I don't like this parable--never have. When I read it, I think of that song I heard in my youth that had this line in it: "Every party needs a pooper; that's why we invited you, Party Pooper." It seems to me that Jesus spends a lot of time talking about weddings that go awry, and it makes you wonder if he ever recovered from that ugly little incident with his mom at the wedding at Cana.
In this particular case, half of the bridesmaids foul up. Being the survivor of many weddings gone awry, this appears to be no big deal. They are with the bride, in anticipation of the bridegroom coming for his bride and taking her back to his own home. These bridesmaids didn't bring extra oil with them, and when the bridegroom arrives later than anticipated, throwing everybody's schedule off, they take the suggestion of the bridesmaids who already have extra oil: Go out and find an oil dealer and buy your own. They do this, but when they return, the party is in full swing, the doors are locked, and the bridegroom, who doesn't know them, won't let them in.
Whose fault is this crisis anyway? At first blush, I blame the bridegroom for two reasons. First, he's late. What is it about bridegrooms that they are almost always late? You give them a time and they don't show up for 30 minutes thereafter. This one in the story should realize that his late arrival creates a crisis. Then, second, when the bridesmaids return late, he won't let them back in. He has set up this situation then takes no responsibility for it. How rude! He's the party pooper in this story as far as I'm concerned.
But I also blame the other bridesmaids as well. They are selfish with their oil. More to the point, they also set up the bridesmaids who don't have extra oil. The suggestion to go out into the night and find an oil dealer is a bad one. It's dangerous out there, especially for a bunch of women, and no oil dealer in his right mind will be open so late. Surely, Christian charity suggests that those who have the oil should share unselfishly with those who have none, thereby eliminating the risk. They, too, are party poopers.
Yet the story doesn't appear to blame either the insensitivity of the bridegroom or the selfishness of the bridesmaids who have the extra oil. No! The story leads us to the conclusion that it is the so-called foolish bridesmaids who should bear the blame for the outcome of this story, and this bothers me. After all, haven't we all been guilty of poor planning? Haven't we all found ourselves at the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong side of a locked door? It is human, is it not? If we are fortunate, someone with a sense of mercy or of humor relents and we are restored to where we want to be. But there is no grace revealed here and no humor. The foolish bridesmaids are locked out of the party.
So what gives here? I have no great wisdom on this parable, but some years ago, I did have an insight. I performed a wedding that had been preceded by a big party the night before. The best man, whose job it was to hold the rings for the bride and the groom, was feeling the ill effects of the party. The first part of the wedding service passed without incident, and I finished my meditation with a flourish. The organist began a lengthy musical interlude--Pachelbel's Canon, I believe--that got much longer. For, you see, with the opening strains, the best man turned green and announced, "I'm going to be sick." With that he hurried out of the sanctuary carrying the rings with him and headed for the men's room. The music went on, and we waited, and we waited. Eventually, an usher realized that something must be done and he went in after the best man. Disheveled, looking very pale, the best man reappeared with the rings. After the wedding-and deservedly so, in my opinion-he incurred the wrath of many in the wedding party, especially the mother of the bride. After all, he had only one terribly important job to be done at that wedding, and at the critical moment he abandoned his post.
Indeed, this incident has suggested my own understanding of this parable. These foolish bridesmaids did not go wrong by their failure to provide the extra oil, not was it their fault that they had fallen asleep. Indeed, everybody had, but understand this: Their one task was to welcome the bridegroom with joy and when the critical moment arrived, they had abandoned their post. Indeed, they were foolish; they acted as if it was their job to have oil in their lamps and to find it if they lacked it. But this was not their primary job, their primary task. The oil was only a means to an end, and it is not clear that it was a necessary means. Their task, their job was to mediate and communicate joy, between bride and bridegroom. Their job was to be the heralds of unbelievably good news. But by confusing means with ends, they failed in their task.
