Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost: November 8, 2020 – The Wise and The Foolish Bridesmaids

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We hear another one of Jesus’ parables today. We are told that the kingdom of God is like ten bridesmaids, half of them are wise and half of them are foolish. So the challenge to readers is to determine what it is that makes the wise bridesmaids wise so that we can be like them. The parable is set at the groom’s house. The maidens wait for the groom’s return from the bride’s house where he has gone to gather his bride and bring her to his home. They went out a short ways to escort the new couple in a festive torchlit procession back to their new home. The delay was likely about negotiating the details of the marriage contract and it could take a while. They have torches (or lamps) because they expected that it would stretch past sundown (but not until midnight). So they all get drowsy and fall asleep waiting. So far, the wise and the foolish are the same.

They are only different in one all important detail. The wise five had put in some extra effort into being prepared for the occasion and had brought with them oil to soak the top of the torch in so that it will burn well and long. The foolish did not and only thought about it when at midnight, there was a shout that the Groom was about to arrive. They soon realized that their torches were not going to burn long enough to escort the groom home, they then turn to the five wise women and demand, “Give us some your oil, our torches are going out!” The wise say, “No,” refuse to share, and hurry off to meet the wedding couple.

Now I don’t know about you, but to me it is puzzling why Jesus would applaud the women who refused to share. After all, giving was one of the things Jesus spoke most about. He is the one who taught, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…. Give to everyone who asks from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:40-42). When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, he didn’t say, go and get a good return on your money. He said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). In this case, however, the bridegroom was about to appear. It was too late. There was nothing to be done. Jesus taught in parables not because he enjoyed being vague and unclear, but because he wanted us to discover the truth for ourselves through the kind of insight that only comes when you have put your mind to something to figure it out.

The drowsy unwise bridesmaids, having left such preparation to the very last minute, scramble, run out to buy oil, but by the time they do, they missed the procession; the door to the home was shut. They failed to fulfill their assigned part and they weren’t welcomed at the banquet so much so that the Groom tells them, “I don’t even know you.” It seems kind of harsh, but there may be a reason for that.

Jesus concludes his story saying, “keep awake, be prepared, be like the wise women.” It makes me wonder how they could have gotten this so wrong and what Jesus is warning us against, what kind of “left out” is he trying to save us from by telling us this parable? We don’t really know why the foolish bridesmaids were caught so unprepared. It is tempting to think that they were just lazy, or had a bad case of procrastination, we all, from time to time, don’t start on things we need to do soon enough or have trouble finishing. But they might not have been lazy at all. Maybe they were just frugal, holding back, not wanting to incur an expense they did not need to. The Groom might have arrived earlier, the procession could have been quite short, and there would have been no need for extra oil for the torches. Or maybe they so did not want to get it wrong that they made themselves so anxious that they couldn’t get anything done. That happens. Whatever the reason was, the point of the story is that they held back and missed out on joy. After all, they weren’t just invited to the celebration, they were given a privileged position in the joy. The parable really is about, how not to miss out on joy. And that is something worth knowing.

Probably nothing is more natural to us than joy, but it slips through our fingers all the time. I have sympathy for the well intentioned bridesmaids because what they did and failed to do happens all the time to most of us despite our very best intentions. I grew up in a home that had a lovely full set of china hidden safely away in a cabinet. I was frequently told not to touch it because I might break it (and the truth of the matter is that I did break any number of things as a boy). I barely remember ever eating on it and have very few joy filled memories of it. Just “don’t touch, don’t break!” But, I too, hide away precious things for fear of losing them. Every now and again I come across one of them and realize that it has become outdated by time and not by use. It would have been better if I just wore them out in love than hiding them away and never enjoying them. It’s hard for me to realize that fearfully clinging onto something so tightly is not the best way to keep it. The fear of losing something or someone can inhibit our very living and become itself the road to loss and missing out.

One of the best things about church is that it is often easier to learn something and try something out here than it is in our homes where there is usually more at stake for us. Previous generations have entrusted us here with their treasures and we have here a great safe place to be stewards of that all the while learning together how not to miss out on joy.

For example, All Saints’, like every other business or household in America, has a budget. Ours is a very lean and responsible budget where the exact numbers are public record open for anyone to see. We rely entirely on annual pledging to keep the doors open, gifts from our own parishioners and their families. Pledges go to support the maintenance of our building, clergy and staff service, and another small amount for the ministries of the Diocese of Massachusetts. As we are putting together our 2021 budget, it is an especially challenging time for us financially, because some (but not all), of our faithful supporters have a lot fewer resources during the pandemic. We can–like those drowsy yet foolish bridesmaids–think of the demands of our budget as a problem that we back into because we are worried and just don’t want to mess it up. Or we can look at it like those wise eager bridesmaids as an opportunity for abundant life; a time to give and prepare having faith that joy is to come because of it. That faith, and the expectation that comes from faith, was much of the difference between those running to greet the bridegroom and those caught unprepared because they held back.

Elsewhere Jesus promised, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38). Many people have learned from Jesus that without generosity, there is only scarcity no matter how much you have. When we feel scarcity, it feels too risky to give, and fear’s grip upon us can get tighter and tighter. Jesus’ invitation to generosity is the invitation not only to give, but to have faith that God can help you, and to live each day with the expectation that good things will happen to you and us. This insight of Jesus applies not just to money, but also to other things such as time and love and learning. “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

It wasn’t the case that the well prepared bridesmaids could not share. It was that the very enthusiasm that goes into joyfully preparing for the feast was what the Groom wanted from each of them. The reward of joyful celebration grew out of the anticipation and preparation. The anticipation and preparation were essential to the whole experience. It was for this reason that this was one those things in life that each bridesmaid had to do for herself. This is why the only help the wise could give was to encourage the foolish to do whatever they needed to light each of their own lamps.

I invite you this year over the next couple of weeks to take the risk of pledging to All Saints’ and believing Jesus that if you do, more of what you need the most will come back to you “pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” People often assign numbers and percentages to Jesus’ teaching which can be helpful, but the real point is to be sure to give something and for it to be enough so that you feel it. That means that the amount will vary person to person and year to year and that is perfectly ok, especially during a global pandemic. If you have not pledged to All Saints’ before and your concern is that you may not be able to fulfill your pledge if circumstances change for you, don’t worry, you can just notify us at that time and we’ll adjust. The point is to participate however you can, to get your own lamp burning in its own way, and I hope that every one who values this place will join in as an expression of the ownership you have of this space as your church. The joy of giving is an essential aspect of the good news of Jesus. The real reason we ask everyone to pledge is so that you don’t miss out on the joy that is yours in Christ Jesus.

In this stewardship season, may the Almighty God who not only invites us to live with joy, but is the giver of all good gifts, grant us the faith to give freely, and bless us so thoroughly that we can, again and again, be a blessing to others. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet