Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see what ideas are underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

Jesus has chosen to move his listeners by interweaving his parable through an event which should be believable and familiar in terms of details and customs in First Century Judea. It is an event renowned for its festiveness and joy -- a wedding. The story highlights a few wonderful wedding customs which historians and scholars have reconstructed with a fair amount of confidence -- although there may have been some variations from region to region even in the time of Jesus.

With every parable of Jesus, the hearer should at some point be jolted or shocked. The parable is meant to provoke and to incite -- to arouse conversation as well as introspection. Ultimately it should lead to action. Although the story is believable and familiar, it also contains within it the unbelievable -- the startling. The last few words of dialogue is that which is intended to startle -- Lord, Lord, open the door for us! But he said in reply -- Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.

We learned back in the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time that wedding invitations in the day of Jesus would not state a particular day or time. Instead, they would simply announce that the event was to occur at some time in the future -- meanwhile the various preparations would be made for the wedding feast -- the procuring of food, wine, musicians, decorations, fine apparel, etc. When everything had been arranged and had passed inspection, the host (usually the father of the groom), dispatched a throng of servants who would tell the invited guests that the ceremony was to begin.

Guests would arrive at the home of the bride first where there would be dancing and entertainment. When night fell, the guests, with the veiled bride and her bridesmaids, would process festively to the home of the bridegroom in a beautiful procession illuminated by torches dipped in oil.

Later that evening, after hours of waiting for the bridegroom, a messenger would appear within earshot of the home of the bridegroom and repeatedly announce in a loud voice to the guests, to the bridesmaids and to the bride that the bridegroom was approaching. The bridegroom, who could still be a good distance away, would lead his own procession with his friends holding torches to illuminate their way. It was customary for the guests and bridesmaids to make their way out to the procession of the bridegroom carrying their own torches and to accompany him back to the home of the bride where she waited for him. When the procession reached the home of the bridegroom the wedding ceremony would begin followed by the wedding feast which could last for days -- even a week. This week, during which the bride and bridegroom might have been addressed as prince and princess, was most likely the happiest week of their lives.

Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

The virgins -- or bridesmaids -- have enjoyed a day of celebration at the home of the bride, a festive procession to the home of the bridegroom, and the excitement of anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. Now, at this late hour, the liveliness of the day has caught up with them. They have speared their lighted torches into the ground of the courtyard and have laid their heads back to rest their eyes -- slipping into slumber.

Their lamps -- or torches -- are sticks wrapped around with oil-soaked rags which would need to be resuscitated occasionally with spare oil kept in flasks. Five of the bridesmaids had such flasks, five did not.

What might have caused the delay of the bridegroom? Scholars pose some possibilities. Perhaps there may have been some Oriental haggling over the marriage contract and/or the gifts that the bridegroom had provided for the relatives of his new bride. Or, the bridegroom may have been particularly playful in purposefully trying to surprise the bridal party by arriving at an unexpected hour and not too far behind the messenger!

At midnight, there was a cry, Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!

Here is the ceremonial announcement of the coming of the bridegroom and his procession of friends. It would be announced several times, building in its dramatic delivery as the guests and bridesmaids dressed themselves appropriately for their journey into the night air and readied their torches to illuminate their way to meet the bridegroom.

Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise -- Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out. But the wise one replied -- No for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.

Wanting to continue to participate in the ceremony, the ill-prepared bridesmaids ask the well-prepared bridesmaids for their help. However, the prevailing attitude is -- better that five of us make it out to the bridegroom under the safety of our lighted torches than all of us find ourselves in utter darkness half-way there.

The feasibility of finding a merchant who would sell oil at that time of night has been volleyed around by the commentators and scholars.

While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterward the other virgins came and said -- Lord, Lord, open the door for us! But he said in reply -- Amen, I say to you, I do not know you

The wedding ceremony and the wedding feast clearly would have been the highlight of the whole event. Being excluded from this would have been devastating. The response of the bridegroom would have been shocking. Presumably, the five ill-prepared bridesmaids would have expected entry into the wedding feast.

Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

HOMILY: There are multiple levels upon which this can preach. First, our faith tells us that there indeed will be a generation in history that will experience the second coming of Christ. There will be a time in history when a person may have but a moment to ask the question -- Am I ready? Am I prepared? Second, if our generation is not the generation to experience the second coming, then we all must still face the day of our death. For some of us it will be unexpected and sudden -- even perhaps at a young age. For others it will be fairly predictable and follow a natural course. Regardless there will be a time in our personal histories when we will ask ourselves the question -- Am I ready? Am I prepared? Third, we are faced with a multiple of choices to make each day which may seem singularly insignificant; however, they often add up to pointing us in particular directions. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. Are our many everyday decisions pointing us in the direction of making us ready? Are they helping us to get prepared?

With the business of life it is very easy to forget about our faith in the second coming of Christ. With the business of life it is easy to dismiss our mortality and put off what should be our constant preparation for the death which we all must face. With the business of life it is easy to disregard the interconnectedness of our daily choices and not recognize the combined impact they may have on our ability to face God in right relationship. Choices matter.

How do we prepare ourselves? How do we get ready? How will we be sure that the Lord recognizes us? What are the right choices to make during our day? The end of chapter 25 reads -- Then the king will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Although we do not know the day or the hour of the second coming of Christ -- Although we do not know the day or the hour of our own deaths, we have been told what staying awake entails. It seems that if we meet the response from the Lord -- Amen, I say to you, I do not know you -- it will be because of our foolishness and not because of a lack of mercy or justice on the part of the Lord.

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