The squirrels are out. They’ve always been out, scampering around, chasing one another, barking and chirping at one another, flicking their tails in territorial aggression. I sit at my table and look out my back window and watch “my” squirrels. My dad made a little platform that stands on a steel pipe. This platform stands about yay high, and he made it where it is fixed to my back deck just on the other side of a floor to ceiling window. As I sit at my kitchen table, the squirrels (and blue jays, opossum, and raccoons) jump up on the platform and eat peanuts and seeds and raisins. This menagerie of animals aren’t more that three feet away from me, and I am immensely entertained watching them eat. I have one squirrel who has a ripped ear, almost torn right in half. She hurt her front paw a while back, and I didn’t think she was going to make it against the aggression of the other squirrels. But, she’s on the mend and is bearing more weight on her paw. It makes me happy as I’ve been cheering for her these last weeks. Anyway, I digress. These animals are constantly busy. Especially now that the season is changing and autumn has finally arrived. They are gathering more and more seeds and nuts and burying them in my backyard. The neighbors put out corn cobs in their yard, but those silly squirrels drag those corn cobs across two yards to mine. Then they pull off the kernels of corn and bury them in my yard leaving the empty corn cobs as remnants of winter preparation carnage.
It is this mass of squirrels that I think about as I read the gospel passage for this morning. Our bridesmaids anticipate the coming of the bridegroom and desire to be a part of the celebration of the wedding. They are eager to share in such a joyous occasion and prepare themselves for the event. Apparently the bridegroom will be coming into the nighttime as the bridesmaids have their lamps with them. Jesus also tells of five of the bridesmaids being wise in that they prepared oil for their lamps while five were foolish in that they did not have oil. They all feel asleep and were awakened by the coming of the groom. Those girls who were prepared entered the celebration while those who did not have themselves ready were left alone and outside the gates.
While we have heard this parable many times before, I believe that we need to be briefly reminded here of the customs of marriages in some ancient cultures, including the Jewish culture. Although a wedding is certainly a joyous occasion here with a potentially large guest list, great feasts of food, a beautiful bridal cake, dancing, laughter, pictures, music, enough to make for a night to remember — for both the wedded couple as well as the invited guests. Marriage in the older traditions were as much a business transaction as a weaving of love between a couple. Livestock was traded. Prices were adjusted. Cloth and spices were given. A bride meant the future health success of the family name. As a result, she was almost priceless. So worthy was the joining of two lives and the potential future the marriage would bring forth that the marriage celebration often lasted a week. Feasting and drinking and dancing and laughing and sharing in the beginning of a new chapter for a couple as well as the families. It would be a beautifully exquisite event!
And what happens? Our bridesmaids fall asleep! The wise and the foolish fall asleep.
Wait! The “wise” AND the “foolish”? Yes! So, it isn’t that they fell asleep that distinguished the two groups? No. So what makes one group wise and other foolish? Their preparation, or lack of it. One group prepares both lamp and oil while the other group prepares their lamps but not the fuel it takes to burn them. So, what you’re saying is the indicator of a wise person and a foolish person is the extent of their preparation? In this parable, yes it is.
Let me offer some analogies. If you were to make a trek from here to Denver, CO, with no money for gas, are you wise or foolish? If you are turning in your taxes without having prepared the paperwork, are you wise or foolish? If you are driving through Okarche paying no heed to the town speed limit, are you wise or foolish? If you take a trip across the desert of Arizona with no water, well, you get my point.
Many of you know that my day job is a high school English teacher. In my capacity I teach all high school grades 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th. I also teach Advanced Placement junior and senior English. In my classes we cover symbolism, when one thing or idea represents a greater idea or understanding. If I were to give this parable as a potential analysis assignment to my classes, I would want them to scour the passage for meaning, rhetorical strategies, syntax, diction, symbolism, foreshadowing, allusions, and links to life and other media. For our purposes, I’m going to do something that would make my students gasp: what if we read this story just as it is presented? Instead of saying that “sleep” in our parable is a symbol for death and instead of saying that the lamps are a metaphor for life, what if we read this as just a simple story? My students would be horrified at my simplicity, but for us here this morning, I do believe that we can find a great deal of meaning and application in our Gospel passage!
Simply put, half of our bridesmaids are unprepared for the event that is to come. While they do have their lamps, they have no fuel. They do have what they need for the short term, but they do not have what they need for a longer period of time. And it is to this lack of preparation that causes them to miss the bridegroom and be left behind the door of the marriage celebration. And for this lack of preparation Jesus calls them foolish. I would not desire to be called foolish from the Son of Almighty God.
While this story is interesting and sad, and if we aren’t to look at my metaphorically, what does it mean? What am I supposed to do with it, you ask?
Well, I believe it holds significant meaning for us. Let’s take a look. Last week we celebrated All Saint’s Day. This is a celebration of all those who have come before us in Christian commitment to God, who lived their lives for God’s Kingdom. St. Julian, St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Andrew, St. Matthew, and my favorites: St. Josemaria Escriva and St. Teresa of Avila. So, what made these individuals transcend the average and become saints? They completed every action, every movement, every word, as if Christ were beside them. Did they fail? Of course! But they persisted and prepared their lives in such a way that Christ could sit with them at any moment and their minds and mouths would speak His name.
We see this behavior, this “being present” behavior in our wise bridesmaids this week. We see them prepare their work to be ready for anything. They ready their lamps including the oil for the “just in case” scenario, and for this preparation they are rewarded. In the same way our Saints that we celebrated last week lived their lives in the same way, preparing and ordering their lives for the work Christ called them to do. For us, we are called also to be ready. Matthew 24:36 tells us that no one knows the hour that Christ will come, not even the angels. I’m sure you will agree with me that I do not want to be caught behind the door like our foolish bridesmaids. So what do I do to prepare for the Bridegroom?
Love Christ. To love Him we must know Him. Read Scripture. Talk to Him. Listen for Him. Follow His guidance. Obey Him. When He moves in your heart to speak kindness to a neighbor or a stranger, do it. Give your tithe to Him and His Church. When you have done wrong and sinned, apologize and seek forgiveness. And try not to hurt Him again.
But what else? Love your neighbor. Speak words of comfort and peace to one another. Be gentle. When you have an inclination or desire to gossip, shut up. Or walk away. Instead of looking at the wrongs and sins of others, heap your own sins in the place of another’s and therefore see our your life as unworthy.
What else? Sanctify your work. Josemaria Escriva says to devote your work as a sacrifice to God. Each of us is to complete our work, and whatever that work is, we are to do it as an act of love towards Jesus. Do I always want to deal with high school students all day long? No way! Do I really want to grade that stack of essays that seems to grow like fungus? Absolutely not!
But everything we do is a direct reflection of how we love Jesus. Every word we say to another is an echo from our heart of how much we want Jesus. Will we fail? Yes. But we must keep trying. Jesus wants us to be wise. He wants us to be prepared. If we want to love Jesus and we want to be wise, no word of comfort and no act of preparation is too much for Jesus, is it?
Let us pray. Almighty God, You cause all things to come under your power. Enliven our hearts with a desire for you. Strengthen our hands to work for you. Guard our tongues that we may love others as you love them. Forgive us when we fail in our preparation. Draw us closer to you as we seek you in attitude, word, and work. In the name of Jesus your Son. Amen.