Pentecost 22 A: Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids

Dear Partner in Preaching,

November is a hard month to preach. Part of that is where we are in the cycle of the church calendar, as November draws us toward Christ the King and the lectionary readings anticipate Christ’s second advent even as we prepare to celebrate his first advent at Christmas. And the other part is Matthew, who offers more warnings about hellfire and gnashing teeth than the rest of the evangelists combined. And so this Sunday and those that follow will treat us to exhortations to wait, to make the most of our gifts, and to do good…or else.

And while all these parables present their own distinct challenges, I have to confess that I find this one the most challenging. Three reasons: 1) We’re not accustomed to the role virgins/bridesmaids played in ushering in the groom to the wedding and so the whole parable feels a little archaic and somewhat confusing.

2) Matthew’s parable are, by and large, exhortations to a community that has come through some significant duress to keep the faith, to confess Christ, and to wait expectantly for his return, even though it has already been delayed beyond what first generation believers anticipated. Considering that the Thessalonians to whom Paul was writing around 51 AD or so are already anxious that they have missed out on Jesus’ return, we can imagine that it’s quite a bit harder to inspire Matthew’s community to vigilance thirty years later. Now, project that out another nearly 2000 years and you begin to appreciate the challenge of preaching this text today. I mean, who is still waiting eagerly, anxiously for Jesus’ imminent return? Well, pretty much only those folks who predict it on billboards and at whom we typically poke fun.

3) The parable seems, quite frankly, a little unfair. All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids. Yes, there are some folks who are incredibly prepared, always plan way in advance, always bring more supplies or food or whatever than necessary, and are always there early. Yes, there are such folks, and I’m not one of them.

So what do we do with this stubborn, somewhat archaic, and rather threatening parable? Preach Amos! (Just kidding, Amos is no picnic either.) But seriously, how might we approach this parable? I have no answers, but I do have a couple of thoughts and I’ll be glad if you’d share your thoughts and strategies as well. Together, we might just find a word of the Lord for our people.

So, three ideas, more maybe four. First, admit that this parable is odd, a bit ominous, and rather archaic (in terms of both imagery and theme). It just is, and we might as well set at ease those folks who found it confusing, uncomfortable, or generally difficult to understand. That’s where most of us preachers are with this parable, and it might help your hearers to know that they are not alone.

Second, focus on the core issue of waiting and admit, quite frankly, that the kind of waiting Matthew is encouraging through this parable is hard. Waiting for something way over due, waiting for something you’re not sure will even come, waiting that involves active preparation when you’re not even sure what you should be preparing for. That kind of waiting is challenging.

Third, waiting, however, does provide an important point of contact. Because it’s something we’re all accustomed to. Whether it’s waiting for Christmas that most of us remember vividly from our childhood or waiting for a phone call from a certain special someone or waiting for news of a loved one’s safe arrival while traveling, we all know what it is to wait. In particular, we know how hard waiting can be. And here, I think, is really the center of the sermon: waiting is often hard, really hard, and often is tinged by anxiety.

So perhaps a primary strategy for this day, Dear Partner, is to ask what your people are waiting for? What event are they looking forward to? And what kind of waiting are they finding not only difficult, but anxiety-provoking? Is it the call from the doctor with test results? Or perhaps a sign from a family member or friend with whom you’ve had an argument that all will be well? Is it waiting for the pain of bereavement to end? Or waiting for word from your first choice college or a lead on a job?

We are well acquainted with waiting. Whether what we are waiting for is good or bad hardly matters, the anxiety and stress of the living in the “in-between time” of waiting can be difficult. And this parable reminds us that we are not alone in our waiting. From the earliest Christians on, we have confessed that waiting can be most difficult. Moreover, Jesus tells this parable in his own “in-between time,” his own time of waiting. This parable is set between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his trial and crucifixion. And one thing Matthew and all the Evangelists agree on is that Jesus knew what was coming. And so here he is, teaching the crowds, facing off with his opponents, and instructing his disciples…even as he waits for the coming cross. Jesus, too, knows how difficult waiting can be and is with us and for us in our waiting.

Now, I realize that the kind of active, prepared waiting for the return of the Lord Matthew is encouraging is not quite the same as the kind of waiting we’ve been talking about. So what do we do about that? Here’s a fourth and final suggestion:

Let’s admit that waiting for Jesus’ imminent return is difficult for most of us to entertain. But let’s also recognize that opportunities for waiting on Jesus’ presence are all around us. Each time we work for justice (as Amos invites in the first reading), we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we bear each other’s burdens, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ.

Finally, let’s also admit that even this kind of waiting and preparation can be hard to sustain. That we can grow weary in our work, frustrated by the lack of outcomes we see, or distracted by the thousand and one other obligations that fill each of our lives. In short, let’s admit that on any given day, each of us may discover we are a foolish bridesmaid. Given this reality, let’s reclaim church as a place where we can find help and support in our waiting – all kinds of waiting! – and support as we try to live our Christian life. I find it striking that Paul closes this part of his letter to those first-century Thessalonians that found their own waiting nearly intolerable with these words, “Therefore, encourage one another….”

Yes, that is our role as the church. We are those who wait for each other – wise and foolish alike. We are those who sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. We are, in short, those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord.

Well, that’s what I have. I hope it helps, and I appreciate you contributing your thoughts and wisdom as well, Dear Partner, as this kind of collaborative support is particularly important with a challenging passage like this one. However you may decide to preach these texts, please know that I take great encouragement from you and your fidelity to this high calling. Blessings on your proclamation and, this week, on the waiting you may experience until you discover a fit and faithful word from the Lord.

Yours in Christ,


Post Image: “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins,” Hieronymus Francken the Younger (c. 1616).