Rabbi Eliezer, a first century sage offered his disciples this simple advice, “Repent one day before your death.” This elicited the question, “How will we know when that day is?” To which the rabbi replied, “All the more reasons to repent today, lest you die tomorrow. We don’t have all the time in the world. The intimate awareness of our own mortality is a key force in our lives. What do we do with the time we have? How do we live in the moment with an eye to an unknown future? How do we make the most of the time we have? How do we ensure that our lives count for something? As ones who seek to follow in the way of Jesus, how do we witness to the presence of Christ in our midst? How does the way we use our time relate to our faith?
Time ran out for the five foolish bridesmaids. As they waited for the bridegroom to finally arrive for the party their lamps ran dry. They asked for help from the other five and were shut down. By the time they arrived back, oil in hand, from the twenty-four hour convenience store it was too late, the party was underway and the door was shut. Time runs out for each of us. It’s a hard truth to face in our death denying culture. We run out of time to get our act together. We run out of time to reconcile a broken relationship, to make that lifestyle change, to get to our to-do list, we run out of time to make a difference.
The Bible offers a radically different way of looking at time. Our time is limited and yet it doesn’t run out. It is never too late to do our own work, to step into our journey, to practice our faith, instead of just naming it. It’s never too late to show up with enough oil in our lamps for unexpected eventualities. In a biblical sense there is always time for God’s grace to break into our lives and yet our individual time is limited by the bounds of our physical lives. There is always time for us to come closer to exemplifying the Christ within, and yet we have to show up for that to happen. There is an ongoing process of creation going on as God continually lures the world toward greater richness of experience and complexity.
Jesus way of telling time about this time was through parables. He’d tell a story that everyone knew and then alter a detail or two and turn the whole thing on its head. In this instance he used a wedding party.
Everyone in First Century Palestine knew that the wedding feast was held in the evening, after the ceremony at the home of the bride. The guests and the bridesmaids would await the arrival of the bridegroom and would greet him with lamps as they processed to his home for the feast would begin. I have no idea what happened to the bride between the ceremony and the reception, and it troubles me, but there you have it! In this instance the most apparent variation from the usual story is just how late the bridegroom is in arriving to the party.
The parable begins: the kingdom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids. As someone who has participated in more weddings than I can count, hundreds of them, a parable about bridesmaids leaves me feeling a little bit uneasy. Are these the bridesmaids who chowed down just before the wedding, filling the entire church with an obnoxious smell of garlic? Were they the ones who made the wedding start a half hour late because they were doing who knows what back in the hotel room? Were these the bridesmaids who couldn’t even feign interest in the nuptials as they stood up front, eyes staring into space, bouquets dangling by their sides? My skeptical self says it doesn’t much matter that five of them fell asleep because let’s be honest, five bridesmaids is more than enough.
I feel about as enthusiastic about Matthew’s gospel as I do about bridesmaids. I’d choose any other gospel any day over this one. More than Mark or Luke or John he has this undertone of judgment. If you don’t act according to God’s call, you will be eternally judged. There are several places in this gospel where you are left with a sense that some are in God’s graces and some are not. In Matthew it is no surprise that the five foolish bridesmaids are shut out of the party.
Oddly enough, when we look back to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, to the story of Joseph being visited by angels, another truth about time is spoken. In that story Joseph is told that a baby is coming and his name is to be Emmanuel, God with us. God with us is a thread woven throughout Matthew’s gospel. It’s a thread woven throughout the fabric of our lives, through the fabric of all creation. It offers a different way of understanding time. Jesus of Nazareth was the flesh and blood expression of this timeless God that had been at work as the creative impulse of life since the beginning and until the end. What I’m trying to say is that the Christ is at work luring all of life to ever more complexity and unity. Christ is always coming into our world and our lives.
Emmanuel God with us, the divine presence is with us, longing to open us to see the coming of the kindom right now. God is with you in this time of your life. In this time of estrangement from one you once named family, with you in this time when a diagnosis threatens to consume your hope, with you in the grief that has taken up residence in your soul, with you in the shame that threatens to extinguish your light, with you in the simple struggles to spend less time answering emails and more time with your kids. God is with us in this moment in “our compliance to empire at the expense of those whom God deemed as blessed.” With us in our misguided assumption that we can flourish while the earth’s life is slowly pillaged. You know that moment when you’re sitting in church and the tears flow and you’re not sure why? Around here we call that Emmanuel, God with us.
Those listening to this parable were waiting for Jesus to come back and put evil to bed, come back and finish the job of fixing all that was death dealing in their world. Maybe in their hope for a time when things would be better they were losing sight of the time they had, losing sight of the incarnate nature of the God they knew, losing sight of the fact that the Christ was still at work in their midst.
I think maybe we can become numb to the headlines, one more story of “me too.” One more mass shooting south of the border, one more indigenous woman lost, one more trip to the shopping mall to fill my life up with stuff, one more glance at my screen when my kid is sitting across the table from me. We lament the state of the world or the state of our lives and it’s understandable and we all do it and the fact is we could be filling up our lamps with oil while we wait there. Instead of biding our time we can be in the midst of our lives with an awareness that Christ works through us best in incarnate ways, though taste and touch, through the muck that we are standing in.
But it’s hard not to circle back to the judgment in our own lives and in this text. I don’t like the idea that the five wise bridesmaids can’t find it in their hearts to share a bit of oil. I don’t like the way the door can’t be opened for the foolish, how there is no second chance. I wonder to myself, how dare they send the foolish ones out in the night with all the risks that surely involved? I wonder, did the wise ones giggle under their breath as the five went scurrying away? Did they turn the music up loud to drown out the sound of the knocking on the door when the foolish ones finally returned? It seems out of place, it seems so counter to God with Us.
This isn’t a parable about sharing with the poor. There’s nothing to indicate that the foolish five have less means than the wise, nothing that indicates that they have some inherent social, economic, psychological disadvantage. It’s not that they didn’t have the means to get the oil, it’s that they just didn’t bother. At the end of the day the five wise one’s can’t help if they wanted to because it would be like doing your friend’s math homework, it might help today but it sure won’t help for the test next week. The deep spiritual work required of each one of us is ours to do, and no matter what we can’t get that from someone else. You need to say your own prayers, do your own meditation, walk the labyrinth for yourself. You need to hold the time you have as sacred, no one else can do that for you. No one ever said a life of faith was a free ride.
Yet we remember that the kin-dom of heaven is like all ten bridesmaids, not just the wise ones. The wise and the foolish moments are part of our reality. Even the times we can’t find a way to reconcile broken relationships, the times we can’t seem to gather enough resolve to carry us through anything more than the expected, the times we make the same foolish choice expecting it to open a door instead of close it, even then Emmanuel, God is with us. We will forget to do our work, we will waste the time we have, and even then God will be with us.
Thank goodness we hear this parable while the bridegroom delays and the door to the party is still open. We have the blessing of being ten bridesmaids together, each individually seeking spiritual sustenance, “and together receiving the nurture of a spirit-filling community of faith.”
Repent one day before your death. Show up to your life. Show up on your spiritual journey today. These words from the rabbi are reminiscent of a benediction I’ve heard at the conclusion of many a church service: “Life is short, we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” Now is the time to show up and to see just what God can grow from the dust of your one precious life. Amen.
 Henri Amiel, 1868