Earlier, while on a Zoom meeting, I was complaining about this parable about the “Ten Bridesmaids.” I mean, what is a progressive preacher supposed to do with this parable? A friend and colleague who was also on the call, began reminiscing about how this parable always reminds him of church camp songs, and he proceeded to sing a few bars of, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning! Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.” Anyway, he put that into my brain with just those few bars and it’s firmly planted there, this ear-worm, all day long and I’ve been singing it over and over again my head. Only I haven’t been singing the verse which my friend planted in my brain. No “oil in my lamp for me” Oh No! Over and over again, I’ve been singing in my head: Give gas in ford keep trucking for the Lord. Give me gas in my ford I pray!”
I don’t know about you, but I’m running out of gas. I don’t have much oil left and my light is beginning to dim. It’s been more than 9 months since we first began worrying about the coronavirus, and the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. As if a world-wide pandemic isn’t enough to dim the lamps which used to burn bright in our psyches, there’s the endless turmoil of the never-ending election in the United States. If anxiety could fuel a lamp, or fire up a car, not even the prospect of winter’s cold and darkness could stop me from singing. Forget oil, or gas, right about now, I’d settle for another verse of that earworm which better describes my sorry state: Give me umption in my gumption, help me function, function, give me up umption in my gumption, I pray.
The enormity of the anxiety, fear, and genuine hardships which have been inflicted upon us, I’m wondering why should we even try to wrangle some meaning out of this obscure parable? My lovely Nanny used to say, “you gotta laugh, or you’re gonna end up crying.” So, have you heard the one about the “Ten Bridesmaids”? “Ten bridesmaids” were waiting for a bridegroom, they waited so long that they fell asleep! What a joke? But where’s the laugh?
I know I’m not much of a joke-teller. Joke’s require punchlines, and I can never remember punchlines. Besides, if this parable has a punchline, I simply don’t get it. There were these ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. Five of the bridesmaids were wise and five of the bridesmaids were foolish.
The wise bridesmaids brought along some extra oil for their lamps, the foolish bridesmaids did not. Long before the bridegroom arrived all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Yada yada yada! A little detail here, a little detail there and lo and behold we’re at the punch line. Turns out the bridegroom doesn’t know five of the bridesmaids, so he shuts the door and says: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Ha, ha, ha, very funny. I’m sorry, I simply don’t get it. For years and years, generation upon generation, people have been telling this particular parable, and leaving people hanging with that punch line. Ha, ha, too bad, so sad, you just don’t get it. You don’t get to come into the party! Or as the traditional preacher said to the congregation, “Keep awake! Don’t fall asleep! And for heaven’s sake be prepared! Cause if you’re not, CHRIST will bar the door and you won’t get into heaven! So, keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. CHRIST could come back at any moment and if you are not ready! That’s it! Boom! CHRIST will deny you; the door will be shut and you’re not getting in. Oh, and by the way, you’re going to burn in hell for all eternity. So, remember keep awake, be afraid be very afraid. Cause your gonna die! And if you haven’t brought along some extra oil for your lamp, well it ain’t gonna be pretty!” Ha, ha, ha, the joke will be on you.
I don’t know about you, but why don’t we just forget about the ten bridesmaids or as they are sometimes called the ten virgins. I’d much rather hear the joke about the priest and the rabbi who walk into bar! Now I know that I’m a preacher and my job is to take these old jokes and breathe new life into them. But hell, fire, and damnation, some old jokes simply aren’t funny anymore!
Look, I could tell you all the things that I’ve learned about this joke. I could unravel ancient wedding traditions for you. I could tell you that the Greek word “parthenoi,” doesn’t mean bridesmaids or virgins, as so many interpretations are wont to translate it. Like we think of bridesmaids or virgins, I mean the fact that these girls haven’t had sex before is not the point…a “parthenoi” is simply a young woman; well a young girl really probably about 12.
