When I was about three years old, my family planned a trip to Florida. We were headed down to visit family for the wedding of one of my cousins, and it was the first time I had been to Florida. We decided to drive down, and there were going to be seven of us on a station wagon plus all of our luggage for the several weeks that we would be spending on the road.
We prepared the car for the long journey, loaded it all up, all of the kids piled in, closed the door, started the car, put it in reverse and one of us said, “are we there yet?” We were still three days away from our destination, but it was a logical question to ask for a bunch of kids in a car facing a three-day journey. To this day I believe my parents are saints for taking that trip with all of us.
We now live in a world where everything can happen in an instant. I can type a message on my phone, click send, and within seconds someone on the other side of the word can be reading it and responding. Never before in the history of humanity have we been able to communicate this fast. I believe this is a good thing but it is also a bad thing. Because we can get information and other things in an instant that means we want everything to happen that fast, but what Jesus is telling us this morning in Matthew’s Gospel is to slow down.
Waiting is not a trait that we enjoy. If you follow me on Facebook, you know that yesterday my wife Nicky and I attended the Rhode Island ComicCon and had a wonderful time. The problem was there were about 30 thousand people there trying to get through one entrance, so the line to get in was literally over a mile long. It took almost 2 hours to get into the building, in the cold, with no bathroom in sight or food for that matter. Needs less to say I was less than happy. But once inside my mood changed and all was well. I even got to meet Captain Kirk, so it was well worth waiting. But I was impatient, and I wanted to get in, stand in line? No way.
But the Parable of the Bridesmaids is a parable about patience and waiting for what is to come, and I think for us, going through a pastoral transition, this is a good Parable for us to hear. The temptation is to rush to the end of the process, to get it done, as they say, and move on. But unless we spend the time, nurture the process, we run the risk of short-circuiting ourselves and the process.
We do need to learn patience – and this is particularly true when waiting for God. Consequently, the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids speaks a profound word to a fast-paced twenty-first-century world; it is a fresh reminder of the need to prepare for the delay, specifically the delayed kingdom of God.
At the start of the parable, all of the bridesmaids were the same. They all dressed for the wedding. They carried lamps. They will all say, “Lord, Lord.” And each of them will fall asleep. But what sets the foolish and the wise apart is their readiness for when the bridegroom appears. The wise are ready for the delay while the foolish are not.
The wise are ready for when their faith in the bridegroom is tested, and they have the resources available to wait it out. The foolish have used up all of their supplies and are not ready and consequently miss the party. In the midst of life’s joy and pain, ease and adversity, intrigue and boredom, the faith of the wise are enough. They keep their light shining before all, continuing in community, study, and prayer, doing deeds of mercy, offering forgiveness, and spreading justice and peace. They have not given up hope that the world will be transformed and fully reconciled to God.
Near the start of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). At the end of the Sermon, Jesus reminds, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
The oil in this parable can be understood as faith, good works, practices, or spiritual reserves that remain constant and shine during good times as well as periods of waiting for God. This will explain why they cannot share their oil. Just as we cannot share our spiritual reserves, development or preparation, the bridesmaids cannot borrow the resources needed. Being prepared to welcome Christ is an individual matter, regardless of whether he comes more quickly or more slowly than expected.
Now is the time for active discipleship. The kingdom of heaven summons us to new life, improved commitment, casting away of false idols, active waiting in hope, and renewed vigor in faith. Jesus taught in parables to teach the secrets of the kingdom. One of these mysteries is that faithful action done now prepares us to ride out the storm and gives us what we need for the long journey ahead.
So next time you spiritually ask, “are we there yet?” ask yourself if you have enough oil to see you through until the end of the journey.