As I noted to our Tuesday afternoon Bible study group, much has been argued over the nature of this parable of Jesus, the parable of bridesmaids both foolish and wise. People have often asked why there was no kindness in the hearts of the wise bridesmaids and why they were not prompted to share their oil and instead took a rather hard line against the others. People have also wondered why the bridegroom closed the door against the latecomers, shutting them off into the outer darkness. All these questions and wonderings miss the fact that this parable was a form of rabbinical teaching that, like so many other parables of Jesus, and of Jewish rabbis in general, depended upon extremes and were were singular in their thrust and the point that they were trying to make. And the point of this parable was that the wise plan ahead and are vigilant, while the foolish fail in their planning and contingencies.
This is the same sort of point that is made again and again in what is known as the wisdom writings of the Old Testament and of the books of the Apocrypha such as the Wisdom of Solomon from which we read this morning. Throughout these wisdom writings clear distinctions are constantly made between those who are wise and those who are foolish. The wise follow the wisdom of God, presented to them in a personification known as “wisdom”, the iteration of which in Greek is Sophia. Throughout these writings Sophia (wisdom) is always female and never male.
Wisdom is never portrayed as something or someone that is difficult to find. In today’s reading Sophia parks herself at the city gates, the busiest place in town, Wisdom seeks people out and never sits idle waiting for humanity to find her. Wisdom gladly imparts her gifts upon any who would receive them. The bottom line, my friends, is that God does not want humanity to be misinformed, to be ignorant, to be foolish. God does not want us to shun wisdom and knowledge. God seeks us out to fill us with good things. In my estimation Wisdom and the Holy Spirit of God are one, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives we are given the tools of curiosity, science and technology in order to better ourselves and God’s world.
So how are we, in this day and in this age, wise or foolish? How are we like or unlike the maidens in today’s parable? Because this parable is, on the one hand, definitely a story of caution about the revelation God’s Kingdom and our preparedness to participate in that Kingdom, on the other hand, a parable about preparedness in general; it offers the challenge to us of how we should read the signs of this world which God has created for good this world that we have been set in the midst of to tend and to care for, and how we should respond to those signs that we read (or fail to read).
This parable and others like it in the Gospels make it abundantly clear that bridegrooms come when and only when they choose to come. And quite possibly, because of the general conditions of travel in the first century, they come when they are able to come. The bridesmaids in the parable surely would have known this fact. So the difference between the wise and foolish bridesmaids was certainly not that the wise maids were able to anticipate the unexpected, but rather that they were able to anticipate the expected. All of the maids knew that the bridegroom could be delayed, and probably would be delayed. The foolish maids simply failed to prepare themselves for that which they knew could easily happen!
When I was young, I tended to be a great procrastinator, and to an extent that plague still afflicts me from time to time. I can remember signing up for 4-H projects in the fall of the year knowing full well when I signed up that I had some ten months before the exhibits would be due at the county fair in July of the following year. I had ten months to complete my appointed projects. And yet year after year, project after project, found me hammering away the night before the project was due, and sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning of the exhibit date; putting finishing touches on my work and then often hoping that the glue would completely dry before the judge handled it. My sisters often had project that worked the other way around. When they entered a baking or cooking project, they wanted the end product to be as fresh as possible, so they had to finish at the last minute, yet they wisely put plenty of time into their projects way in advance, baking dozens of yeast rolls or chiffon cakes over a period of months to make sure that they got everything just right. They were wise maidens; and me, well let’s just say that I certainly didn’t plan well in advance. I believe that I just might have been one of those who were searching for an oil merchant in the middle of the night! I would like to think that I have become wiser over the years; that I have become more like my sisters were way back in the days of our youth, but sometimes I wonder . . .
Again, I believe that it is our human nature, a part of our DNA, to be foolish and that being wise is not always a natural gift that everyone possesses, but rather something that needs to be sought out and acquired, and most importantly practiced diligently. Yes, Wisdom may sit in plain sight in the most public place in the city, right in the middle of the city gates. Yes, wisdom may actively seek us out. But we must take the initiative to strike up a conversation and request her assistance. Sometimes the one thing that is, in our own minds, believed to be most difficult to attain is also the most obvious, the thing that is actually sitting right there in front of us as plain as the nose on our own face.
I remember watching a movie many years ago called “The Sixth Sense”, and in case you haven’t seen the film, here’s a spoiler alert. The main character in the movie is dead. He’s dead throughout the movie, only that fact is not made clear until very late in the film. I remember how surprised I was when that fact was finally revealed. Then some time later I watched a television special in which the director of the film carefully laid out a multitude of hints that were scattered throughout the movie; hints that the lead character was indeed dead and had been dead all along. I watched that TV special and nearly bruised my forehead giving myself dope slaps! I found myself saying, over and over, “Aw gee, I should have spotted that!” “Aw gee, that one was obvious!” This included the moment when, very early in the film, the young boy who was the protagonist looked directly at the main character and said, “I see dead people.” All this is, of course, the way that the obvious works. It’s always ridiculously apparent after the fact. Our hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it? The magic trick is always ridiculously apparent after the magician tells you how it works.
Well friends, wisdom still stands before us, she stands before us as individuals in our personal lives and she stands before us as a gathered community in the life of the church. It is our choice, as it has always been our choice, to engage wisdom and learn from her or to ignore wisdom; to stick our heads in the sand or to go merrily on our way until the time is at hand and the bridegroom is at the gate and our lamps need to be trimmed and re-supplied with the oil that we may or may not have. The Church universal and Zion Lutheran Church here in Long Valley needs your wisdom. We need planning done well in advance of need or occasion. We need broad thought that includes many contingencies. We need diligent practice of the craft of faith and of sharing that faith with others. We need minds and hearts that are ready when the bridegroom comes early and ready when bridegroom is delayed. We need wise people who are out in front of the world, designing avenues of faith that will serve the world in this age and that will that lay the groundwork and infrastructure for a world that is to come, rather than faith that is wandering aimlessly in the past, always playing “catch-up” with the world. We don’t have time, the church doesn’t have time, to play “catch up”, to wait until someone explains it all to us in a TV special, for before we know it the door will be shut. The wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit is always here, always ready for us to engage and embrace. Let us not be among those who find ourselves outside the door that has already been shut, crying, “Lord, Lord; open to us!” Amen.