the penultimate WORD
1999 - Proper 32
The Irvine Tartan ē My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
"The kingdom of heaven will be like this," said Jesus, and he told them a story. As he concluded, he noted, "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Matthew 25: 1 and 13, New English Bible
Jesusí story about the ten young girls is disturbing. On the surface, he presents a common scene. However, he presents it in an uncommon light.
The story is simple enough. Ten young girls are excited at the news of the impending arrival of the bridegroom. There is to be a wedding, a great feast and celebration. The air electric with anticipation, the girls take lamps with them and go out hoping to be the first to greet the groom.
His arrival delayed, and the long shadows turning to dusk and then to night, the girls doze off. A commotion brings them to life as new reaches them that the groom is close by. Their lamps lighted these many hours of darkness, the five girls who hadnít thought to bring a spare flask of oil asked the others if they could have some of theirs. The answer that came back was both curt and without ambiguity. "No," they said. "Get your own."
When the five had returned from getting oil by some other means, they discovered that the door to the wedding festivities was closed. While not unknown to the wedding party, they were nonetheless barred from entering. We can imagine their disappointment. And perhaps we can imagine their anger.
Itís a story that suggests on the face of it that prudence is a virtue that should be prized and that foolishness or ill-preparedness is without merit. We can perhaps see it as another metaphor for the sheep and goats that invariably appear whenever and wherever a division between good person and bad person is useful.
But to approach Jesusí parable of the ten young girls this way misses the point, certainly.
Oh, the ill-prepared girls hadnít thought enough to take spare oil for their lamps with them. Well, they hadnít counted on the groom being delayed as long has he was. They had been excited at his arrival, however, and they had gone out to greet him! His tardiness had not discouraged them as they hadnít returned home as the dusk turned into night and chill air surrounded them.
And as for the girls who happened to have taken additional oil with them, is their prudence sufficient to eclipse their selfishness and haughty superiority? Had they expected the groom to be late, and made accommodation for his tardiness? Had they been privy to information about his arrival that they neglected to share with the others? Whatever the case, it is indisputable that they refused to share what oil they had and that they kept it for themselves. Prudence, perhaps, and if so a cloak for selfishness.
What we do know is that both the prudent girls, the girls we admire and perhaps want to imitate, as well as the other girls who we refused entry to the wedding feast, the girls we do not admire -- they had all ten of them fallen asleep. None of them had kept a watchful eye. All had gone out together. All had been excited by the news of the approaching groom. And all had taken lamps with them, and presumably lighted them as shadows lengthened. They had also fallen asleep.
That was Jesusí caution. His warning to the prudent and the ill-prepared alike: "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." His advice is for us all to be alert, to take care. Justifying our own slumbers we are tempted by exclusivity, grasping at our prudence as a cloak to cover our carelessness and justifying ourselves. Jesus speaks, and to us all.
Copyright © 1999 James T. Irvine