Are you a patient person? Last week Alison and Ava and I spent a few days in Prince Edward County. Ava isn’t used to long drives. So after an hour in the car, we started hearing the question: “Are we there yet?” And it continued: “Are we there yet?” Finally, we arrived at our cottage destination, long after the sun had gone down. It was quiet and dark, and I had to use the flashlight on my phone to locate the front door key hidden under a flowerpot.
Patience and waiting is the great challenge facing our world, especially because there are so many divisions and polarities. The United States is as deeply divided as ever. Donald Trump—good riddance—has been perhaps the most polarizing president in American history. Brexit continues to divide British society. Here in Canada there are intense political divisions and great economic disparity. All of us can go home and turn on the kitchen faucet to get a drink, but down the road near Brantford, 90% of households on the Six Nations territory can’t rely on clean drinking water. Our churches also have their divisions. In our Diocese, debates about sexual ethics continue to alienate. Is it possible to imagine that all of these tensions and divisions will be resolved soon within our lifetimes? Will God intervene? Or must we patiently wait, enduring the tension and engaging in the long-term work of justice?
The earliest Christians had to wrestle with these very questions. And they arrived at different perspectives on hope that generated disagreement. Today’s Scripture readings give us a glimpse of this reality. On the one hand is the first reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In that letter Paul offers a certain view of future hope. Christians from day one have believed that the resurrected Jesus will somehow reappear materially; “he will come again in glory,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “to judge the living and the dead.” What we learn from Paul’s letter is that he expected this climactic event to happen within his own lifetime, even imminently. In other words, the end was just around the corner. And he wrote his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica to encourage them to persevere just a little while longer, until Christ would return to vindicate them.
The Gospel reading from Matthew, however, presents a different vision. Today’s reading is the parable of the ten bridesmaids. They are awaiting the bridegroom’s arrival, which is assumed to be soon. Half of the bridesmaids show wisdom in bringing oil to light their lamps, just in case the wait extends well past sunset. That scenario is exactly what plays out. The bridegroom is significantly delayed, until finally at midnight, with everyone having fallen asleep, he arrives. The wise bridesmaids are able to light their lamps, go to meet him, and enter the wedding banquet. The foolish bridesmaids ask the others for a share of their oil, but they’re told there isn’t enough to go around. So they rush off to find an all-night service station that sells oil. By the time they get back, the door to the banquet is shut and they’re told to go home. They miss out on everything. The point of the parable is that the return of Jesus is not just around the corner. It will be delayed, and we must live responsibly—wisely—as we keep our hope in view.
Both of these visions of hope have enduring currents in our day. But among the earliest Christians, Paul’s vision became problematic. The return of Jesus, expected soon, even imminently and triumphantly, didn’t happen. Years and decades passed, and Christians were forced to rethink their expectation. By the 4th century, the Nicene Creed captured what Christians believed about Jesus’ return. There was conviction that it would happen, but there was no claim about when it would be. Paul’s vision gave way to the lesson of the ten bridesmaids. Patience held sway over imminent expectation.
In our day, how should we think about hope? Will the tensions and problems of the world soon be resolved by divine intervention? Some Christians think so and stand in the tradition of Paul. A few years ago I had a conversation with a bishop who told me, with sober conviction, that Jesus might come back tomorrow to set everything right. But we must come to terms with the same thing that the earliest Christians did: the final return of Jesus didn’t occur in their day, and it still hasn’t happened in ours. That leaves us with the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the lesson of patience. As much as we might desire the conflicts and crises of our world to end and the suffering and uncertainties of our individual lives to be resolved, we are not given assurances that this will happen quickly. Patience is what will generate perseverance and keep disappointment from overwhelming us.
But I think there’s a second lesson to draw from the parable. When the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise bridesmaids for oil, they are rebuffed. The wise bridesmaids claim that there isn’t enough oil to share; they need it for their own lamps. But is that really so? Couldn’t they spare just a little? They kept all their oil, showing no sympathy for the others. In the end, the foolish bridesmaids missed out altogether on the banquet because they had to run off and find oil. To me, that doesn’t strike me as characteristic of the Way of Jesus. After all, Jesus gave up his life for his people, going to Jerusalem to confront the powers head-on, knowing full well that he was putting his life on the line. Can we afford to spare some of our own oil for those in need, even if we think their circumstances are their own fault, even if we risk our own lamps going out? Jesus has invited all of us to the banquet—all of us here, and all of us out there walking along Queen Street and the boardwalk, including those who might be sleeping in tents.
The world has its problems. They’re not going away soon. We need to be patient and active. And while we’re at it, let’s not isolate ourselves in our own comforts. Let’s share what we have with those in need. Let’s ensure that everyone enters the banquet hall.