November 8, 2020, The Art of Waiting, Matthew 25:1-13 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The gospels are full of parables, which were a way that Jesus often chose to teach. He told vivid stories, short stories, made up of familiar, everyday things and people and events, stories that form a picture in our minds and hearts that help us understand in a different way than explanations in words. When we think of God’s forgiveness, we see, printed in our mind’s eye, the Prodigal Son, slouching home in disgrace, and the Father running out to meet him, with open arms. That is such a perfect picture of how God receives us, sinners that we are, that we can never forget it. When we think of the command to love our neighbor, we see in our mind’s eye the Samaritan man riding along the highway and stopping to help a stranger, wounded and bloody and left for dead on the side of the road – a stranger who would have considered the Samaritan his enemy. With that story, Jesus drew us a perfect picture of what it means to love our neighbor, no matter who he or she is.
So the purpose of the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, like those other parables of Jesus, is to draw a picture for us, something Jesus doesn’t want us to forget. For me, the picture that stays in my mind however many times I have read this parable, once and twice and twenty and a hundred times, is the haunting image of those five foolish virgins knocking on the door of the banquet hall, with their newly-purchased oil and their newly-replenished lamps – but too late. The urgent message is this: there will come a time when all waiting is at an end. There will come a moment when the time to get ready is past. And we don’t know when that will be; Jesus said that over and over and over again. “You don’t know when the end will come. You don’t know when I will return. I don’t even know when all that will happen – only the Father knows. So be ready. Be ready NOW. Stay awake. Don’t grow weary. Watch.”
Episcopalians don’t spend a lot of time preaching and thinking about the end times. And for the most part, that’s wise of us, because it is a pretty fruitless thing to try to figure out what Jesus already told us we can’t know. People who are obsessed with figuring out the hidden meanings of the book of Revelation, the de-coding of the signs, like the Late Great Planet Earth, those are all just so much human nonsense, really, in the end. The only thing we know for certain is this: that the end will come for each of us – and eventually the end will come for all of us – and it will come on a day and at a time we have no way of knowing. Whether it is the end of all the ages, or our own individual death, there will come a time for each and every one of us when there is no more time for preparation. There exists a “too late”. And the picture of the five foolish virgins standing and knocking at the door that will not open to them is the image of that “too late”.
But what we have to ask – what we always have to ask – is how is this “good news” for us? Because that just seems kind of scary. How does that scary image show us the love of God? Because the truth is that at the heart of every teaching of Jesus, as with the message of Scripture as a whole, there is always the good news of God’s love for us. So, look first at what Jesus says about these ten young women, waiting for the arrival of the Bridegroom so the wedding feast can begin. Five of them are foolish and five of them are wise, but none of them are perfect. Jesus said, “The Bridegroom was delayed, and they ALL became drowsy and slept” until finally at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
Clearly the good news of the parable is not in the wisdom or the foolishness of the virgins. The good news of the parable is in the arrival of the Bridegroom. Because Jesus is talking about waiting for him, about watching for his return. He has drawn us a picture that reminds us, that reminds us urgently, to keep watching even when we grow weary with the long delay – and in our human weakness, we do grow weary. Even the wise virgins became drowsy and fell asleep. But the good news is that he will surely come. This parable is a stern warning, but it is also a glorious promise. We will see him. The bridegroom will come, and his word to us is this: “Watch! Wait! Don’t give up! Don’t lose heart! No one knows the day or the hour, but I will come.”
Jesus promises that he will come to us, and we know that we don’t only watch for him to come at the very end of all things. We know that Jesus doesn’t keep his distance from us until the day he returns in glory. At the last supper, he promised his disciples, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” He promised to be present with us by his Holy Spirit. And we will see him in the people around us. We find him in the sharing of the wine and bread at Communion. We listen for him all the time in the quiet of our own hearts. If we are watching for him, we find him most of all in the faces of the poor and the sick and the stranger. In the people and places and situations where we least expect him, there we hear the cry, if we are listening, if we are watching, that the bridegroom is near.
The warning, and the promise, of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is that there will surely come a time for every one of us when all of our watching will be finished, when all of our waiting will finally be at an end. There will be a time, soon or late, today, or tomorrow, or years from now, when you will see him face to face. So don’t let the light of your faith grow dim – don’t give up watching and waiting, even when you grow weary, even when it feels like he will never show up – because sometimes it does feel like that, no matter how wise or faithful you are. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins reminds us, urgently, to watch, and to never stop watching. We don’t know the when or the how; we don’t know the day or the time, but we hold tight to his promise: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”