What Are You Waiting For?

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

I have a confession to make. I have been preaching now for 34 years.  And, in all that time, I have never preached on this parable in Matthew.  Not because it doesn’t come up in the lectionary that I have often followed – because it does.  No, I haven’t preached on it because this parable has always bothered me.

But this week, as I considered what to preach on, I got a distinct nudge from God.  I came across a phrase in a Bible commentary and it suddenly felt like a direct message from God to me.  “What are you waiting for?” was the phrase.  What I heard God saying was “no more ducking this parable, Carter.”

There are two things that especially bother me about this parable.  First, if you were telling this parable, wouldn’t you tell it where the wise maidens share their oil with the others whose oil runs out?  Don’t we want disciples of Jesus to share?  Don’t we want the church care for each other?  Then why are the women who hold on to their oil the ones Jesus commends?

Second, what the bridegroom does when he finally returns home bothers me.  Presumably he has been married at his wife’s home, as was often the case.  Or, he has traveled to his future wife’s house to work out the terms of the dowry, the last obstacle before the wedding can take place.  Either way, his return home means the party can begin.  That is why the bridesmaids have their lamps lit to welcome him.

But instead of being in a joyful mood, when the five so-called foolish bridesmaids show up late, this bridegroom sounds angry and harsh.  He shuts the door on them and tells them, “Truly…I don’t know you.”  Is this bridegroom meant to represent Jesus?  Where is the grace of the Jesus who goes after lost sheep, or talks about welcoming home prodigal sons and daughter?  What is Jesus trying to tell us here?

I imagine that most of you have heard Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.”  It is a haunting series of conversations of a father and son through the years.  Early in the song, the son asks to do something with the father.  The father is too busy and so he turns him away.  But he promises “we’ll get together then, you know we’ll have a good time then.”  Then later the son gets older, gets a license, goes off to college, marries and starts his own family.  Now it is the father who hopes to get together with the son.  And now it is the son who is too busy.  But like father, like son: the son promises, “we’ll get together then, dad, we’ll have a good time then.”

Like that father and son, we like to think of the future as an endless horizon always offering an opportunity to “get together then.”  But in this life, Jesus wants us to know, the horizon is never really endless.

Early in our tenure at the church in Pottstown, we started a planned giving program.  As part of the program, we had an attorney speak about wills and estate planning in a three-part series.  The goal was to give church members some practical advice as well as to encourage people to remember the church in their wills.  There was one person who attended all three sessions, a man in his 70s active in the church’s ministry and in the community: he served multiple terms as the elected township treasurer.  Six months after the three sessions, he suddenly died.  He died without a will – making life much harder and more confusing for his surviving widow.

In a recent National Geographic article,1 Rachel Fairbanks writes, “After giving up alcohol, changes will start to take effect within weeks. This includes in the liver, which can start to reverse the damage done in most of the four stages of alcohol-related liver disease—which starts with the accumulation of fat, then progresses to chronic inflammation, which leads to scarring, and ultimately results in cirrhosis…the liver has an enormous regenerative capacity.”  The first three stages are reversible.  But once the drinker’s liver reaches the fourth stage – cirrhosis – the damage is irreversible.

Sometimes in life, the door really does close.  Sometimes the lock bolt does click into place.

Several years ago, Kerry and I got a call.  It was a couple we had been good friends with in another city when we were all starting out in our professional careers and with the arrival of our children.  We had moved when I left law for the ministry, and we lost contact except in the annual Christmas card. 

Kerry and I were very excited to hear from them and really looked forward to rekindling the friendship.  And so we met for dinner halfway.  But then in the course of the dinner conversation it became clear that the dinner invitation was a desperate plea by one of them for two minister friends to save their marriage.  But what was also clear is that there had been too many years of neglect of the relationship, too little effort to address the issues that had arisen.  No longer was there the energy really to repair and rebuild the relationship.

Two middle-aged sisters were no longer in touch.  It had not always been that way.  But there had been words at a holiday celebration that neither sister could take back and neither sister forgive.  The exchanges of anger and resentment continued in volleys back and forth – until the sisters stopped talking; stopped visiting; stopped communicating at all.  No longer did they gather at holidays.  The breakup took on a life of its own.  Year after year. 

But then one sister decided it was time to bury the hatchet and start anew.  Sheshe got up the courage to reach out to her sister and she sent an email.  Only to hear from her sister’s son, that the sister was in the final stages of a losing battle with stage 4 cancer and was mostly sleeping now.  Even when awake, she did not recognize her children.

Jesus wants us to know that sometimes there is no “we” “to get together then.”  The door can close on having “a good time then.”

Perhaps one reason that this parable makes us uncomfortable is that it asks us uncomfortable questions.  Is there something we have put off doing that we should do?  I am not talking about a closet to be cleared out or a book collection to be alphabetized.  No, I think Jesus wants us to look at more important stuff.  Is there someone we should contact, some apology we should make, some grudge we should let go of?  Are we being called to finally step off the sidelines and step into some ministry or cause?   To offer our time, our gifts, or our money?