On the one hand, we might see this parable as a veiled criticism of the religious authorities of Jesus' day: the scribes, the Pharisees, and the priests in Jerusalem. Their chief task was not to keep the temple beautiful or profitable; rather their chief task was to keep the people connected with God and to greet the prophetically promised arrival of God with joy. But when Jesus arrived, they viewed him as a nuisance interfering with the temple's profitability or as a threat to its well-being. They had confused the means with the ends; indeed, they ended up sacrificing the ends to the means. In their anxiety to keep their lamps burning, they abandoned their posts. They did not welcome Jesus Christ with joy.
On the other hand, you and I should take note of the parable's implications for us. We should take note that our task is not to preserve our religion but rather to communicate joy, the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, the joy of his victory over sin and death, the joy of his presence with us, and the joy of his final return. Let me ask you: Do our lives, our individual congregations and our denominations radiate joy? I see reasons why we need to ask ourselves this very question seriously.
In a nation where so many believe in God and so many are on spiritual quests, why are the mainline churches shrinking? Without any scientific evidence whatsoever, I think the issue comes down to joy. It is not that people so much reject our truth or our Lord; rather, it is that they reject our joylessness. They do not see us take intense pleasure in our faith or in our community of faith. They are searching for joy in the midst of suffering and difficulties, and we do not have it to offer to them.
What does our joylessness look like? First, we Christians spend far too much time criticizing each other and highlighting each other's faults. Alice Roosevelt once said, "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me." Conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and mainliners, Catholics and Orthodox--we spend our time cataloging each other's errors and faults and convince ourselves that we serve God by doing so. We don't. I should know, because I have been one of the chief sinners in this regard, and I regret it heartily. A few years ago a Pentecostal pastor of my acquaintance called this failing of mine to my attention, and rightfully so.
As a second point, our joylessness also looks like the raw exercise of power. Jesus taught us to see leadership as an opportunity to practice servanthood, but too often we Christians, when it comes to determining church direction, behave like the soldiers beneath Christ's cross fighting for his tunic. We communicate to the secular world very clearly that we would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. If you and I win the church wars, what an absurdly small empire we have won for ourselves.
As a third point, our joylessness looks like conflict over worship styles. When will we listen to the voices that tell us that it is not worship style but worship joy that draws people into the presence of the living God? We have failed God and our people when we have made an idol out of any style of worship.
Fourth and finally, joylessness looks like ineffectiveness. The world is dying for good news, both in word and deed, but we so absorb our energies with criticism, the manipulation of power, empty conversations about guitar versus organ, and so many petty details, that we end up with no good news to share. Have we pastors noticed how tired and bedraggled our lay leaders look? When they first came on the boards and committees where they serve, they did so with expectations of spiritual growth and meaningful engagement with and for the world. They end their terms burned out, disinterested, and joyless. Meaningful, effective service gives joy. Joy gives energy for additional, even more profoundly effective service. When the logical connection between our joy and our work is broken, the vicious circle of joylessness and ineffectiveness is the result.
Like the foolish bridesmaids, we have lost track of our role, and become absorbed by secondary matters, as denominations, as churches and as individuals. As a consequence, we have abandoned our post. Like the wise bridesmaids, we need to be concerned less with oil and more with communicating joy, so that those inside and those outside the house are filled with joy as well.
As denominations, as churches, and as individual people, where do we find joy? As a Presbyterian, I am bound to like the way the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, although with some editorial work for the sake of inclusiveness: The chief goal of human life, the chief purpose for which we are created, the catechism tells us, is to glorify and enjoy God forever. Put another way, you and I don't find joy. It is already given to us. The good news in the parable is that the bridesmaids never have to go looking for the bridegroom. The bridegroom has come already. The joy that God gives to us is already here, at our side, at our elbows, walking through the door. We just need to stay put, to leave the door ajar, to open our arms to joy approaching, and to realize that receiving joy and giving joy are what life is all about. It's not about possessions, power, wealth, and position for us or for the church. No, it is about joy.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, give us your joy. Amen.