So, it’s done. After all that waiting, the bridegroom has arrived. Or anyway, some decision got made, even if it will be a while before everyone lets the dust settle. Now we just have to figure out what we do next. The country has yet again been sorted into two camps: red and blue. Team Red and Team Blue have hated each other so well and so purely for the past few years that we now have to address yet again: who are we? Who are we in this country, and who will we become? How will we go forward together?
And for us as people of faith especially: what do we do next? There is so much to do. What can we do to be part of the healing? Because this world needs so much healing.
But I have to say, it doesn’t much help that the parable from Jesus today in church tells a story with two equal and opposing groups: five wise and five foolish bridesmaids. They were all waiting for a long time; but at the end, only one of those groups gets to go in to the wedding banquet. The other group is shut out, their knocking ignored, the bridegroom saying, I don’t even know you. This is not a parable that lends itself to finding unity in a fractured time.
I don’t often do this in my sermon prep, but as I looked at this familiar parable this week, I found myself wondering just what the words were that were translated ‘wise’ and ‘foolish.’ So I went to the Greek, like we preachers are always supposed to do, being fluent biblical scholars and all that. The word translated ‘wise’ is ‘phronimos’ – a word that connotes being sensible, wise in a practical way, savvy. Having smarts both of the head and the gut. It’s the same word used to describe the wise man who builds his house on the rock rather than on the sand (Matt. 7:24); it’s the word Jesus uses when he tells his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). These are the people who plan ahead, knowing by hunch or by experience that bridegrooms can sometimes be delayed, and you’d better have enough oil to have your lamp ready when he comes. These are the people who probably brought snacks too. Perhaps these bridesmaids are moms.
The word translated ‘foolish,’ on the other hand, is ‘moros’ – the word that gives us our English word ‘morons.’ This word connotes being dull, stupid, brainless airheads. This is the man who builds his house on sand (Matt. 7:26). It’s not a nice thing to call someone, and Jesus says that if we call each other this word we are ‘liable to the hell of fire’ (Matt. 5:22). These moron bridesmaids don’t bring enough oil for their lamps, because apparently, they just never thought of it. They didn’t plan ahead. So when their lamps run low, they’ve got a problem. And the door to the banquet is shut to them.
Clear enough. Though there’s one small wrinkle to all that: ‘moros’ is also the word applied in another parable to a rich man who stores up all his abundant harvest for himself, giving none to others – the one who says, oh, whatever shall I do with all this stuff I have? I know, I’ll build bigger barns to keep it all for myself (Luke 12:20). God calls him a moron too, and that night he dies. So the moron bridesmaids didn’t store up enough oil for themselves but their wise friends won’t share with them; the moron rich man stores everything up for himself alone and won’t share with anyone. Hmm. There’s more than one way to be a moron.
As in many of Jesus’ parables, this one has been interpreted differently by people of different perspectives. Just what is the oil that keeps our lamps burning? Why, it must be faith, say some. If we don’t have enough faith, we won’t be ready for Jesus when he comes. Our lamps will go out while we’re sleeping (or dead and awaiting resurrection, as the case may be). No, say others, it’s about good works. If we haven’t done enough good deeds in our lifetime, we won’t get in to the wedding banquet. Either way, the moral says, if we aren’t ready and so don’t get in, it’s our fault. We’ve been warned. The problem is that either way, this thinking seems to line up with people like the Pharisees, righteous people looking for their own personal ticket to salvation. People like the rich ruler who wants to know what boxes to check to get into heaven; people like the Pharisees who go around nagging other people for breaking rules; people like the legal scholar who wants a prioritized list of commandments to follow. Over and over in his arguments with such people, Jesus says, you’ve got it all wrong. It matters that we’re ready. But being ready isn’t about our personal stockpile of goodness. Sell everything and follow me; show mercy, not judgment; love one another. That’s how you get ready.
What is that light that shines – or should shine – in our lamps? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to ‘so let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify [God] in heaven.’ Our light is to shine so that others can see – but not to see that we’re really fabulous people with the correct opinions on the correct side. Our light shines because God is light. Our good works, our behaviors, our effect on others; our peacemaking, our loving concern, our thirst for righteousness, our perseverance, all the good things Jesus names in the Beatitudes; all of that comes from God, the source of all light and all good. We’re not the focus at all: as we live faithfully, people see God at work through us. No matter who we are. Let your little light shine – there might be someone down in the valley trying to come home.
The shut-out bridesmaids find their lamps are flickering just when they needed them to burn bright. What about us? This has been a long dark time. How are our lamps burning these days? Maybe today feels brighter – but our lamps don’t light and stay lit because things are breaking our way for our side (if that’s how you’re feeling); they don’t go out because things aren’t. They burn because of the presence of God in our lives – the presence of the Holy Spirit, the burning love of God for us and for all of creation. That’s the light that shines through everything. That’s the light we’re meant to shine for others – and the light that this world needs, at this moment.
We have a long road of healing still ahead of us, and work to do – we at St Michael’s, we people of faith. Friends, abide in that light. Continue to pray, to listen, to read and hear words that lead us toward hope, and toward the deeper unity of being all of us children of God. May God’s light shine, and may we be the lamps to show it. And in each moment, may we be ready to share that light with all. Amen.