Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
November 8, 2020
A Maskil of Asaph.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
This parable would work well as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. You can picture the bridesmaids in their pretty Victorian dresses singing a spritely chorus about how much they enjoy a wedding. Perhaps the lead soprano would appear as the bride, in a balcony or over to the side, with an aria about her devotion to the bridegroom. In another scene, the bridegroom is the tenor of course, and would have a crowd of young men around him. The doorkeeper could be a bass, with a patter song about how difficult it is to manage the guests coming and going. As the girls drift off to sleep while they wait, we imagine a gentle lullaby about love.
The midnight scene with all the excitement of the arrival would be splendid – excitement, anxiety, a calamitous discovery (the empty lamps!), conflict among the girls – it’s perfect. When the sopranos go in to the party and the altos have to go running off to find more oil – the oil seller could be the alto lead, with stern demeanour and didactic posture, full of dramatic exhortation to check your oil. And perhaps she would have a crush on the doorkeeper.
The librettist might have to tweak the ending. I don’t think you could have a G&S that left the altos outside at the end of the day, or that had the tenor lead (that is, Christ himself) giving such a harsh rejection. Perhaps the oil-seller could bring a lantern, and then the bridegroom would recognize them all and sing, ‘Yes, yes, I do know you!’ – and the doorkeeper would realize that he loved the oil seller, and they would all be jubilant together in the final chorus. It would work.
As we know, operettas have to end well, but parables do not. Jesus says that this wedding party is what the kingdom of heaven is like, and the five foolish bridesmaids are shut out, permanently. This is a dire warning, and also an invitation to all of us to be ready at any moment for the party to start. As Christians we are called to be prepared to celebrate the kingdom of heaven in any time or place. Seems a tall order at the moment, living with the ongoing uncertainties and hardships produced by the pandemic. All our parties are cancelled, maybe even Christmas, and anxiety is rising about the long dark winter ahead. [Perhaps we have seen a glimpse in the election celebrations to the south – but we know they have a long bitter road ahead.] And in our Remembrance Day reflections, we are reminded of times and places where humanity has been as far away as you can be from the festivities in this parable. As they say, war is hell, not heaven.
But Jesus is telling us that there is a party just about to begin, and a risk that you could miss it. How awful to find you had nothing to light your way, no oil in your lamp to brighten up the celebration… This is perhaps exactly how many of us are feeling after eight months of covid precautions. Depleted, empty, out of oil. Not everyone. Looking around among your friends and family, perhaps you can see that like the bridesmaids, some are okay, and others are not. Some are spiritually filled, but others are running on empty.
As the parable points out, there is a danger in letting yourself go dry. It’s not that your faith should cause you to be happy and clappy in all this, no one is asking you to fake it – but faith allows you to be alert to the moment of joy. The work of faith is to do all we can to be prepared for grace. Your prayerful solitude, your moments of gratitude for simple things, your small gestures of care for others. Sometimes your tears. Sometimes your honest sharing with a friend. Or a little joke. Some gentle exercise. A song, or a poem, or a painting, perhaps just seen on a computer screen. All these things replenish the lamp of the spirit. And Jesus says this is urgent – don’t put it off. For when the lamp of the spirit is replenished, the possibility of joy will follow.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven, the wonderful party, may happen unexpectedly. Even in covid, even in sadness, even in war, even in a long winter. The invitation to us is to be ready for it. So, check your oil, fill your lamp, and give God thanks. Amen.