This is probably not your favorite parable. Don’t feel bad, it’s not most folks’ favorite. Even the scholars who pretend to love all the parables equally don’t really care for this one. It doesn’t have a happy ending like the one with the kind Samaritan or the woman who finds her lost coin. This parable has 5 women who make it to the party and an equal amount who get the door shut in their collective faces. It’s a coin flip and all based on whether or not you thought to pack a flask of lighter fluid. Yikes!
I’ll confess that when I selected this passage for today, it was not my first choice. It’s not my favorite parable, either. At least in my case, and maybe in yours, too, I assumed the parable was about something that it wasn’t. I bet more than one of us thought about why this groom is acting all high and mighty when he is the one who was late to begin with. How many of us heard the parable and thought to ourselves, “Well, why didn’t those other bridesmaids share?” I mean, they couldn’t spare even a bit? Really?
It's quite easy to focus on the wrong detail in this parable. The oil. That’s what this story is about. The wise have oil, the foolish do not have oil. So, we ought to have oil, spiritually speaking. But, here’s the truth about weddings: it could have been anything. If it wasn’t lamp oil, it would have been something else. What if all their fancy bridesmaid up-dos started falling out? Then we would be talking about Aqua Net and bobby pins. All those wise women with their flasks of oil would have been sunk because they had to go back to the hairdresser. Or what if their dresses got wrinkled while they were napping? Now we need a 24-hour dry cleaner. It could have been dozens of things that could have gone wrong that night. Maybe some of the so-called foolish women buying lamp oil had a sewing kit in their back pocket. But the judges aren’t judging on hemlines!
All of that is based on the wrong detail. Because this parable isn’t about being prepared. Jesus isn’t trying to instill in his disciples a habit of carrying around kerosene, or bobby pins, or a tacklebox and a hank of paracord. This isn’t the parable of the 10 girl scouts who should all be very prepared. And it’s a good thing because we can never be prepared for everything that life throws at us.
There comes a moment in every trip that I’ve ever taken away from home, when my wife and I will be packing our bags, and we’re checking all the random assortment of useless things that our children decide to pack in their bags, and we’re running through our checklist. Do we have aspirin? Lord knows we will need it! Did we pack enough socks? I may have forgotten ChapStick. Should we go back? We’re only 10 minutes away. And that’s when the moment comes. It’s about 10 minutes after we leave. And it’s the moment that we have to remind ourselves of this— they have stores there. Maybe we forgot sunscreen, but you know what, they have stores there. Someone gets a papercut and we don’t have bandages, but they have stores there. We’re already on the road and it’s too late to prepare for everything now. But it’s OK because they have stores there.
The point of this parable is not to be prepared. The point is to keep awake. All 10 women made the same mistake. They slept. Wise and foolish, both groups gave in to the drowsies, hit the snooze button, and almost missed the whole thing. The problem could have been anything, but if they had been awake to notice, they could have handled it. If someone’s seam ripped at 7, they could have fixed it. If they needed to make a burrito run at 8, they’d have handled it. If there was a shoe emergency at 9, or freshen up at 10, or the oil gave out at 11, and they were still awake, they could have addressed the issue. But they were, all of them, asleep. They missed the chance to respond, and now they’re caught in a situation of nothing more than blind luck.
The good news is that Jesus doesn’t expect us to have blind luck on our side. Jesus doesn’t want us to have a flask of oil, or 5 bobby pins, or an ironing board, and a pack of gum. We’re not called to be prepared. We’re called to be awake. There will be situations and people that we will never be able to predict or to prepare for. But as long as we are awake to the world around us, God can do something wonderful through us.
I got a call recently from my mother around dinner time and I knew it must be pretty urgent because she knows better than to get between me and my meal. As soon as she started talking, I knew something had happened. Her voice was too energetic, too high-pitched. I had to just listen to figure out what it was.
She was just leaving work, which for her is a big downtown hospital. She’s making her way through the roundabouts on the campus when she sees a man in a hospital gown walking up a grassy hill right next to the highway. She’s on speaker phone with her coworker at the time and she says, “You know, I think a patient might have run away. I might need security. Do you know what their extension is?” And her friend says, “No! I don’t.” And my mom says, “I don’t know either. I should though. Why don’t I know that? Why don’t I have that saved already?” She didn’t have the oil in her lamp, right?
So, my mom has to pull over to the side of the road there, and she looks up security’s number on her phone, and she calls them, and she lets them know there is a patient out here who is awful close to the highway. If only she were prepared, she was thinking, if only she had that number in her phone already, she could have called faster. But she’s still there, and he’s still there, and security is going to take a few minutes in order to get there. Now, she doesn’t know anything about this man, and she was not prepared for this. But she’s there and he’s there.
So, my mom rolls down her window and says to the man, “Are you OK? You look like you’re having a hard day.” The man says to her, “No, I’m not OK.” It turns out that the man really wasn’t OK. He’d been in rehab for some time and his life, as he talked to her about it, had been very rough. After some minutes of telling her some of his story, he admits something to her. He says, “Ma’am, I’ve been walking around here for the past 10 minutes or so trying to work up the nerve to jump. I was going to try to end it.” Without really thinking about it or knowing why exactly she said it, my mother said, “God didn’t want you to die today.” And my mom, you don’t really know her, but she doesn’t really say things like that in her day-to-day life.
As you might imagine, the man started crying and my mom started crying. After 10 or 15 minutes, security finally gets there and they take over. And I know about this story because my mother called me almost hysterical after that whole incident had happened and she wanted to unload everything that had just been through. She was still crying a bit at first, and she was shaky from all the adrenaline running through her system. After listening to her story, I said, “God obviously put you there for a reason.”
My mother was not prepared for that encounter. She didn’t have the security office saved in her contacts. She had not been trained, at least to my knowledge, in any sort of suicide prevention. She was just a lady going home from work like all the other cars that were pouring out at 5:00 with her from the parking lot that evening. She wasn’t prepared for that encounter. But she was awake. She saw someone and she paid attention to what was going on. She listened to him and then she spoke to him. She connected with him. She wasn’t prepared, but she was awake.
Jesus tells us the truth. We don’t know the day nor the hour and that’s true of more than just tardy bridegrooms. It’s the truth of life. We don’t know what’s coming. Some things we can prepare for with antacids or storm windows. And other things we just can’t see coming. We can’t predict the path of the storm or what some distracted driver will do on the highway. We can’t predict life and therefore we can’t prepare for everything. We just can’t.
The good news today, my friends, is that we don’t have to be prepared for everything. We don’t have to know the day nor the hour, and we aren’t supposed to. We don’t have to stock up on lamp oil or bobby pins. We just have to stay awake to the world around us. Because the truth is we never really know when God is about to show up and sit us down to a feast together. It could be on our way home from work when we see something that causes us to slow down and wonder. It could be waiting on dismissal at school when we happen to listen to a dad talking about his son’s anxiety. It could be the person on the other side of the counter looking for all the world like their eyes are open but you can tell that they are asleep to what is going on around them. My friends, if we can manage to stay awake, then we’re all going to the party tonight.
Would you pray with me?
O holy God, we are grateful that you have invited us to a great feast together. Lord, may you cause us to not slumber through our days but to be awake to the blessings and to the opportunities, the callings that you have placed all around us. Lord, keep us awake that we might bring others to the feast. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.