate in God’s kingdom. And others will not. Whilst it was easy to identify ourselves with the bridesmaids. What is harder is figuring out what the difference between them is meant to mean to us.
When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
One group of bridesmaids, the foolish, failed to anticipated that the bridegroom might be delayed and so made no provision for the delay. The wise, by contrast, made provision by taking extra oil with them for their lamps, so that whenever the bridegroom arrived their lamps could burn brightly
Addressing this to ourselves perhaps we have ask: What will sustain our faith in Christ, and sustain our faith that Christ is coming, the banquet will take place, even when the delay has been so long?What can we do so that we can keep looking forward? The answer to that of course lies in the rest of Jesus’ teaching. Put rather succinctly to Pharisees and the Herodians only a couple of days before he told his story of wise and foolish bridesmaids Jesus had summarised his own teaching and that of the law and the prophets as:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind
Which can really only be fulfilled in the second commandment which offers there:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself
Faith in Christ and obedience to Christ are inseparable. Not as a way of buying our way into to wedding feast. But as a way of sustaining the forward looking attitude that allows us to participate in God’s promises, not only in that unknown certainty of the future, but in our lives now
One scene in this story perhaps trouble us. The bridegroom arrives and the foolish bridesmaids discover the mistake they have made. They beg the wise bridesmaids to give them some of their oil so that they all can go into the banquet. They are rebuffed:
No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.
We sense the response is harsh. Where on earth are they going to find an oil shop open in the middle of the night. The foolish bridesmaids depart. When they return they discover that the party has started without them and they have been shut out. Actually I think we identify with the foolish bridesmaids. We can feel their pain. That we do I think is the power of the parable. Subconsciously we suspect that we are the foolish bridesmaids. We worry that we might find ourselves in their shoes. We find ourselves looking for an excuse or some way for them to escape. We condemn the wise bridesmaids lack of generosity and compassion for their less wise sisters. We tell ourselves it would have been the Christian thing to do to share. But there is no escape. And the truth is none of us are as wise, in Jesus’ terms, as we could be. Jesus gently but firmly pushes us into realising that a deeper commitment to him and to his way is what we are called to. As he says:
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour
Keep Awake! You Foolish Bridesmaids by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0