Question: in your experience, what is the most difficult thing to wait for?
Today’s parable story in Matthew is a story about waiting.
But admittedly, it’s a weird story, and its characters seem outdated.
We’re not really used to hearing about virgins or bridesmaids ushering a groom to his wedding. First century marriage customs suggest that the groom and his entourage would go to the home of the bride. As they were approaching, they would be met by the bride’s attendants [the bridesmaids], with lighted lamps, who would escort the male party to the home of the bride’s parents. Then, they would escort both bride and groom to the house where the marriage and banquet would take place.
It’s kind of difficult for us to connect with this story, though many take the easy route and assume that the bridegroom is Jesus and so of course, Jesus is coming and we better be ready with plenty of oil.
Stay awake and don’t be foolish.
End of moral.
But that’s not consistent with the context of Matthew’s Gospel. The community to which Matthew was speaking had gone through a lot of difficulty. They were sure that Christ would return very soon. When he didn’t return, they were perplexed. What now? Some followers of Jesus thought that they had somehow missed Jesus’ return because too much time had already passed. So Matthew’s Gospel was addressing a very skeptical group of people many years after the anticipated return of Jesus was nothing more than more Roman occupation.
Keep awake? For what?
And so they get this story.
And now we get it, too.
Yes, it’s about waiting, but it’s weird; and outdated; and confusing.
After all, don’t you feel bad for the so-called “foolish” bridesmaids?
I probably would have been one of them.
Also, how come the “wise” bridesmaids didn’t share their oil with the others?
And how come the bridegroom just didn’t accept everyone?
I’m not sure there are complete answers to those questions.
But we can look closer at this idea of waiting.
“Gospel” waiting is hard. It is not sitting in your most-comfortable chair or couch, favorite beverage and snack in hand.
In Matthew and the other Gospels, people were encouraged to wait and feel the pain of it. This type of waiting is sitting in that space of uncertainty and recognizing it. This kind of waiting is active and real.
In this case, waiting is more than just patience—it is waiting for something way overdue like a job, improvement in your health, or a healed relationship. It is waiting for something you’re not sure will ever happen. Waiting is hard.
I asked you before to consider the things that in your experience are the hardest to wait for.
Why are they so difficult to wait for?
For me, my answer is anxiety. I’m afraid that what I wait for will never come. For me, I start to get impatient and try to “make” it happen out of fear that it won’t happen.
The only thing I can say is that in this we are not alone.
Everyone at some point gets anxious and impatient.
But there are ways to wait that can combat our anxiousness. What if our waiting is active? What if our waiting includes noticing the beauty of creation all around us? What if our waiting includes seeing and experiencing God’s mercy and grace in the day-to-day things and in others?
Waiting that is active can allow us to discover beauty and even joy in the meantime; in the in between times.
But this wasn’t enough for Jesus of Nazareth. For him, waiting was also working for justice.
Jesus taught and lived the idea that justice work can and should be done in spite of our own uncertainty, struggles, and fears. Yes, prejudice is real; our world pushes people down; systems are set up to favor only a few; injustice is rampant. But each time we stare at that harsh reality in the face and still decide to move forward with compassion, still decide to give time and talents to others without expecting anything in return—we are participating in active waiting.
And we just might notice something good in the middle of all this crap.
Regardless of how difficult or challenging our own personal situations may seem, we are indeed called to an active waiting that involves actively helping others and waiting with them.
Waiting with each other.
Ah, now that’s important, isn’t it?
Because waiting looks a bit different for each person. And at some point, you will identify with all three characters in the parable.
Sometimes you will feel foolish [anxious, scared, impatient, and exhausted]. You will run out of oil. You may feel left out.
Other times you will feel wise [well-equipped and prepared, calm, peaceful, rested]. You will have enough oil for the long haul.
And then some of you may feel like a bridegroom [a gatekeeper, a leader who will have the ability to welcome people or reject people; to embrace their ideas or to blow them off. You will discover people who make mistakes or who are considered foolish, and others who are considered wise and prepared. And you can choose to welcome them all or to shut them out due to fear and anxiety, that both lead to control.
We are all wise and foolish, patient and impatient, gatekeeper and host.
So friends, we must wait together and accept each other. If we honestly and humbly do this, we will share the oil we have; we will find room for everyone; we won’t shut anyone out; we will recognize the pain and impatience of waiting, but we’ll do it together.