When I was young, my morality was “death-oriented”. I was afraid of going to hell if I died in sin. The fear of sudden death kept me, mostly, on the straight and narrow path, but it’s fair to say that my moral sense was “immature”.
One thing that made my death-oriented morality very real was the fear of sudden death. When I was in grade 3, one of my classmates, her mother and brother died during Hurricane Hazel when their house, on the Humber River flats, was swept away and they drowned. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me, “Let this be a lesson that you could die at any time”, but that thought stayed with me.
Four years later, one of my schoolmates, with whom I played street hockey, football and baseball, got a fever on a Friday. It worsened the next day, so his parents took him to the hospital late Saturday. He collapsed while walking into the hospital and died a few hours later. The diagnosis was meningitis.
Fearing the combination of sin and sudden death defined my primitive sense of integrity.
At first glance, the gospel for the feast of All Souls, (Matt. 25:1-13) seems to reinforce my death-oriented morality. It follows a series of warnings about the unpredictability and the totally transformative nature of the coming apocalypse in the preceding chapter of Matthew’s gospel.
The gospel for Nov 8 begins, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five were foolish …and did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all … fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Go to the oil seller and buy some ….’
“But while they were on their way to buy oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
“Later the others also came. ‘Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Jesus’ parable reinforced my fear.
It’s a strange parable. Where is the bride? Were oil sellers likely to be open late at night? Why did the groom punish the people who had waited so long for him that their oil ran out? It seems unfair.
It appears that Matthew was so intent on writing the conclusion… keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour…that he did not tidy up the details in his reportage of Jesus’ parable.
This isn’t a story about marriage customs or how much oil is burned. The symbolic elements of the parable open up a broader meaning. The first words, the kingdom of heaven will be like…are the interpretive key. The unpredictable arrival of the bridegroom is a cautionary tale about the unknown timing of the apocalypse and the kingdom of heaven.
The bridegroom was the Son of Man, an Old Testament description of the Christ. Jesus had referred to himself and his coming again in glory as the Son of Man, five times in the chapter preceding this parable. This larger context makes the reference clear.
The ten maidens represent the broader community. The early church anticipated that the apocalypse would happen within their lifetime. Paul told the Thessalonians in this morning’s reading the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord. (1 Thess 4:13-18)
Focusing only on keeping watch, may miss one of the foundation elements of the story: the light. We might paraphrase Jesus’ message in this morning’s parable as, “don’t let your light go out”. Jesus used the loss of light several times in connection with the apocalypse. In his prophecy about the destruction of the temple, the persecution of his followers and the coming of the Son of Man Jesus had said, “Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light” (Matt 24:29)
Throughout his gospels Matthew quotes Jesus on light…. You are the light of the world (Matt 5:14), let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:16). The light we share is the love of God reflected in our lives and the care we show to one another.
Note, also, that the lamps needed to be trimmed from time to time. The women waiting for the bridegroom had to adjust the wicks to ensure that the flames burned brightly. An untrimmed wick produces a smoky, dull glow rather than bright light. As we age…as we metaphorically wait for the bridegroom… the way we show the light of Christ to the world changes with our circumstances. We may be more financially, but less physically able to support God’s work. As children mature, we may have more free time to help the community. Our prayer life may become deeper and we may be better able to broaden our prayerful support of others when we get older. These are our “lamp trimming” ways.
The communal nature of the light also deserves notice. Many people waited for the coming of the bridegroom. Their individual efforts were to be united in welcoming illumination. We shine our light not just as individuals, but as a community of faith, using our combined efforts. None of us could individually sponsor refugees or offer Out of the Cold but together we can. The Eucharist, itself, is a communal prayer with many participants.
Thinking of the message as “let your light shine”, of the need to trim our lamps from time to time and the communal nature of our waiting welcome of the apocalypse, may not have resonated well with my younger self, who was mostly kept in line by the message keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour and fear of sudden death. But these days it does. These days I’m more oriented to the experience of God’s love in my daily life. (Coincidentally, the restatement of the message as “let your light shine” aligns with my favourite hymn, “This Little Light of Mine”.)
· If you had been among those hearing Jesus tell this parable what questions might you have asked him? Why was the groom late? Are you suggesting that only half the people will be saved? How do I store and carry my “oil” in daily life…not metaphorically?
· The gospels include different metaphors for faithful living, -- light, salt, – (or faithless living -- a barren fig tree). Think of a contemporary metaphor for faithful living. Water, every time you turn on a tap? A car that starts, every time you turn the key? Someone who smiles every time they see you?
· Do you get the impression, sometimes, that the evangelist has written the gospel with a great urgency? The story outline is there, but the connections between the details are weak. (One could almost read last week’s gospel of the beatitudes as a series of “bullet points”.) There’s a rush to tell the gospel and circulate it quickly, as though others can fill in the details later. If so, you’re in good company, the biblical scholar and translator, David Bentley Hart, notes the same thing.
Let your light shine.