Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:13)
Jesus tells a little story about a wedding that started very late because the wedding party had not yet arrived. Have you ever heard of such a thing? This will surprise you, but late weddings still happen.
At my last church one bride arrived at 4:45 for her 4:00 wedding, but my organist and I got pretty good at choreographing these things, and John and I are getting pretty good too. If at the appointed hour the Bride’s Room is still lacking said bride, I just sneak into the chancel and tap John on the shoulder, and he improvises a prelude that will turn out to be longer than the wedding itself.
Contradicting common gender stereotypes, Jesus tells a story about a groom, not a bride, who’s late for his own wedding. Very late. Hours late. It’s midnight. I don’t know when weddings ordinarily began in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, but it can’t have been anywhere near midnight. This guy is rudely late.
As you might expect in a patriarchal society, first-century Palestinian weddings were all about the groom, not the bride. “Here Comes the Groom,” is what they’d sing. The bride was just an accessory; a bride was just property; her father would simply sign over the deed of ownership to her new husband.
Weddings were often held at the home of the groom’s father, so there are all the guests standing around the chuppah in the backyard waiting for the wedding’s maximal moment, the ceremonial arrival of the groom from his own home.
In Jesus’ story the wedding must be a fancy one because the wedding party is huge–ten bridesmaids. I’ve done that: I’ve been able to shoehorn ten bridesmaids, ten groomsmen, a flower girl, a ring bearer, a groom, a bride, and her father across this chancel at a fancy wedding.
In addition to all the standard bridesmaid duties–you know, squealing, weeping, making sure the bride doesn’t get cold feet and run away, assisting her with her complicated ablutions to hair, make-up, and a fussy dress of byzantine complexity–in addition to all of that, the bridesmaids were charged with meeting the bridegroom while he is yet far off on his approach, and escorting him the rest of the way to the altar with dancing feet and blazing light from something like those little oil-fueled wicker garden torches you see at beach parties in Harbor Springs.
This was what everybody was waiting for. In Jesus’ day, it was the groom who marched to the altar in all his sartorial splendor to the strains of Wagner or Mendelssohn escorted by beautiful young women bearing torches aloft.
Unfortunately, this particular bridegroom is so late that the rabbi and the soloist have been sneaking over to the buffet table prematurely for sustenance, the guests have gathered around the bar for free drinks, and the bridesmaids have all dozed off waiting for him, so that when the off-duty traffic-control cop runs to alert the rabbi that the groom is on his way, the bridesmaids flutter awake and try to light their oil lamps to illumine his ceremonial approach, but of course the oil has been exhausted by now.
Five of them–ex-Girl Scouts, I guess–have planned ahead with a spare flask of oil, and five of them haven’t. When the five have-not’s ask the five have’s to share their bounty, the five have’s cruelly refuse and advise them to scare up their own oil instead, but you can imagine how hard it is to locate a corner deli who just happens to stock garden torch fuel oil and is still open at midnight. This was in the days before Wal-mart, you see, 24-7. By the time the five have-not’s finally make it back to the party, the gate has been locked and the groom, whose fault all this was in the first place, pretends not to know who they are. They miss the party!
OPEC can cause an oil shortage in the Middle East by curtailing production in the hope of getting the price of oil back up above $80 a barrel, but that’s not the only thing that can cause an oil shortage in the Middle East: there’s also foolishness.
Yet again it’s my happy task to remind you that you know more Greek than you think you do: to describe the five foolish bridesmaids who failed to plan ahead, Matthew uses a colorful and versatile Greek word: :≃∧≃Н (moros) is what it is in the nominative case–foolish–which in the accusative becomes, of course, :≃∧≃< (moron). Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus calls the five oil-less bridesmaids ‘morons.’
You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology to get Jesus’ blunt message. It’s very simple. The Boy Scouts pilfered their motto from Jesus: “Be prepared.” Here are some things to notice about the story.
First of all, notice that The Bridegroom’s Arrival Is Delayed: There’s no arguing with that, is there? It’s been 2000 years. Jesus and Paul and their contemporaries, Jesus’ disciples, the eyewitnesses to his inimitable life, those who walked with him and talked with him and worked with him and prayed with him and laughed and cried with him, they all expected that after Jesus died, and then rose, and then left, he’d be coming right back, and I mean like tomorrow, in their own lifetimes.
About 20 years after Jesus left, his contemporaries started to die out, and this caused much consternation in the baby Church.
Year gave way to year, the promised fulfillment of all those dreams of peace and justice never materialized, life was still hard, Rome still ruled, and those early eyewitnesses began to die off, and by the time Matthew came along around 80 A.D., 50 years after Jesus, the early Church had some explaining to do, and there are some who think that this story about the bridegroom’s delayed arrival is not Jesus’ parable at all, but Matthew’s, a story the Evangelist fabricated about 50 years after Jesus’ death as a reminder to the discouraged troops on the verge of dozing off not to give up on the promises.
Two thousand years is a conspicuous gap between promise and fulfillment, but the Church mustn’t let that long interim blunt its intense expectation of a day of final reckoning.
Also, two thousand years of experience might alert us to the probability that we’re going to be needing this earth, the only home we’ll ever know, for a long time yet, so that it might be time for us to find some other source for our energy than fossil fuels. Here’s some homework: Go see the new movie Interstellar, about the desperate search for a new planet to call home when this one becomes uninhabitable. Let’s make sure this planet is still habitable for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Let’s not be morons.