So, there are these 12-year-old girls who are invited to this wedding! I could tell you that a more accurate translation, would divide these girls up as 5 wise girls and 5 naïve girls. I could say that oil is necessary for shedding light and that we are all expected to be the light of the world. But then the story takes a nasty shift and the wise girls won’t share their oil with the naïve girls and that kinda goes against the grain, cause aren’t we supposed to share with those in need? Then there’s the bridegroom; I could do what most preachers do and tell you that the bridegroom is really Jesus, who shows up late to his own wedding, only to discover that half the wedding party is unprepared and so, he simply denies that he even knows them and then shuts the door and leaves them out there in the darkness. But where’s the good news in that? What good does it do to portray Jesus as the kind of jerk who would exclude 5 young girls, children, from the party simply because they are naïve? I suspect that someone somewhere along the way, forgot the punchline of this parable and left us without any hope of finding anything to provide the nourishment we need to: Give us joy in our heart, keep us going. Keep us going till the COVID goes away.
What do say, we just forget about the punchline? What do you say we stop trying to turn Jesus into the bridegroom? Everything we know about the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth ought to prove to us that Jesus was not the type of person who would exclude 5 naïve young girls from the very party, that he was too inconsiderate to show up on time for. Whenever ancient Hebrew storytellers mention oil and lamps, we ought to be able to make the connection our ancestors would have been expecting. I know that there is much to dread about the coming of winter, but there is also much to look forward to. In just about a month from now, December 10th to be exact, Hanukkah begins. Hanukkah, the wonderous celebration of the LIGHT; not just any LIGHT, but the LIGHT which against all odds did not go out. When all was just about lost, during the darkest of times, when there was scarcely any oil left in the lamp, the lamp continued to burn for eight days and nights. For our ancestors, LIGHT represented the presence of the DIVINE ONE, the HOLY MYSTERY who IS the CREATOR not just of light, but the CREATOR of ALL that IS, the ONE who IS present even in the darkness.
The anonymous gospel-storytellers point us to the presence of the DIVINE MYSTERY in the LIGHT which burns brightly in the lamps of our wanna-be party-goers. Metaphors abound in all parables, and we would do well to remember that the anonymous gospel-storytellers were fond of using weddings as metaphors for the ultimate union with the DIVINE. Weddings are symbols celebrating the union of the LOVER with the BELOVED; celebrations of the reality that we are ONE with the DIVINE.
We dear ONEs, we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, so much bigger than our fears and our anxieties, bigger than any pandemic. You and I, we are ONE with the DIVINE MYSTERY, which IS BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also. The good news dear ones, is that our lamps will not be extinguished for we are nourished, grounded and sustained by the ONE who is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. But we do need to be prepared, for those moments when we feel empty and afraid. And no one else can do this for us. We must prepare ourselves by going back to our SOURCE, being present to the ONE who IS. Opening ourselves to our LOVER.
Listen to what the 13th century, German mystic, Saint Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote about the nature of the LOVE we call God: “God Said to the Soul:
‘I desired you before the world began.
I desire you now
As you desire me.
And where the desires of two come together There LOVE is perfected.
… It is my nature that makes me love you often, For I AM LOVE itself.
It is my longing
that makes me LOVE you intensely,
For I yearn to be loved from the heart.
It is my eternity that makes me LOVE you long, For I have no end.”
Dear friends, the winter is coming. Anxieties are running high. It may feel like we have precious little oil in our lamps. We will need to prepare ourselves, no one can do this for us. We must stop, and we must breathe deeply of the ONE who is the SOURCE of all light, trusting that in the presence of the DIVINE MYSTERY, we are ONE with the LOVE which will empower us to BE.
As for that ear-worm, well:
Give me peace in my heart, keep me LOVE-in, LOVE-in, LOVE-in
Give me peace in my heart, I pray
Give me peace in my heart, keep me LOVE-in
Keep me LOVE-in I pray,
Keep me LOVE-in till the break of day.
May the LOVE which is our BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also, continue to burn brightly in, with, through, and beyond, you. Now and forever. Let it be so, dear ONEs. Let it be so.
Watch the full worship video below