A Fool’s Errand
15 March 2015, Lent 4, NL1-28
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
“But if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”
At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then all the bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out. “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you.”
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.
In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light.
The bridesmaids who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.
But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
And the door was shut.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
Later the others also came. “Lord! Lord!” they said. “Open the door for us! But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
It’s amazing how Jesus’ words can shed light on his other words, isn’t it? Usually this parable sounds like a license to think only of ourselves and to pat ourselves on the back for earning our way into heaven by being prepared. Thousands of sermons have been preached on how we have to fill our lamps with prayer and good deeds, or else we might find ourselves locked out when the bridegroom comes. Thousands more have added that if you haven’t prayed enough, no one else can fill that spiritual lamp for you—you’re on your own unless you’ve done it yourself. I know at least one will be preached today that contends that the ones who have oil are wise for not sharing because sharing just enables the lazy behavior of others, and it’s about time we stopped being so co-dependent.
I’ve been having some trouble with the story this week, because it just sounds so much like Jesus is a 21st century American. Everything about this story screams radical individualism and hyperindependence and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. And really, this is very nearly the only place in scripture that sounds like that. This parable seems to contradict the thousand other pages in the book at every turn.
So when I came across this interrupted version, in which the story is interrupted by other words of Jesus, I realized: I’d been reading the story as if it were separate from the rest of scripture. What would happen if I allowed Jesus to talk to himself—would it make more sense?
In the rest of scripture, what the world sees as foolish is where God plants wisdom, and what the world sees as weakness is God’s strength. The wise know to stay away from the cross, because it only brings death and shame and pain. The wise know that death is the end. The wise understand that money can buy power. And yet Christ, who is the very wisdom of God, seems to not know any of that. Instead he walks straight toward the cross. He calls poor fishermen, sinners, tax collectors, outcasts, children, women, and peasants together, teaches and heals them, and gives them the power to do amazing things that change the world. And he won’t stay dead.
We don't even have to go far into the rest of scripture to get this upside down wisdom—next week we’ll hear the second half of this chapter, where Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we care for him, and when we send them away to fend for themselves, we have sent him away. Or last week, we read the key to all the law and the prophets: to love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Where is the love in this story?
The five foolish bridesmaids, ashamed of their sputtering torches and chastised by their sisters, leave for the marketplace. Though it is midnight, of course, so they will not find what they seek in the economic realm. They are on a fool’s errand, hoping desperately to save face and not let the bridegroom see that they were sleeping.
The five wise bridesmaids, smug and self-sufficient, watch them go. They too had been sleeping, but the groom may never find out the truth.
Jesus ends the story with two words: Keep Awake.
Notice the story does not end with “keep plenty of oil on hand.”
What if the bridesmaids had all stayed awake? They may have noticed the oil situation earlier in the evening, at a time when it was more easily remedied. Or perhaps they would have had time to remind each other of the stories of their faith…stories like that of the Maccabees and the miracle that became the core of Hanukkah: when the oil was only enough for one night, and yet the light shone for eight nights. That was relatively recent history for them, after all.
And maybe all that storytelling would have helped them see the truth: there is no need to hide in shame, to seek salvation in the marketplace, nor to send our sisters and brothers away on a fool’s errand. The bridegroom will care far more that we showed up and waited for him—that we were there –than he will about our human standards of preparedness. The bridegroom is looking for followers who will be ready when he comes, and readiness means showing our face, even if we think we’re not worthy. It means overcoming our own wisdom and allowing God’s foolish word to shout into our hearts “I am coming—follow me!” After all, he is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
It takes only a little light to scatter the darkness. It takes only a little of God’s wisdom to show the folly of our human ways. We think it’s about the oil, but it isn’t. We cannot share the oil, but we can share the light.
May it be so.