Weddings then and Now
Ask any minister and they will entertain you with stories of weddings and funerals. One of the lovely things about being a minister is that you see people at times of great celebration and, sadly, at times of almost unbearable grief. To journey with people through these times of life is a huge privilege. Of course, like all things in life things, sometimes, go wrong. I will forever remember the first funeral I took over 25 years ago, a funeral for a dear friend who had died far too young with a mother almost frantic with grief. I processed in with the coffin only to find three unmarked buttons on the Crematorium lectern. It took a very long time to pluck up the courage and guess which button should be pressed at the appropriate time. Weddings too can go wrong. At one we kept the pre-service music going for some time as we poured black coffee into the happy couple as they had had one too many for Dutch courage. Today’s Gospel story contains one of those weddings where things have gone wrong.
Jewish weddings in Jesus’ time were, as now, times of huge celebration. One of the lovely features was that the guests would all assemble in the Bride’s home where they’d be entertained by her parents while they waited for the groom. When the husband-to-be approached the bridesmaids, with lights aflame, would go and greet him and then, in a festive procession the wedding party would walk to the groom’s home for the ceremony and banquet. This banquet would last for several days. The first of Jesus’ miracles recorded in St John’s Gospel is at the wedding feast at Cana where something went wrong and they ran out of wine.
In today’s parable, the disaster is that the groom is delayed and the foolish bridesmaids weren’t prepared for that.
What’s It About?
Matthew wrote his Gospel using, like the other Gospel writers, various sources. We know Matthew had a copy of St Mark’s Gospel because it’s almost there in its entirety. He also had another source that St Luke used and he had his own sources – for example only in Gabriel only appears to Joseph, and the Magi from the East coming with their gifts only appear in Matthew . Matthew uses his sources with a purpose – he was encouraging Jewish converts to Christianity and, in common with the other writers, had realised that Jesus’ return wasn’t imminent. At first the Earliest Christians thought Jesus would be back very soon – they were to preach the Gospel and he would return after a short while to fully institute the Kingdom. The Gospels were written as the earliest disciples were starting to die and the first eye witnesses were getting on. So, written sources were compiled and made their way into the books we now know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus’ failure to return soon was a puzzle to the earliest followers – maybe they had got it wrong, maybe they had misunderstood Jesus’ words. This parable was included, I think, in St Matthew’s Gospel to help people make sense of the delay – after all it used imagery from a wedding and weddings, then and now, have great potential for things to go wrong!
There are lots of things this passage isn’t about; despite what some preachers may say! It’s not about
- Staying constantly awake in anticipation of the Lord’s coming – all the bridesmaids fell asleep both the wise and the foolish. No one was criticised for sleeping.
- It’s not about bringing with us the things we need for the celebration – the lamps were for the wait and the journey and weren’t needed for the party.
- It’s not even about waiting patiently – if it was the foolish maids would have grumbled and then been critiqued for that.
- It’s not about being excited when the groom comes – all the maids were excited.
- It’s not even about some knowing the groom and others not.
The text is about being prepared for the unexpected wait.
Of course, with 2,000 years of waiting the passage loses its power. Imagine, however, if you were an elderly Christian who’d converted young, followed Jesus, seen the miracles for yourself, played your part in helping spread the Good News, helped found a Church somewhere and had been waiting patiently for the Lord to return, to put all things right, to bring the Kingdom, to end the suffering. The passing of each year made that hope seem more and more vain – this story was meant to encourage us in the wait – and to be prepared. Those foolish maids weren’t going to find an oil shop open in the middle of the night. In their rush to find oil they missed the procession and couldn’t get into the feast.
How To Prepare
So the point is about being prepared – but what might that mean for us in 21st Century Scotland? The only difference between the wise and the foolish maids was that the wise came prepared for the wait.
A tiny minority of Christians, in every age, have assumed that they are called to prepare for the End by stockpiling food, resources and weapons to wait out the cataclysmic end of time in an enclave of safety and security. Moris West wrote, in my view, a rather good book called the Clowns of God. In this a French pope was meditating in the Vatican gardens and received a vision of the End – the Lord was about to return and his job, as Pope, was to tell the world. Duly, the hapless pope wrote an Encyclical announcing the Lord was to return just as the world was descending into war. His advice was to form communities where people would care for each other, each community was to elect and ordain a leader and, when the worst was over they were to go out in the land around each community to teach, heal and preach; rather like the monasteries in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Of course, a draft was discovered and the Cardinals deposed him for someone altogether less visionary. The book is clever as it weaves this ancient sense of having to prepare for the End with a more outward focus of service. Being prepared, then, for some Christians might mean stocking up, hiding in a cave and waiting but, I suspect that isn’t want Jesus meant.
I think being prepared means not assuming we have all we need. Being prepared means recognising there is more to learn, more to receive, more to learn and being open and prepared to receive it. As John Robinson, one of the pilgrims who went to America, wrote “There is yet more truth to break forth from His Word.”
This isn’t as good as it gets. The groom has been delayed and, when he comes, there will be that procession and a party and banquet where all shall be fed and where all are invited. We have a foretaste of that banquet every time we share Holy Communion with each other, but the party won’t start until He comes.
The parable asks us to live in hope of what has been promised, to hope for what is to come and to be prepared for it by having open hearts to love and receive from the Lord, to learn and love. We learn to live now in hope of what is to come and, in living well, we prepare for eternity with the coming groom. As we wait we join with others in this community; we learn to love each other even when, at times, we don’t like each other, we learn to stick with each other through thick and thin, we pray for and serve each other and fill our lamps with good things to shine in the world now – the coming groom brings his own light for the party that is to come.
Will you pray with me?