Perhaps, Jesus is telling us that the foolish bridesmaids cannot borrow oil from the others because there are some things we cannot borrow.  We cannot borrow someone else’s character, someone else’s marriage.  And there are some things that no one can do for us.  Someone can’t stop drinking for us.  Someone cannot apologize or forgive for us.  That is something only we can do for ourselves.           

What are you waiting for?  Whatever it is we need to do, do it now, not later, Jesus is telling us through this parable.  As the poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote: “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.”

Sometimes the door does close for good.  And sometimes, the bridegroom is delayed.

One of the issues for Matthew’s readers is that a lot of people in the early church expected Jesus’ second coming to be something they would see in their lifetimes.  And when that did not happen, the light of their faith dimmed.  No longer were they letting their light shine before all, as Jesus had commanded on the Sermon on the Mount.  This parable reminds us that faith needs to go the distance, and not just be a flash in the pan.

The problem is not that some bridesmaids fall asleep.  All 10 do fall asleep in the parable.  Nobody expects them to be workaholics or do the impossible.  No, the problem with the 5 foolish bridesmaids is that they don’t get extra oil.  They are not prepared for the long haul.  They are not prepared when the bridegroom doesn’t meet their schedule.  What Jesus is calling for in this parable is persistence in our faith.

Persistence but not perfection.  Inevitably, we will get drowsy like the wise bridesmaids.  There will be times when our faith is depleted, times when we fall short and our lives lose their glow, times when what we do and say no longer reflect the light of Christ to the world. 

The question then is what are we doing to replenish the oil, replenish our resources, replenish our faith?  Are we taking time to pray and listen for God?  Are we coming to worship?  Are we gathering with other Christians for fellowship and support?  Are we serving others?  Those are all ways that we can replenish the oil of our faith, so that we have extra when the waiting and delays and struggles come – as they inevitably will.  None of us has enough oil to last.  To go the distance, we need extra oil, we need to be replenished by the One who is the source of the light we are called to bear.

We keep our light shining in anticipation of the bridegroom’s arrival.  Not just for a day, but day after day.  As the poet Wendell Berry has said:

“Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.”

Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems
(Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998), 18.

What are you waiting for?  And, are you ready for the waiting?  Knowing that Jesus is asking us those two questions in this parable has really changed my view of it.  But it is a third, related question that has made even more difference: Who are you waiting for?  It is easy to forget here that these bridesmaids are not waiting for the return of someone they fear: a tax collector or a tyrannical master, for example.  No, they are waiting on the bridegroom – because then the joyful celebration can begin.

In the same way, it makes all of the difference to remember who we are waiting for.  I don’t know if Jesus intended the bridegroom to represent him – scholars disagree.  But I know that the One we are waiting for is one who loves us deeply and infinitely.  The One for whom we wait is not an IRS auditor or a take-no-prisoner boss.  No, the One we are awaiting is One who loves us so much that he thinks we are worth dying for.  He loves us so much that he is not willing for us to remain the way we are, holding on to our sins, holding on to our fears and grudges.  He wants to make us new.

Who are we waiting for?  The One who shows up.  Not just at the end of history, not just at the end of our lives.  No, he also shows up here and now, in the midst of history, in the midst of our lives.

Not too long ago, a long-time friend was enjoying retirement and wintering in Florida when slow changes in her husband’s moods, cognitive levels, and physical energy suddenly accelerated.  Almost overnight, there was a rapid deterioration of his mobility and cognitive condition.  Suddenly, she knew they needed to get back home and to a doctor as soon as possible.  Far from them, all we could do is pray as they got on an Amtrak train for a harrowing trip home.  Kerry texted her, “The Lord is near to you – look for him.”

Our friend would say later how helpful that reminder was.  She was scared, but she looked for Christ along the route.  And then he began to show up.

He showed up in the Amtrak attendants who took her husband to the bathroom, because he no longer could stand on his own.  He showed up in the friend who met them at the train and helped her convince a stubborn husband that they needed to go directly to the hospital and not home.  She spotted Christ’s presence in the medical and housekeeping staff with their kindness, patience, and skill.  And she felt his presence when she gathered with her church community again, and broke down and wept.

The medical issue was an aggressive brain tumor; surgery and chemo were the course of treatment, and they were in for a long journey.  But they would not face it alone – that they knew. 

Much of life is waiting – but that does not mean that we just passively wait.  No, there are actions to take, not then, but now.  We need to be prepared to go the distance, prepared to seek extra oil so that we can let our lights shine no matter how long that wait is.  But never forget, friends, that our waiting is never in vain.

The Lord is near.  He shows up.  Look for him.

  1. Rachel Fairbanks, When you go sober for even a month, your body will change. Here’s how. ↩︎