Keeping Awake in Exhausting Times

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
November 12, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 25:1–13

Recently, when I asked a friend how they were doing, they responded that they were weary. My ears perked up upon hearing that response because it is not often how people usually respond, and it expresses an intentional, specific feeling. My friend elaborated that everything happening around the world and closer to home in their community was exhausting their hope and patience. Weary was indeed the most appropriate word to describe what they were feeling.

I don’t have to tell you that we live in exhausting times. Of course, people of every age have wondered if their time and world were on the brink of collapse, wearying themselves about how to respond. It is exhausting for us to confront the news of another mass shooting, dispatches from wars in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or Africa, ecological devastation due to climate change, political radicalization that shocks us to our core, and the stubbornness of hunger, poverty, and inequality. And there is no shortage of so-called faithful believers who look at all of this as an indication that we are living in the last days and are preparing themselves for the end times. They look at it with pious condescension, assured that they will be caught up in heaven while the rest of the world gets swallowed up in the fires of hell. These responses should not surprise us, but they reflect the weariness that prevails among us.

Today’s reading, the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, is concerned with the end times—the eschatological anticipation of the return of Jesus, the Anointed One of God, and how to live wisely as we wait. But it would be a terrible misreading of this text if we try to press it into service for some misguided idea about who goes to heaven or hell. This parable is unique to the gospel of Matthew, but the context in which it was written provides insight into how our spiritual forebears tried to cope with the weariness of their exhausting times. This parable and many New Testament writings addressed people who had become weary in waiting for Jesus to return. From the Apostle Paul to the Gospel writers to the early church leaders, who believed that God’s reign of heaven would soon replace the reign of Caesar, Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom of heaven had come near was taken as near certain to happen at any moment. As time passed, it looked like the dream was deferred, that justice was too long delayed, and the promise had gone unfulfilled. The faithful began to wonder what to do and how to live with the delay in Jesus’s return.

We must treat this parable carefully because we have very little historical information about ancient weddings of that culture that we can use to compare to our cultural practices. And while many parables resist explicit allegorical representation, some elements of the story are unmistakably allegorical. The bridegroom is Jesus, the wedding banquet is the reign of heaven, and the lamps have something to do with light. And over the years, preachers have gotten a lot of mileage out of distinguishing who is wise or foolish, which hasn’t been as helpful as some think. I’ve often avoided the parable because it leaves no room for repentance or models of generosity for others. The judgment is final for those who ran out of oil. Yes, we get a sense of the importance of preparedness for the reign of heaven. Still, I worry if we read the parable too narrowly, we may miss the wisdom it offers us about the abundant resources and the myriad of opportunities we have to deal with our inevitable weariness.

Let’s bridge the biblical world in this text with our present situation by looking at the concern of the parable. When we look at the ten bridesmaids, we can get a sense of the situation in which they find themselves. They are waiting for that promised arrival of the reign of heaven when love, justice, and righteousness will prevail. They are waiting for the glory of the feast of the Lord. But it appears not to be arriving when they expected, so they are faced with the question of how to exist, what to do, and how to live in anticipation of its arrival. If there is a distinction between the wise and foolish, it is not that any is less faithful than the other or any less anticipatory of the reign they have been promised; it appears that those whose oil was depleted knew how to anticipate the arrival but not the delay. Thomas G. Long, “The wise bridesmaids are distinctive not because they were ready for the groom but because they were ready for the groom’s delay.” How do we live in ways that reflect and embody that the reign of heaven has come near if it is delayed?

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached that “You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God” (Matt. 5:14). Could this be what Jesus had in mind in telling this parable? The bridesmaids who ran out of oil let their light go dim. To be ready for the reign of heaven means also to shine a light on it even when it has been delayed in coming. It means to live so that those who cannot see it get a glimpse of what can be or what is to be by looking at our light shining bright. All of the bridesmaids seem to understand their call to watchfulness, faithfulness, and even attention to the impending arrival of the groom, but when it got late in the night, those who ran out of oil did not have enough to sustain.

What do we do when God’s promised reign of justice and righteousness is delayed? When the reign of heaven Jesus proclaimed and embodied appears to be too long unrealized? How do we prepare for that reign now, even though there seems to be little evidence that it prevails amid the violence and injustice of our current reality? Our answers to these questions may be how we combat weariness.

The concern of the first-century hearers and readers of this parable about being left out of the promises of the reign of heaven because of their unpreparedness takes on a different meaning for our context. Perhaps for us, this is about how to hold onto and replenish hope and faith amid the preponderance of bad news that justice has been delayed for another season. Our feelings of weariness are recognition that justice has been delayed, and in our exhaustion at the late hour, we wonder if we can stay awake long enough to see the reign of heaven. But Jesus gave us an idea of how to live when it appears that the dream was deferred, that justice was too long delayed, and the promise had gone unfulfilled. Soon after this parable, Jesus tells followers that when they see and serve the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner among them, they see and serve him. Perhaps our service to and with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner is how we replenish our oil and let our lights shine. What if this is how we combat weariness and make the reign of heaven tangible and visible in our exhausting age?

Our weariness is real and expected. But we can fill our lamps to demonstrate that we have not lost our belief in and anticipation of the reign of heaven breaking into the midnight of our existence. We can fill our lamps so we are not so distracted, dismayed, or disoriented that we cannot let our light shine so the world can see what is good and right, even as we are bombarded with what is wrong and distorted about the current world. So, this parable, in its bizarreness and seeming distance from our own concerns, holds some wisdom worth our consideration. Keep our lamps shining bright. And if and when that oil is at risk of being depleted, perhaps the replenishment we seek, the wake-up call we need, can be found among the people Jesus declares he’s likely to be found . . . among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.

While we’re waiting for the day of victory, when the reign of heaven finally replaces the reign of Caesar, fill our lamps with love for our enemies. Fill those lamps with generous welcome to the stranger and the sojourner. Fill up those lamps with food for the hungry and shelter for people without homes. Fill those lamps up with reckless hospitality to those left out of the grace of beloved community. Fill our lamps with love unconditional so bright that all the world can see and wake up.

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