Have you ever been separated from your companion or companions when you’ve been in some big store or at some incredibly busy place where there are a multitude of people in the crowd? That’s happened to me a number of times. And you never know whether you should just stay in one place and wait until they find you or if you should go off looking for them. And inevitably, when you find them, you both start saying that you were looking all over for each other and where the hell were you? I even wrote a poem about the experience once.
When one has lost someone
Should you stay
In one place
And wait for what will seem to be
Hours without end
eyes turn the head
in impatient anticipation
for them to find you
Or should you go looking
Turning down one way
And then another
In your quest to find them
You have missed them again
As you went right
And they left
I have found that the best strategy in this situation is to just stay put and wait for them to find you. You just to have faith they will. This week’s reading from the book of Matthew reminds me of that experience a little:
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the ‘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.” (Matthew 25)
Now this story is the kind of story that really bothers me. I mean, it doesn’t sound very much like Jesus, does it? No—get your own damn oil! And then when they show up after buying the oil (I guess the shops stay open late in Judea), the bridegroom says to get the hell out. (A) That sounds pretty scary, and (B) that sounds downright mean and nasty. But of course, it’s a parable. It isn’t meant to be taken as fact. It’s designed to teach a spiritual lesson.
Of course, the bridegroom in the story is referring to Jesus and the second coming. Jesus has already given us some stories about absence. In the story about the king’s wedding, the kind doesn’t show up until the guests have already arrived. And the story about faithful servant and the unfaithful servant, which immediately precedes this parable, revolves around the delay of the master. So, if Jesus really did say this parable, he must have known he wasn’t coming back for a little while.
This parable is peculiar to the book of Matthew. It isn’t in the other gospels. So this leads me to believe that this story was specifically added to address the concerns of the church in Antioch for which the gospel was written. If you recall, this church was composed of mostly Jewish Christians along with some gentile converts. And the Jewish Christians were trying to lord it over the gentile Christians. They felt, because they had followed the law, that they were somehow slightly more equal than the other “pagan” Christians. Most of Matthew is addressed to those Jewish Christians trying to persuade them that the other gentile Christians were just as loved and cherished by God as they were and that following the law was not the way to become one with the divine spirit.
So if we view the story with that point of view in mind, it might become a little more clear. Or not. Back in first century Jewish culture, a wise person would have been someone who did good works and kept to the commandments. A foolish person would be someone who did not. So, since lamps provide light, we can see the oil in the lamps as a symbol of either good works or faith. So the wise virgins were the ones who had followed the law. The foolish virgins had not. This would explain why the wise virgins could not share their oil. You can’t share your track record with somebody else, can you? You can’t give somebody else your faith. So the foolish virgins go off to find their faith or to do good works before the bridegroom comes, but they don’t make it back in time. They arrive late and are so, out of luck, as it were.
Now, a lot of Christian churches will use this story to show the congregation that they damn well better get straight before the Lord comes back or else be damned to hell fire because it will be just too damn late once he returns. It would surely seem so, but I am not so certain.
Remember that all through the Gospel of Matthew the author has been showing us over and over again that it is not adherence to the law that seems to matter to God. It is our faith and loving kindness to one another that seems to be important. So it seems to me that tired old interpretation of this parable misses the mark—and the Matthew.
Why weren’t the virgins allowed into the wedding? It wasn’t because they ran out of oil. It was because they were late to the wedding. What would have happened had they stayed with the others, even lacking oil? Would the bridegroom have kicked them out of the wedding party? Somehow I doubt this. The purpose of the lamps was to light the path to the celebration. And of course, the virgins knew they were supposed to have light. Tradition would have suggested they go get some oil. But in a practical sense, they didn’t need to do that. There would have been light. Obviously, in the story there was sufficient light. They found their way there. What if they had just stayed and waited? But they didn’t. They let the “wise” virgins convince them to go off and get oil, and while they were gone, they missed the whole event.
So it seems to me that the author of Matthew is telling his people not to be like the foolish virgins and go off trying to get yourself right with the Lord before he returns. Stay and be here when he comes. In other words, you don’t have to convert to Judaism and follow the laws of Moses to be a Christian. Jesus didn’t punish Peter for not having enough faith to keep walking on the water. He lifted him up. Jesus didn’t punish Thomas for not having enough faith to accept his resurrection without touching the wounds in his hands. He told him he was blessed once he saw and believed. The author of Matthew is telling us that it isn’t about the law. It’s about having faith.
Matthew was written at least twenty years, and more likely closer to thirty or forty years after Jesus had gone. I’m sure people were beginning to wonder where the hell he was. So I’m sure one point of these absence stories is to reassure the people of the church that Jesus would, indeed, return in his own good time. People are still waiting today. Especially since it didn’t come to pass on October 21st, as that crazy evangelical minister proclaimed it would. We all wonder when the end of the world is coming. Samuel Beckett wrote a play about waiting, “Waiting for Godot.”
One way or the other, the end of the world is coming to all of us someday, when we die. That’s the end of our world. And a lot of times, when we get older and closer to death, we start to look towards religion. The church I go to is filled with old people. The closer we get to the end of our days, the more we start looking for God. But maybe we should just stay in one place and let God find us. I have faith S/He will.