Reflection – Anne Stewart
Finding our way to the party
Even if this is not the first time you have heard the parable of the wise and foolish
bridesmaids, I wonder what you make of it. It’s certainly been keeping me busy this week!
All sorts of things have been popping up but, to start with anyway, not many of them were
that helpful! I mean, is this really what the kingdom of heaven is like – tardy bridegrooms
who cause mayhem, wise but peevish goody goods who enjoy the misery of those who
didn’t think, or being prepared so you don’t miss out, or just staying awake! Or did Jesus
have the Scouts in mind and thought he would throw them a good story to base their motto
of ‘Be Prepared’ on. Yep, Dan looked far too happy on Tuesday when we met to start
planning for today, and we agreed it was my turn to preach!
I’m not sure if it’s like this for everyone but when I start the process of forming a sermon, I
have a collection of characters who hang about offering their 2 cents worth into the mix.
There is a lecturer from Otago, who sits on one shoulder offering wise words like, ‘too
much preaching these days is just home-spun wisdom and there is too little real
engagement with the text.’ Another much-respected lecturer sits nearby saying ‘by all
means consult the commentaries but remember to preach the text, not the commentaries’
– helpful. And then there are those pesky things called ‘pew rights’ – like you have the right
to not be bored witless, you have the right not to be abused, attacked or to be pulled into
any ideology. Then there are other voices, mostly from within the parish, who I know think
this way or that. And Dan spoke recently about a sermon not being for the purpose of
endorsing you in your comfort zones but being to challenge you out of them. So, you are
not to be bored, but you are also not to be entertained. Honestly, when that all kicks in, I
wonder if there is anything left to say! Another kind soul advised me once to start with the
text, stay with the text and finish with the text, so, this week I kept going back and back to
the text and still I wondered what this one was all about. Maybe I am over thinking it, I
So, with some fear and trepidation, I consulted the commentaries. The first commentator
seemed as confused as I was. The second missed this parable out altogether. It took the
third commentator, Robert Capon, to begin to open the door to understanding. Let’s see if
this is helpful. This parable is part of the last section of Jesus’ parables, so toward the end
of his ministry. This makes factoring in the context even more important.
I imagine any book where you just zeroed in on one of the last sections without any
consideration of what came before and after, would be hard to follow. The first section of
parables contain what Robert Capon calls the Parables of the kingdom – these are the
stories where Jesus talked about the mystery of a kingdom already present in this world.
The second section are the parables of grace, where Jesus talked about the device by which
that mystery operates, grace working through death and resurrection.
And finally, there are the Parables of Judgement, which are a series of pictures of how
grace ultimately triumphs by separating those who accept the mystery in faith, from those
who, by unfaith, reject God’s freely given acceptance of them. This is where we find
ourselves this morning among those who accept by faith and those who either can’t make
up their minds or who have openly rejected relationship with God.
Capon talks about faith as the great party of life that God invites us all too. It’s a great
image. Some people get it and see what they have been given, accept the invitation and
jump right in to the party. Others can’t make up their minds and there are some who
openly reject the premise of the party and/or their invitation to it. Because this parable sits
near the end of Jesus’ ministry, there is a sense of urgency in it. Time is not limitless; at
some point we do have to make the call on whether or not to accept the invitation. We
can’t sit on the fence forever, there is a limit on this as there is on everything. If we dally
too long over our decision, we might find we have run out of oil and the shops are shut and
we’ve missed the boat. Nor can we wander about ill-prepared and expect that someone
will bail us out and make it all ok for us.
The foolish bridesmaids were prepared, but only for the expected outcome. They had their
lamps and sufficient oil to last for an afternoon wedding that might perhaps go on into the
early evening too. But they hadn’t reckoned on something unexpected happening like the
wedding party starting late when their oil was already beginning to run out.
