Saturday, November 08, 2014
Here's tomorrow's homily. The readings are Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Matthew 25:1-13. My thanks to the Rev. Chip Arnold for a rousing model of how to turn this parable on its head.
One Saturday evening my first semester of college, my roommate asked me to stay out of our tiny dorm room until midnight, because her boyfriend was coming over. I didn’t have many friends at school yet, so I studied in the library until it closed at 9. Then I studied in the student café until it closed at 10. That left me two hours to kill before I could get back into our room.
It was winter. It was snowing. Everything was closed except restaurants in town I couldn’t afford. I couldn’t think of anywhere to go, so for two hours I wandered around campus. Getting progressively colder, I gazed wistfully into other people’s glowing dorm windows, those shining tableaux of warmth and safety. This was 1978, and campus crime wasn’t something we thought about much, so I wasn’t conscious of danger, although I was a woman by myself in the dark. I just felt cold, lonely, and unwanted.
At midnight I went back to my room and warmed up. I was fine. But whenever I see a homeless person now, I remember those two hours, what it felt like to be locked out in the snow because I didn’t have the resources or the social capital to claim shelter.
This may be part of why I’m on the side of the foolish bridemaids in today’s Gospel parable. The conventional reading of this lesson is that the bridegroom is Christ, that we’re being warmed up for Advent by being warned to watch and wait. But I’m not the only person who finds the behavior of both the wise bridesmaids and the bridegroom in this story more than a little un-Christ-like. The wise bridesmaids have oil but refuse to share it; instead, they send the other five women out into the streets at midnight to find an oil merchant willing to do business at that hour. When the foolish five return from their improbably successful shopping expedition, they find the door shut in their faces, and the bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Many critics agree that this is a story about a failure of hospitality.
Furthermore, it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus himself wouldn’t have sided with the foolish bridesmaids. This is the guy who told his followers to feed 5,000 hungry people with a few crumbs of bread and a few little fishes, a task that may very well have been accomplished by the crowd sharing what it had. Would he really approve of the ungenerous, uncharitable women who hoard their oil?
This is the guy who told that other parable, the one about the laborers who show up late to work in the vineyard but receive the same pay as everyone else. Would he really lock out five women who’ve arrived after the other guests, especially when they’re late because the supposedly wise bridesmaids were unkind to them?
And, finally, this is the guy who said, during his famous Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And yet this parable pins the label “foolish” on the five women without oil? What’s going on here?
I think what’s going on is that we’re being tested. Do we remember those earlier lessons? Which side of the door do we see ourselves on? Would we share our oil? Maybe Jesus tells this story to challenge us, to make us examine where our loyalties lie. That would fit today’s lesson from Joshua. Joshua demands that the tribes of Israel choose their God, but warns them that remaining loyal to the God who brought them out of Egypt is a demanding discipline.
During my years offering spiritual care as an ER volunteer, I’ve seen a lot of homeless patients. When I look at them, I always think of my own measly two hours locked out in the snow. But I’ve heard quite a few nurses and doctors say things like, “Well, this is their own fault. They made bad choices.” I can imagine the wise bridesmaids saying similar things to the foolish ones. “This is your fault. You made bad choices. You didn’t buy oil ahead of time, and then you fell asleep. Well, all right, we fell asleep too, but that doesn’t matter, because we were ready. We already had our oil. We’d earned a nap.”
Jesus says that all of us should stay awake. What might have happened if the ten women hadn’t slept? Maybe the foolish bridesmaids would have had time to shop and still get back before the deadline. Maybe someone would have had time to figure out an oil-sharing scheme. And maybe the ten women would have spent that time talking, getting to know each other.
“You know, the reason I don’t have oil is that I have to save my money to buy food for my sick mother. She wasn’t invited to this banquet, and I’m the only person taking care of her.”
“The reason I don’t have oil is that we needed all the oil at home to cook for my little brothers and sisters. My father can’t find work, and I’ve been taking in washing to help pay the rent. I guess now I’ll have to spend some of that money on oil.”
“I don’t have oil because I brought it to my brother in jail. He got arrested for making the Romans angry, and he needed light in his dark cell to write a letter pleading for mercy.”
How would the wise bridesmaids have responded to these stories? Might at least some of them have said, “Here, let me give you some oil”?
I’ve never spoken to a homeless ER patient who said, “When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to sleep on the streets, and search dumpsters for food, and lose my feet to frostbite and gangrene.” Poor people, like all of us, make bad decisions sometimes. They pay a lot more for their mistakes than wealthier people do, and they have fewer safety nets when bad things happen that aren’t their fault. Trying to catch up, they often wind up being locked out. They haven’t chosen their stigma and exclusion. It’s been thrust on them.
Keep awake, Jesus tells us. Keep awake to the stories of your neighbors. Keep awake to social injustice. Keep awake to whom, and to what, you are following. We all want to be invited to the wedding. We all want to included in the feast. But is a bridegroom who’d lock other people out really someone whose wedding party we want to join? Jesus says, “if you say ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the fire of hell.” That statement makes the cheer of the banquet hall seem a little less inviting, doesn’t it? Maybe the five women standing with their noses pressed against the glass aren’t looking in at glowing tableaux of warmth and safety. Maybe they’re looking into an inferno instead. Maybe, in some situations, darkness is safer.
A few weeks ago, preaching on the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, Chip suggested that the host of the party is the oppressor: the Romans, the bureaucrats, the greedy capitalists. The lord in that story, and the bridegroom in this, represent business as usual. They keep us hungry for inclusion at other people’s expense, for banquets that take food from other people’s mouths. Chip invited us to see the badly dressed wedding guest as Jesus: the outcast bounced from the party and thrown into darkness because he challenges oppression instead of conforming to it.
Let us follow the five foolish bridesmaids into that darkness now, as they turn away from the windows. The darkness is a little scary, but they’re together, and their lanterns burn brightly. They have new resources. They know that there are merchants who’ll do business after hours for desperate people, even if they charge more. Or maybe there were never any merchants open so late. Maybe the five women went from door to door, finding kind people who gave them oil.
As they make their way through this darkness, they meet new friends. There’s a strange scruffy guy who isn’t dressed very well, but who heals the sick and shares his food with everyone. At another wedding where supplies ran low, he even changed water into wine. His friends, like the five women, have walked away from everything they knew, from their jobs and families, to follow him.
And they tell the women stories of other things that have happened in the dark, of other people who have stayed awake. They talk about shepherds, keeping watch by night, who needed no lanterns, because a star lit their way to the birthplace of a poor baby: to a lowly manger holding the promise of loving warmth, and lasting safety, and a feast where all of us are welcome, no matter what we’re wearing or how late we arrive.