Readings are here.
This gospel is a stumper for me. My sense of fairness gets challenged - why couldn't they just share? So what if the lamps all went out? Are the doors to the party shut for all time if we run out of oil? What were the oil sellers doing open for business at midnight? Who is the bridegroom? Who are the young women? What is the oil, the light?
I suppose it helps to know that Matthew was writing at a very uncertain time. The Temple is destroyed - Christian Jews and Pharisee Jews are wondering where they will find a center without a central place of worship. They are in competition for how to find that holy place in their midst without structures. Jesus was supposed to be returning soon but had not appeared yet - 50-60 years after his death and resurrection. End times was felt to be coming anytime. Persecution was a real threat. They were trying to figure out what to do in the waiting time. Those who did not keep the faith were a danger to the community. The oil has been variously interpreted as faith, good works, belief, - things that show the light of Christ to the world.
The last 3 Sundays before Advent (the church's new year) all speak of end times - getting us ready to end one year and look to the birth, life, death, resurrection cycle once more. We are moving out of "ordinary" time - the day to day life of the church to a more urgent time. We are made more aware through our readings and music and maybe the sermon that our time here is brief and we do not have much time to "gladden the hearts" of those who make this journey with us.
To me this speaks of being the light of the world -- the light of Jesus that goes into the dark places and consumes the darkness. How do we bear that light and keep it ever fresh and burning? Renewal of our spirits comes when all we do is centered on Christ. It is like a wheel -- if Christ is only one part of a wheel - others being family, work, leisure, sleep, etc - then we get out of balance and our wheel flies apart (like those pieces of truck tires on the highway - becoming a danger to all on the road). If Christ is our center and all our life flows from that center - then our balance is restored - our relationships are restored - one segment does not take precedence over the others. We live in alignment with God's dream for the world.
Amos - the prophet speaks of that centeredness - it is not just going to church and doing the right rituals -- it is all of life lived in right relationship (righteousness) and in commitment to justice for all. The psalmist calls out to God for help to fulfill what God would have him do and we pray: O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; ...
It is really about right now -- not "after" -- we put ourselves out in the darkness when we do not practice our faith and keep our lamps (ourselves) brightly burning. We need feeding to keep from "burning out" -- but it is the paradox of love - that the more we give the more we have. The open giving hand can always receive more than a closed fist that clings.
So who is the bridegroom now? In the Gospel, shortly after this reading, Jesus says it is the “least” of these - the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, those who are sick, those in prison – all who suffer. Are we ready to welcome this “bridegroom?” I think we are – I see it each day in the care for members of the congregation and for the world around us. Are we fueling our actions by our spiritual practices – prayer, study, worship, eucharist? I hope so and I fear burnout if not. Are we then the young women with our lamps? I think so – we are each entrusted with gifts and talents and asked to us them to the glory of God. The lamps are our particular gifts – there is no way to wish for another’s gifts or their particular way of being filled with the Spirit. But when we bring all our lamps burning together to the community – oh what a lovely light.
from an old spiritual
Keep your lamps, trimmed and burning,
Keep your lamps, trimmed and burning,
The time is drawing nigh.
Children don’t get weary,
children don’t get weary,
till your journey’s done.
Days of darkness soon be over,
days of darkness soon be over,
the light is drawing nigh.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
the time is drawing nigh.
h/t to Edge of Enclosure