I hate waiting. I especially hate for appointments that are delayed. In fact, there was a time in my life when I scheduled doctor’s and other appointments for the first thing in the morning so that if I had to wait, I knew it was the doctor’s fault for not getting to the office on time. Doctors’ waiting rooms are especially annoying because the reading material available is usually year-old copies of magazines I would otherwise not read. Cellphones and the internet have made things somewhat easier still but if an appointment is delayed, I still find my anxiety rising. Waiting can be fun, even exciting, if the thing we’re waiting for is a joyous event. Think of children looking forward to Christmas. But waiting can also be a burden as we face a looming challenge of one sort or another.
Waiting is also central to our lives as Christians. Both of our New Testament texts, the reading from First Thessalonians and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish bridesmaids are evidence of the anxious waiting early Christians experienced after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. In fact, I Thessalonians is the earliest of all Christian texts that have come down to us. St. Paul wrote it around the year 50, around two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There’s a great deal about it that suggests the tiny Christian community in the city of Thessaloniki was in crisis because of what we often call the “delay of the Parousia.” Parousia is the Greek word that is translated in this passage (and many others) as the Coming or Second Coming (referring to the return of Jesus Christ). In fact, it is most literally translated as “being present”
This passage has become infamous in contemporary Christianity and the wider culture because it provides the basis for the modern idea of the rapture, that at the Second Coming the faithful will vanish from the earth to heaven, leaving everyone else behind. You must know about “Left Behind” the series of novels that explore this idea; they were made into a movie, and then in the past few months, Hollywood remade “Left Behind” with Nicholas Cage in the lead role.
I don’t want to go into much detail on this—if you’d like to have a better sense of the Christian understanding of the Second Coming, ask me directly—but the fact of the matter is that Paul was not talking about this modern notion. Rather, he was concerned with a very different, and very real problem faced by the community in Thessalonica. It’s clear that all early Christians, and now I’m talking about those in the first generation or so after Jesus, all early Christians expected Jesus to return very soon. And were not talking decades; we’re talking years, perhaps even months or days.
So by 50, the fact that Jesus hadn’t returned to put things right was becoming an enormous problem. But there’s more. For the Christians of Thessalonica were troubled by the fact that some of their little band had died, and they weren’t quite sure what that would mean when Jesus came. So Paul is trying to explain that they needn’t worry; that those who have died will be raised and join the living faithful and all will be with the Lord forever. To put it another way, Paul and the community in Thessalonica aren’t concerned with who the faithful who will be raptured and the unbelievers who will be “left behind” but whether the faithful dead will be “left behind.”
The community within which Matthew is writing is also worried about the delay of Jesus’ return. But they are leaving near the end of the first century. Matthew was probably written around the year 90, roughly 40 years after 1 Thessalonians. So they have experienced a longer delay and probably as they wait their anxiety about whether, or when Jesus will return is growing.
The point Matthew wants to make with today’s parable is clear: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour.” The gospel writer wants to use the parable to encourage, even warn his readers that they must always be prepared for Jesus’ return. That’s a powerful message and one that works on our emotions as strongly as the idea of rapture and the fear of being left behind.
But the parable itself is rather more complex and more interesting. As I’ve been doing with the parables on which I’ve preached this year, I’ve encouraged you to look for strange behavior from the characters. Now, I’m only going to highlight several matters that come to mind as I read. First, the only thing that distinguishes the two sets of virgins or bridesmaids is their description: five are wise, five are foolish. All ten of them fall asleep (In other words none of them follow the parable’s advice to keep watch). The wise have brought extra oil, but given the ordinary course of events, who would need it? What wedding begins at midnight? Why was the bridegroom delayed? What oil merchant in first-century Palestine would be open at midnight? To top it off, this is the gospel in which Jesus says, “If anyone asks you for a cloak, give him your coat also, give to whoever asks of you.”
As we read or listen to the parable, our attention focuses on the powerful image of the closed and locked door, and on the words of the bridegroom, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” The parable, as Matthew locates it, is intended to be a parable of judgment and warning, and the tone on which it ends is enough to drive a sensitive person into deep worry.
But remember, in Matthew’s perspective we are not living in the time of the closed and locked door, and recipients of the disappointing and dreaded news, “I do not know you.” We are living in the interim; we are waiting.
As I said in my opening words, waiting can be difficult, anxiety-inducing, stressful. Think of what those early Christians were struggling with. They expected Jesus’ return and every day that it was delayed must have affected them, not only by increasing their anxiety about when Jesus would return. I’m sure many of them began to wonder whether Jesus would return at all, and so no doubt some began to have doubts about the very core of their faith.
It’s likely that many of us find ourselves in places of waiting—waiting for news of a job or perhaps a medical diagnosis for oneself or a loved one. We bring all of those anxieties and worries with us to church today, and they are never far from our minds.
Of course, the sort of waiting described in the parable is not the kind of waiting we do in our ordinary lives. Still, there’s something else that’s worth pointing out. Jesus told this parable in his own time of waiting, in the last days of his life as he his arrest and crucifixion loomed ahead. Jesus was waiting, too.
That may be the most important thing to remember about all this. Whatever it is we’re waiting for, whether good news or bad, we are not alone. Jesus waits with us. And when we grow drowsy, or distracted, our attention drawn elsewhere, Jesus is there to remind us, to help us. While we await as Christians have for two thousand years the return of Jesus Christ, we can also be certain that Jesus is present with us now, waiting with us, giving us light and hope in the middle of a dark night.