Once upon a time a woman came into my office bringing with her a very interesting book with an even more interesting title. It was called What To Do Till the Messiah Comes. Now what would you think the book was about? Prayer? Stewardship? Creative waiting? Not bad guesses and perhaps not entirely wrong. But it was in fact a book about massage. It was a pictorial manual on how to give and receive massage, replete with rich colorful photographs of various massage techniques. Frankly I was more interested in the pictures than the text. So I kept the book on the coffee table in my office for a good while until she reclaimed it.
I am at a very different place in my life and thought from where I was forty years ago when I saw that book. Today I am very much interested in massage not as a hobby or only as a remedy to muscular aches and pains, but as a potentially powerful experience of one’s own body.
That is not exactly where the gospel for today takes us, not for that matter the other scriptures. I don’t know that there is anything in the Bible at all about massage, and certainly there is nothing to suggest that any such activity might be an appropriate way to invest time as the church waits for her bridegroom to appear. Instead we have a story about ten bridesmaids. The point of the parable, whether it actually comes from Jesus or is an allegory of Matthew’s invention, is that readiness, preparedness, is what distinguishes wisdom from folly. The wise are ready for the bridegroom to come. The foolish are only prepared for the bridegroom to arrive on their own timetable. And the point of any parable is not to miss the point.
|William Blake, "Wise and Foolish Virgins," 1826|
It is difficult, however, in an age and place where the end-time appearance of Jesus is hardly on anyone’s radar screen, to assume that everyone will know automatically what it actually means to be prepared for his arrival at whatever hour that might take place. So we have some unpacking to do. Let’s get on with it.
It’s hard to tell what Jesus actually thought about the end of history and his role in it. Most of the evidence it seems to me points to the likelihood that he understood, as did many of his contemporaries in Judaism, that the days of this world, it inhabitants, and their history, were short. There was nothing new about this. For generations a “Coming Day of Yahweh” had been anticipated and indeed predicted. It was closely associated with the redress of wrongs and a righting of the imbalance of power and justice that had for too long characterized human relationships. The prophets and the psalms are full of the notion that humanity’s inhumanity can’t and won’t go on forever. For Yahweh God comes to judge the earth and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with truth [Ps. 96:13]. Generally speaking, the worse things get for people in the world, the more they begin to long for some event, especially an event initiated by God, that will bring relief. And in first century Palestine, things had gotten pretty rotten for huge numbers of people. What oppression the Roman Empire’s power did not impose, religious authorities and local potentates made up for. It is almost more difficult to imagine Jesus not being a part of these hopes than to imagine him sharing them.
It is even more certain that Jesus saw his own life and ministry as authentically representing and embodying what God’s reign is all about. Indeed this parable today is an example of the bulk of parables in the first three gospels about the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God if you will. Matthew chooses to call it the Kingdom of Heaven, which suggests to almost all modern ears that he is talking about something that falls squarely outside this life and in another world besides the present one. Jesus could hardly believe that God was going to intervene in human history in a major show-down event and his not being a part of that. Or so it seems to me.
But what Jesus most clearly got that many of his followers have unfortunately missed is that the reign of God is not temporal but rather eternal. And if eternal, not time and space bound. And if not time and space bound, then immediately present here and now. So there is both a future to God’s rule in the form of a Coming “Day of Yahweh,” and also what Paul Tillich called “The Eternal Now.”
What happens if we try both of those understandings of the Coming of the Bridegroom (that is, Jesus’ eschatological Advent—his coming at the end of history) and see how each understanding works in the parable of the ten bridesmaids?
If we look at the Arrival of the Bridegroom—Jesus—as being a future event, then the issue is to be ready and prepared. The symbol for that preparedness in the story is oil. And oil has a bundle of rich associations in Scripture. It is associated with mercy, with deeds of love and kindness, with compassion, and indeed with the Torah itself. One has only to recall the story from the time of the Maccabees that is commemorated as Channukah, when oil miraculously kept the holy light burning for eight days. As in the parable of the virgins, or bridesmaids, oil is a symbol of light because it is the means of light. All of that suggests that those who await the arrival of the Messiah should be well stocked with deeds of love, mercy, compassion, and that they should not think the hour of Messiah’s arrival to be a foregone conclusion, but rather wait in expectation for it, prepared for either an early or a late arrival. When paired with the lesson from the prophet Amos today it is clear that those who wait for the Messiah should focus on Messiah’s values, namely justice and equity.
|Holy Wisdom Blesses the Marriage of Christ and the Human Soul|
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal, San Francisco
If we look at the coming of the Bridegroom to be an event that is outside history, that is eternal, and that is what we might say is the territory of the human soul, how does that work with the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids? The emphasis then might fall on the waking/sleeping of the ten. All fall asleep—and that is to say that none of us, however wise or foolish we might be, can escape falling into unconsciousness from time to time. But something—a call, an announcement, a voice from somewhere beyond—splits the night air and startles us into consciousness. Suddenly we are faced with a momentous occasion—the coming of the Bridegroom—and the question is will we go out to meet him or will we instead be fiddling around at midnight trying to do what we’ve long put off but now decide must be done? Interestingly, no bride is mentioned in the parable. Where is she? Who is she? In the lore, the Bride of Christ is both the company of believers and the Christian soul. In the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal, in San Francisco, the dominant icon over the Holy Table is that of Dame Wisdom countenancing the wedding feast of Christ the Bridegroom and his bride, who is the Christian soul. The two are dancing together, for all is now made whole. Divinity and humanity, the Sacred Masculine and the Sacred Feminine, the physical and the spiritual, heaven and earth: all are united. The coming of the Bridegroom is not the dreadful day of wrath and mourning peddled along with myriad other fears by thunderous preachers threatening their people. The coming of the Bridegroom is an earth-shaking event that would bother only those who for whatever reason—foolishness perhaps—simply didn’t show up to meet the Bridegroom.
The book lodging on my coffee table with its curious title turns out to be prophetic in its own way. What might we do till the Messiah Comes? Jimmy Carter once said that we should live as if Jesus were coming this very afternoon. So I have come to believe that the question is not so much what to do but how to live till the Messiah comes—mostly because the Messiah is already here. The hippie book my friend loaned me long ago had a point. Get a massage. Give a massage. Have a dinner party. Read a book. Spend time with a child. Feed the hungry. Visit a museum. Demonstrate for justice. Organize your neighbors to fight for their rights. Spend time admiring, not criticizing, your own body. Hold a dog’s face close to you and look deeply into the dog’s eyes. Write a poem. Put on some music and dance. But whatever you do, do it with those things that Messiah taught us. Do it with gratitude. Do it with grace. Share it. Don’t fake it unless you need to fake it till you make it your own.
Live with the Messiah that you already have until—well, until you are gone. And the one thing you never have to worry about is whether Messiah will be pleased that you did. You’d be surprised at how much Messiah will recognize himself in you. When the door is shut you won’t be on the outside banging desperately to get in. You’ll realize that by simply being yourself as best you could you were already in and never had a thing in the world to fear.
A sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017