Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78: 1-7, 1Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matt: 25:1-23
When we think of weddings and Jesus, what is the first image that crosses our minds? Chances are it is the wedding at Cana in Galilee. (Jn. 11:2) Why do we not think first of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids in today’s gospel? Why do our minds always migrate to the wedding at Cana? The question is easy to answer. Who would not prefer to think of Jesus turning six stone jars, each holding 20 gallons of ritually pure water, into 120 gallons of the best wine anyone has ever tasted this side of heaven? Who wants to hear the sad tale of 5 unfortunate young women in their best clothes, in the prime of their lives, being locked out of a wedding? But they did not bring sufficient oil! Really? Let’s re-read our scripture in light of a little reconstructive archaeology. A small clay olive oil lamp would have burned for 4 hours! A large one 9. To make these women wait even 3 ½ hours is incredibly rude. Assuming the party began at 6:00 in the evening—for the big lamps to have gone out and been refilled, the groom would not have arrived until sometime after 3:00 AM the next day! And guess who gets blamed for not lighting his way? Not him! It’s those five foolish women!
Does this story sound familiar to any of you?
Now, friends, have no fear; I believe today’s parable provides a resource that can rekindle the zest of expectancy, which should mark every Christian life well lived.
But to realize this parable’s life-transforming power, we need to ask three questions.
First, since this parable appears only in Matthew’s gospel—what does its context tell us of its meaning?
Second, when the long-awaited End of History, or the New Day in the Morning, arrives—what does Jesus mean when he says it will be like a Jewish Wedding?
Finally, what implications might this parable have for those of us who have fallen asleep and awake to find the fuel of our lamps spent? We have no reserves, and the flame of our faith is but a red spark a breath could extinguish.
Our parable appears in Matthew 25:1-8. just over halfway through “The Little Sermon on the Mount.” The 1st Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) was given to a multitude at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The second Sermon on the Mount was delivered privately to his disciples on the Mount of Olives outside of Jerusalem just before his fateful journey into that city. In this second Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his disciples to live in anticipation of his return after his soon-coming departure. Our parable is book-ended by two others. In all three parables, the master or bridegroom is away and returns unexpectedly to judge the conduct of stewards to whom he entrusted duties or money.
A little knowledge about Jewish weddings in Jesus’ time enables us to understand better what he means when he compares his return to a wedding feast. Back then, marriages were arranged (officially) by the father of the groom and the father of the bride but really by their wives. The wedding contract was signed a year before the couple lived together. The going rate in Jesus’ time for a bride was 50 shekels. The couple is officially married when the contract is signed, though the bride continues living with her parents for another year. In the meantime, the groom would add an extra room to his father’s house where the couple would live. The room was called a chuppah, the same name for the canopy under which Jewish weddings are customarily held. Remember when Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there, you may be also?’ John 14:2-6. His figure of speech is based on the chuppah.
To partially defend our groom, some of his delay was ritual drama. Like the Messianic Age, no one knew when the groom was coming, so…. part of the excitement of the wedding was suspense and expectancy. The groom and his entourage would arrive together at the bride’s house. The bride would be hoisted onto a litter—a chair supported by four servants—and taken to the groom’s house in a joyous procession. After some partying, possibly a ceremony, and a lot of hoopla, some of the groom’s party would start chanting chuppah. The crowd would then escort the couple to the chuppah. The door would be closed, and the couple would consummate the marriage. Once this had occurred, proof of the bride’s lost virginity would be offered. To more applause and laughter, the party would continue.
So, how might our parable promote joy, wakefulness, and expectancy in us here and now? When I first began to wrestle with this parable, I was in my mid-thirties, newly wifeless with no oil in my lamp and the spark of my life the shadow of an ember. I was in an apartment on Capitol Hill. It was 6:00 on Friday evening. I was still there when it was midnight: immobile, vacant, and dinnerless. Some weeks into my dazed, self-alienated state, I read a book, The Supper of the Lamb, by the appropriately named Anglican priest, Fr. Capon. It was Anglo-Catholic theology with recipes. I never became much of a chef, but the book did inspire me to develop a sacramentally high view of dinner. I made a pilgrimage to Safeway. With neither a list nor a recipe, I faith-shopped. Back at the apartment, I used my first purchase–some quality olive oil such as the maidens would have had in their lamps–to sautee’ God knows what without burning the food or poisoning myself. With food on my plate and the table somewhat irregularly set, dinner became not just a meal but an observance—I might occasionally overlook Morning Prayer. Still, the evening’s anticipation of the soon-coming Supper of the Lamb was one daily office I never missed. Eventually, I realized I had a guest in that I was becoming more present to myself. As I read, ate, prayed, meditated, and grieved, I realized how outrageous Jesus’ imagery of the kingdom as a marriage feast was. I began to see the Christian life as a life lived in the tension between expectation and arrival, disappointment and hope, nothing and plenty, darkness and light punctuated by modest rowdiness, good food, sufficient drink, and lots of fun. Unlike many people in the United States, of all places, to say nothing of the world, I could eat while I grieved and even occasionally laugh.
There are too many in this country and in this world who grieve that they cannot eat and rarely have occasion to laugh. We should grieve with them and do something about it. If there is plenty in the United States and the world to go around—and there is–then why doesn’t it? No law of nature would be broken if the dispossessed were fed and housed. To arrive at the point of Jesus’ parable by a slightly different narrative, no one need be barred from the feast—except those who exclude themselves, and we can name our own candidates (if we dare). Impeccable scientific evidence that there is plenty for all is actually on our side—and yet it would take a miracle of political will for the great day of rejoicing to occur. But isn’t that where “the saints go marching in?” A plate filled, and if by a single parent who at last receives a living wage, so much the better. The wages, the meal, and the growing self-respect are a small victory now and a foretaste of that great sacramental hope to come, a hope at once Biblical and Scientific, Rational and Apocalyptic. Sometimes, it takes people who believe in what they cannot fully see to dare set the table and invite the guests.
St. Hugh Episcopal Church
280 Wheelright St. (P.O. Box 156)
Alyn, Washington 98524