I don’t know about y’all, but I’m tired of bad news. It grinds you down, makes you wonder how the world can keep going.
You can’t pick up a newspaper or watch the news without hearing about how some politician or Hollywood mogul or business executive treats women as challenges for sexual conquest. I mean, come on. When people who call themselves Christians can make excuses for a politician’s penchant for sexually assaulting teenage girls, we know the cultural train has run off the rails.
Bad news seems to be all over the place, doesn’t it? That makes today’s Gospel seem even that much more grim.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that our text this morning isn’t among the passages named as “favorite” by anyone. It’s categorized as a parable of “judgment,” after all.
That taxonomic designation seems fitting, doesn’t it?
Ten bridesmaids waiting for the the groom to show up. Five of them fail to bring extra oil, so when the groom does show up, they’ve already run out. They fire up the mini-van and head down to Wal-Mart to pick up some oil. But when they get back, they find out the party’s already started—and they’ve been disinvited by a rather cranky host.
I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.
Now, it may be that I identify with the bridesmaids who get left out in the cold. I can very well see myself saying, “Aww, bringing extra oil’s a pain in the neck. Just take what you need.” And, I could go back just a ways in Matthew and make the case that that’s what Jesus commands. (I’ve been to seminary—so making cases to support complicated interpretations of scripture is a lot of what I do.)
Remember back when Jesus was sending out the newly-minted apostles . . . way back in chapter 10? He told them to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Remember that?
Then he told them: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” In other words, “Don’t bother bringing any extra oil.”
Now, in chapter 25 being a Boy Scout, being prepared is the only acceptable strategy. Apparently, now the day’s advice is, “Ok. Bring the extra oil.” No wonder people find the Bible confusing.
Like I said, I don’t like this parable much. The only people I have sympathy for, any positive feelings about at all, really, are the 5 bridesmaids that the bouncers kept out of the nightclub.
I’m not particularly well disposed toward the 5 bridesmaids who won’t share, for instance. What kind of moral-of-the-story thing do they provide? “When it all comes down to it, look out for number one. Don’t share. Don’t sacrifice for anyone else. Make sure you get yours.”
That doesn’t seem particularly edifying, does it? We can’t make that the theme of Vacation Bible School. Holy Ghost Island, or Jungle Adventures with Jesus, or Sodom and Gomorrah: God’s Fantabulous Fun Zone! Something. But not: Morality Expedition: Make Sure Nobody Gets Your Oil!
And I sure don’t feel that positive about the groom. If I’d been among the bridesmaids without oil, knowing me, I’d have complained. “Look, I brought the right amount of oil. You were late. Just because I didn’t bring enough oil for umpteen extra hours means only that I trusted you to show up when you said you would. You want these things to go smoothly, you’d better get here when you’re supposed to—at least call ahead, a text, carrier pigeon … something. How did your being late get to be my fault.”
Or what about the Lord of the house? This is certainly not a primer on hospitality, is it? St. Benedict, who wrote the rules that have covered most monasteries for the past fifteen hundred years, made the reception of guests to the monastery of highest importance. He wrote: Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35). (I’ll get back to that in a moment.)
Our host in this story, on the other hand, stands at the door, looking for excuses to keep people out. Hmm . . .
The only sympathetic characters in the whole story are the ones whom it looks like we’re meant to judge as incompetent—practically and morally. So, what could possibly be redeeming about this parable?
I think it has something to do with the job given to the bridesmaids.
When I was about Dominic’s age, I used to go to my grandparents' farm in southeastern Michigan for a couple weeks every summer. I loved to ride with my grandpa on the tractor.
My grandpa Penwell was typical farmer. Born in 1917, he got his start farming during the depression—lost a barn to a lightening strike in the first few years. He was a realist—which is to say, not a dreamer. In fact, he wasn't even much of a talker.
He loved me, and I knew it. He just didn't like to talk a lot. Like many young boys, however, I did like to talk. So, I would sit on the big fender of the tractor and talk while my grandfather did whatever plowing or cultivating he had to do.
I loved it. I think he loved it, too . . . most of the time.
One day, we were out in the field, and in retrospect I think I had probably been a bit too chatty for grandpa. So, at one point he pulled the tractor to a stop. He leaned over, and opened the tool box upon which my feet were resting, and retrieved a huge wrench from the box.
He got down, and walked over to a big gopher hole, and stood there for a moment. Finally, he looked up at me—very serious. "Come here."
I got down off the tractor and walked over to where he was standing, peering into this hole. He said, "That is a woodchuck hole." (He called groundhogs woodchucks.)