The bridegroom’s arrival might be delayed, but it is not uncertain. It’s unscheduled, but not uncertain. The Son of Man, says Jesus, comes as a thief in the night. Of that day or hour, no one can know, not even the Son of Man himself.
To change the metaphor, as Jesus himself does, the bridegroom is late for his own wedding and we don’t know when he’ll arrive. To change the metaphor yet again, any indifferent frat boy can cram for the final exam with an all-nighter, because it’s on his schedule, but it takes a disciplined scholar to survive the intermittent, unexpected pop quiz, and this is a pop quiz; you never know when it’s coming.
It’s unscheduled, but it’s not uncertain. We don’t know when it’s coming, but we do know that it’s coming. Look, I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve given up on a literal second coming of Jesus at the end of time to judge the quick and the dead, with trumpets blaring, corpses rising, angels flying, and earthquakes quaking. We’re rationalists, you and I, and that’s just too much to expect and too much to believe. We don’t read the Left Behind series, you and I.
Still, the bridegroom’s coming. Literally or figuratively, the bridegroom’s coming. We’ll all meet the Maker of All the Stars and Worlds face to face. We’ll all meet the bridegroom.
Life is short. You don’t want to die never having lived. At the end of your scant store of days, you don’t want to be found running on empty.
Near the end of his life C. S. Lewis began to think hard about what could very well turn out to be an imminent meeting with his Creator, and as he conjured an image of that final reckoning, he saw God turning to an angel and, with a sly grin, saying, “Gabriel, bring me Mr. Lewis’ file.” Is there anything in your file worth reading? Is there anything in your tank?
What will the Bridegroom find you doing on the unannounced day of reckoning? November 9 is an extremely portentous day on our calendars, for two distinct reasons. It is a day to remind ourselves how much justice and peace and freedom there is still to fight for in this beautiful but broken world.
November 9 should be a holiday. We should get the day off. First of all, it’s Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers destroyed 7,000 Jewish businesses, set fire to 900 synagogues, killed 91 Jews, and shipped 30,000 to concentration camps. The streets were littered with broken glass and the confetti from torn Torah scrolls from the Jewish synagogues.
It was Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels who sent the German public into the streets with an inflammatory speech. “We shed no tears for the Jews,” he said. “We make no apology for destroying the synagogues; they have stood in the way long enough.” You see what happens when you tear the Torah, God’s Law, into shreds and litter the streets with it? You get the Holocaust.
But on to happier topics. Do you remember what happened on this day in 1989, 25 years ago? And do you remember what life was like in the 40 years before that? Some of you do. Do you remember Mao Zedong? Do you remember Korea? Do you remember hiding under your school desk during bomb drills? Do you remember Khrushchev telling us he was going to crush us? Do you remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? Do you remember Vietnam? Do you remember Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire? And do you remember when all of that came to a crashing halt on November, 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall came crashing down? Do you remember that journalist who sent his report back to the BBC saying, “I am standing on the Berlin Wall.” The day before he would have been shot for that. Do you remember the 10,000 people who streamed through in the first ten minutes before they stopped counting, and do you remember the West Berliners going the other way to show their friends in the east the way out?
Oh, I know: other implacable foes have rushed into the vacuum to take the place of our old enemy the Soviet Union. There is Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and there is Vladimir Putin, who sometimes looks to us like Krushchev Redux. Yesterday in a speech in a Berlin to mark the anniversary, Mikhail Gorbachev said that he fears that East and West are the brink of another Cold War. Peace is always threatened and freedom often fragile, but still, it was the greatest victory for freedom and for the American way of life since August 15, 1945.
So what will the Bridegroom find us doing when he finally shows up for his own wedding? Will he find us shunning and persecuting those who are different from us? Or will he find us chiseling a breech through a constricting wall so that men and women might breathe free? Or will he find neither? Will he simply find us neither good nor bad, neither hot nor cold, neither noble nor ignoble, but rather just sleeping, napping in the corner, safe, innocuous, and out of the way?
So the Bridegroom’s Arrival Is Delayed. The Bridegroom’s Arrival Is Unscheduled but Not Uncertain. And the Bridegroom’s Arrival Is Immutable. That is to say, once it happens, there’s no turning back. There’s no rewind button. At the last hour, you can’t unlive your life, undo what you’ve done, take back what you’ve said, accomplish what you’ve left undone. There is nothing more futile than regret, no sadder words than “too late,” nothing more tragic than “Not anymore.” At some point in the festivities, the gate gets locked tight.
So be watchful. Keep your flask full. Care lovingly for the only home we’ll ever know, because the Bridegroom’s Arrival is delayed, and we might need it for a long time to come. Attend daily to the Christ-shaped existence he taught us during his brief sojourn here, because he is most certainly coming back.
There is a King and Captain high
and he’s coming by and by
and he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
You’ll hear his legions charging
in the regions of the sky
and you’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He was hated and rejected,
He was scorned and crucified
Yes, you’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes.
They’ll be shouting loud hosanna
to the man they just denied
and I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes.
Will he find you loving neighbors when he comes?
Will he find you teaching children when he comes?
Will he find you feeding hunger when he comes?
Will he find you healing illness when he comes?
Will he find you guarding nature when he comes?
Will he find you living simply when he comes?
Will he find you praying mercy when he comes?
Will he find you acting justly when he comes?
“Nothing more futile than regret” is a thought inspired by a line from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Bewick Finzer,” quoted by George A. Buttrick in The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 239.