As I worked through this, I found myself thinking back to the process of preparation and
packing for walking the Camino last year. Martin and I spent a year preparing our bodies,
testing out gear, trying several brands and styles of socks, among other things. We checked
and re-checked every item that was to go with us. We weighed things, and we made
choices based on exactly what we expected we might find, and on what might be there to
surprise us. We checked the weather in Spain each day for 35 days, exactly twelve months
before we were due to start, to try to get a handle on how it might be for us. We knew
what we needed, for what we could expect to find – just like the five foolish bridesmaids.
This was a sensible approach – we didn’t want to carry more than we could sensibly see
that we might need on the Camino. But what the wise bridesmaids did was to prepare for
an utterly unlikely contingency like the bridegroom being late. Silly old fuss-buckets, we
might say. That’ll never happen. These girls were what my Dad would have called, ‘belts
and braces’ girls. They had back-up, just in cases!
And of course, most of us know, don’t we, that in this world things often turn out
differently to how we might expect. We need to be prepared and we need to do what we
can to offset any unexpected outcomes, because the unexpected does happen. Walking, as
we did, in late Winter in Spain meant that we had to allow for any turn of events. The
sunscreen was just as important as the wet weather gear – and both could be, and were,
needed. Sure, we had to be sensible and keep the weight we carried to a minimum but not
at the expense of items like warm merino and clean socks. We listened to advice and sifted
this out to get what we considered to be our bare minimum of things to worry about. We
knew our feet were our biggest risk and we listened when a wise woman warned us to walk
slowly and drink lots of water, ‘you’ll never get blisters, if you do that’ she said as she set
off on her 10th Camino at age 74 – and she was right. The unprepared powered past us and
we met them in the evenings in the same accommodation as us, nursing very blistered and
often infected feet. They didn’t expect to get blisters and they hadn’t prepared for this
So, I do understand the sense in being prepared. But I also suspect that Jesus is calling us
here to more than just being good Scouts! This parable was told in a time of impending
crisis. Time is running out for Jesus, and his entry to Jerusalem is imminent. Time has its
limits for us too. And we too, it could be argued, are living in a time of crisis. How
prepared are we for this time of crisis? I think Jesus tells this story to help us prepare
better by living a life more deeply connected to him. An approaching crisis is not the time
to be living lightly and frivolously. It is the time to be going deep; to be drinking from that
deep well of living water that we hear about in Psalm 23. That doesn’t mean the party is
off, or no fun anymore, but it does mean we need to know the person throwing the party.
Otherwise we might find we don’t have the reserves of oil we need to enable us to accept
the offer to join the party.
To me, this makes the words, “Truly I tell you; I do not know you” to be the most
important of this whole parable. With all the time we have had to get to know God, if we
have not taken any interest – then the party is not for us. With all the effort God makes to
get our attention, if we have not stopped long enough to notice, then the party is not for
us. The party of life has been thrown for us all and all we have to do is say YES, we accept
and we want to know the One who calls us to the party.
It’s a call to life; to staying awake and being fully alive. A call to what really matters in life;
being deeply connected to the One who gives us life; the One who calls us to live it
abundantly; the One who invites us to the party of life and hopes against hope that we will
say YES! The One who has promised to be with us always, even as we make our way
through times of crisis that we will inevitably find ourselves in. But we won’t get there from
the shallow end of life, we need to be prepared to wade out into the deep, far from our
comfort zones to meet the host of the party and to open ourselves to being known –
deeply. If you want to talk about how you might do this then come and chat with Dan or I
or find a trusted friend and start the conversation.
Here are a few starters to get you thinking; it might be, immersing yourself in scripture,
intentionally working on your prayer life – whatever shape that may take (hands in the dirt
works for me), sharing stories with one another, taking steps to shut out the trivial and the
untrue that bombards us from our screens, making time for connections with others. You
will know what works for you, but can I encourage you to do whatever you need to, to push
past the shallow stuff of life and prepare yourself for the crisis by going deep within to find
the Host of the party, before the oil in your lamps runs out.