I said, "Yeah, grandpa. I know. I’m not dumb.”
"Woodchucks are bad for the farm. They ruin crops. We need to get rid of him."
All I was thinking was, "Yeah, dang Woodchuck."
"So, here's what I want you to do. I want you to take this pipe wrench, and wait here by this hole. And when he pokes his head out, I want you to hit him—hard. Can you do that?"
What was I supposed to say? "No, grandpa, I'm way too scared to do that." I couldn't say that, admit that kind of weakness to somebody like my grandpa, someone I considered a man's man.
So, I said, "Sure," feigning a confidence I in no way felt. I took the pipe wrench, squatted in front of that hole . . . two hours.
Two hours is a long time to wait. Two hours is an eternity to wait scared.
So, I finally gave up, walked back to the farmhouse, and got a chocolate chip cookie.
When my grandfather came in that night, after he'd gone down into the basement and took a shower, and cleaned up, he said, "Hey, what happened to you this afternoon? I gave you a job to do. I need to kill that Woodchuck."
"I didn't think that woodchuck was coming, so I left."
"One job. Sit there and wait for that woodchuck. That was all you had to do."
I think that’s how the 5 bridesmaids must have felt when the bridegroom showed up. The only job they have to do is wait at the door for the bridegroom. Waiting at the door. One job. Greet the bridegroom when he comes. Don’t have to be perfect; just have to be there, just be there and welcome him. That’s it. It seems difficult to mess up, but apparently they did.
Ok. I get that. But why is that such a big deal? Welcoming the bridegroom? Why is such a premium placed on welcoming the bridegroom?
Well, let me ask you a question: “Who’s the bridegroom in this parable supposed to be?”
Jesus, right? It’s a parable about when Jesus returns, right?
So, who is Jesus?
What? That’s a stupid question. Who is Jesus? Do we actually pay this guy money?
Hang with me for a moment. Who is Jesus?
Well, if you look a few verses ahead to the end of the chapter, you’ll find out.
See what I’m talking about? In just a few verses, Jesus tells another parable designed to illuminate just who Jesus is. Starting in verse 31, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Can you see where I’m going with this? Jesus separates the nations, the sheep from the goats, the faithful from the unfaithful, based on how they treated him: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
What’s the question everybody wants answered in the parable of the sheep and the goats? Who is Jesus?
When did we do (or fail to do) all that stuff to Jesus? I don’t remember doing that to you.
How does Jesus answer? “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In other words, Jesus says, “I am the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned. The way you treat them is the way you treat me.”
Seems simple enough.
So, let me complete the circle. The thing the bridesmaids are in the hot-seat over is not waiting at the door for the bridegroom to return.
Of course, this parable is eschatological, which is to say, it’s a parable about the end times. The church, like the bridesmaids, is supposed to be waiting for the return of the bridegroom—which is Jesus. I get that.
But hold on a sec. Where is the church supposed wait?
At the door.
To do what?
And who is Jesus again?
According to Matthew, Jesus is the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned.
And, I would like to suggest to you, that that’s who we’re supposed to be waiting at the door to welcome—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned. In a word, we’re supposed to be waiting at the door to welcome Jesus.
It’s easy to think I’ve got to have the lamps trimmed just so.
It’s easy to get distracted, thinking that I’ve got to have everything exactly right. But we’ve been given one job. Just wait right there. Then when he comes, welcome him.
But, see here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t just coming at some glorious point in the future. Jesus returns and knocks on those doors every single day of the week . . . looking for a bus pass, or a box of soup, or shoulder to cry on.
Jesus shows up right here, right now, in the woman whose boss thinks he owns her because he’s, well, her boss, in the African American mother crying out for justice, in the transgender kid who just wants to go to the bathroom, for crying out loud, without everybody making a federal case out of it, in the millions of people who’re trying to figure out how they’re going to buy healthcare next year.
Jesus drops by all the time anxious about needing a fix, or about how to pay the mortgage, or about who’s going to look out for the children when the cancer finally runs its course, or about whether it’s going to be another bloody day on the school bus because everybody knows you’re gay.
Jesus shows up at the door on a regular basis, worried that the world as it is just isn’t big enough for all the problems one person has to face.
The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned—Jesus is all around us. Our job isn’t to figure out how to impress Jesus when he comes. According to St. Benedict, according to our Gospel for this morning, our job is to wait at the door and welcome him.
I just saw Jesus, poking his head around the door. Looks like the bridegroom’s here. What do you want me to tell him?