25th Sunday After Pentecost

Jane Strohl—November 9, 2005

Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

The power of Jesus’ parables, I was taught, was that the stories were familiar vignettes and figures from the life of his society that his hearers would recognize. Moreover, the resonance of the commonplace would help the teacher’s point to sound more clearly, or more mysteriously, as the case might be. Then our professor would provide us with detailed information and sources that illustrated how the parables reflected the ordinary realities of their day. Once we had done the background check we too could have an aha moment.

So this week when I began my preparation on the story of what was generally called the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, I began by reflecting on what the story was bringing to my mind this time around. Three fairly useless points of contact emerged. First, as the parent of an adolescent, I would find this story more palatable if it portrayed (virgin) maidens as ipso facto wise. Second, I remembered a college friend of mine who, like Martha, was constantly distracted by many things. Once she forgot to put the hem in her bridesmaid’s gown, and we spent a desperate 20 minutes applying masking tape right before the ceremony. It held up through the first toast at the reception. And this led to a third bizarre connection. My friend Diane Jacobson, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary, was a Bible study leader at a Lutheran World Federation Assembly some years ago. The text before her group was the story of the Good Samaritan. As the various delegates shared their perspectives on the text, one elderly gentleman said that it proved the wisdom of his village elders who cautioned folks never to travel alone since the roads were dangerous. I pondered how an enterprising person might use today’s Gospel to mount a case fore hiring a congregational wedding coordinator. Lamps would be oiled and hems stitched if proper investment were made in such a ministry.

I realized then that I wasn’t getting anywhere, and that my resistance was due in large part to the fact that I was in an All Saints’ frame of mind when faced once again (and it wasn’t that many weeks ago) with a Matthean “You’d better watch out or else you might cry” text—and in another wedding context to boot.

So how can we hear this story? It is hard for most of us, I think, to come at it with the same eschatological urgency that drove Jesus when he first used it or Matthew when he allegorized it for his community. Yet the intensity of this poignant story does still resonate. We all know those moments of challenge and opportunity—to speak truly, to act faithfully, to venture into possibilities both promising and frightening. You are ready to seize them then and there, or they pass you by. Being marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by His Holy Spirit makes for risky business. But if you are in for a penny, you’re gonna have to be in for a pound somewhere along the line. It’s like living in California—there really will be a Big One, so you better have that emergency preparedness kit on hand and up to date. The time to think about stockpiling lamp oil and bottled water is now, for when the crisis comes, it won’t mark time while you run to the cash machine and the store.

Some years ago in a GTU seminar I was teaching, there was an Assembly of God minister enrolled as a student. In the course of our class discussions he told us of an experience he had as a young child. His mom was always waiting for him when he got home from school. He arrived one day, and she was not there. He immediately concluded that she had been raptured and he left behind. He curled up in the garbage can lid lying on the ground at the end of the driveway and sobbed. Several minutes later his mom drove in; she had forgotten to get some ingredient for dinner—oh, shall we say, cooking oil?!—and made a quick run to the store, hoping to be back before her son came.

We are often left behind; we don’t meet the challenge of God’s moment; we aren’t ready for it; sometimes we brazenly blow it off. But I would argue that being left behind is different from being left out. There may come a point when our “one more last chance” really is our last. But Jesus tells us to forgive our neighbors 70 times seven because that’s what He does. That is how He meets the crisis moment of God’s inbreaking reign: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I think of two other maidens in Jesus’ story—Mary and Martha. One is prepared to use the moment well; Mary drops whatever she is doing to sit at the Lord’s feet and feast on his words. Martha can’t stop multi-tasking. While she is grumbling around in the kitchen, she does get left behind… but she is not finally left out.

I have been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin with my church history class, and I came upon this wonderful passage the other night. It talks about the relationship between Tom, the courageous and generous slave, and his young mistress Eva. She is one of those fine 19th-century novel heroines, like Dickens’ Little Nell, a child of uncommon grace, ethereal beauty, and radiant faith, who blesses all with whom she comes in contact. She is also physically frail and dies prematurely of consumption, attended by her father, Mr. St. Clare, her aunt, Miss Feely, and her loving brother in Christ, Tom.

The friend who knew most of Eva’s own imaginings and foreshadowings was her faithful bearer, Tom. To him she said what she would not disturb her father by saying. To him she imparted those mysterious intimations which the soul feels, as the cords begin to unbind, ere it leaves its clay forever.

Tom, at last, would not sleep in his room, but lay all night in the outer verandah, ready to rouse at every call.

“Uncle Tom, what alive have you taken to sleeping anywhere and everywhere, like a dog, for?” said Miss Ophelia. “I thought you was one of the orderly sort, that liked to lie in bed in a Christian way.”

“I do, Miss Feely,” said Tom, mysteriously. “I do, but now—”

“Well, what now?”

“We mustn’t speak loud; Mas’r St. Clare won’t hear on’t; but Miss Feely, you know there must be somebody watchin’ for the bridegroom.”

“What do you mean, Tom?”

“You know it says in Scripture, ‘At midnight there was a great cry made. Behold, the bridegroom cometh.’ That’s what I’m spectin now, every night, Miss Feely,—and I couldn’t sleep out o’ hearin, no ways.”

“Why, Uncle Tom, what makes you think so?”

“Miss Eva, she talks to me. The Lord, he sends his messenger in the soul. I must be that, Miss Feely; for when that ar blessed child goes into the kingdom, they’ll open the door so wide, we’ll all get a look in at the glory, Miss Feely.”

Now look how the story from Matthew is heard. The bridegroom’s coming is not a threat to those awaiting his arrival. The bridegroom comes for Eva to take her home, and she dies resplendent in his glorious light. He will come for Tom, his radiance incinerating the arrogance and brutality of the earthly slave’s oppressors. The Bridegroom will come too for Eva’s doubting and vacillating father, illuminating his way to repentance and hope. His brilliance will show Aunt Feely the difference between principled virtue and the heart’s true charity. And so there is no end to the Savior’s transforming grace, whatever our need. For it is the Bridegroom who lights the way, for wise and foolish alike, into his Father’s house.