This morning Jesus tells one of his parables of judgment. It is a difficult parable, but an important one. It starts off happily enough. Ten young maidens are invited to a wedding party. You can imagine the teenage chatter about what to wear, who is going to be there, the boys in attendance, dreams of their own weddings.
But however begun, it would end badly. In the middle of the night 5 girls find themselves locked out of the party, in the dark, excluded. What is the girls’ offence? And I say “girls” because they are probably 13 or 14 – they ran out of oil for their lamps.
You could make the case that it wasn’t really their fault; the bridegroom was supposed to be there in the day, in the light. They came prepared with full lamps. It wasn’t their fault that the bridegroom was late. He was like 12 hours late – He came at midnight! In the meantime, they all fell asleep. As one who likes to go to bed at 9:30, I can relate.
Yet, unlike the other 5 girls, they didn’t bring extra oil. They try to borrow some, but the extra oil girls won’t share. They try to buy some, but the shops are long closed. When they return, the door to the party is shut on them, and presumably shut forever.
We know instinctively and experientially that in life actions have consequences. We learn this early on. As a child you learn that a finger on a stove means pain, or that coming home after curfew means grounding, or that failure to study will mean poor grades, which in turn will mean limited options in life.
Living in time, with actions directly connected to consequences, sometimes seems cruel. Time is without mercy; the march of history, on it’s own, is without grace. A moment of anger at someone you love and a cruel word escaped from your lips can’t be taken back. It can be mourned and apologized for, but damage has been done. Sometimes damage is done irreparably and families fall apart, friendships end, enemies are made.
What is relentless but true about life is that some consequences are dire. A poor investment decision could leave you destitute. A dalliance on a business trip could leave you paying alimony. Sharing the wrong kinds of internet files could land you in federal prison for 10 years. Someone else’s decision to drink and drive could leave your child dead.
Many people exist day to day with a sometimes vague and sometime acute worry that something terrible will happen to them or to somebody they love. Sometimes I one of those people! And its pointless to say that those worries are baseless; bad things, in fact, do happen to people all the time – sometimes as result of their own actions, sometimes as a result of other people’s actions.
As Lord Byron said, “We are the fools of time and terror.” Or as Shakespeare says, “Time is the justice that examines all offenders.” Time is like the Law – it brooks no fools or excuses; it is without compassion or mercy when wrong choices are made. And when wrong choices are made, consequences ensue. If you don’t bring enough oil for your lamp, you are locked out of the party. You try to make up for it, in time, saying “Lord, open up for us!” but the only response you get is a voice behind a shut door saying, “I do not know you.” Ouch.
Here’s a quick and by no means exhaustive analogical read of this parable of judgment. And it does clearly express judgment. Jesus is at the end of his life. He’s about to die on the cross. There is an urgency about this parable. God, (the Bridegroom) you’ll note, is absent through most of it. He only comes at the very end, late, when nobody expects him.
The oil in the lamps = faith. In order to get in door, the maidens need faith in Him. Good works and right behavior don’t mean anything at all. The 5 girls with the full lamps represent the people who think things through, trust in themselves, figure the world will work out their way.
Assuming that life should turn out a certain way – that is should follow a certain script (a script always written by us) leads to entitlement. I should get married, have children, a great job and income, wonderful grandchildren. And when the bad things do happen, or the good things don’t happen, then righteous indignation ensues. Do you know someone like this?
By contrast, the girls with the extra oil are the neurotics who are so obsessed with the Bridegroom. They absolutely live for the Bridegroom’s party because the world’s parties overlook them. Life hasn’t turn out according to script. So, because they don’t trust in themselves, they have to put all their trust in the absent but coming Bridegroom.
Now we come to the most unsettling part of the parable. The door closes on the 5 who trusted in themselves. Time, the justice that examines all offenders, has finally run out. Note that everyone was included from the beginning – all 10 maidens. Everyone is already accepted. But the 5 who refused to accept that acceptance, who relied on themselves rather than on the Bridegroom, find themselves outside. It’s as if the Bridegroom has said, “OK! ‘Let’s get it started in here’. Party poopers not welcome. There is too much fun to have and I won’t have it being spoiled!”
I don’t think Jesus means to make a definitive eschatological statement in this parable of judgment, but it does make us think. If time will eventually run out on us, why not punch our ticket to the party we’ve already been included in now? After all, as the 5 self-reliant maidens discovered – there are some things that can’t be borrowed. Faith seems to be one of them.
And before anybody starts worrying about when and how God’s time will run out, or gets too excited about Hell and the people you would like to go there, I would suggest another line of thinking.
In Christ, God entered into time, entered into history, precisely to live in it, die in it and redeem it. He did this so that our actions which lead to awful consequences can and will be redeemed – redeemed, that is, through faith in Him. Redeemed in light of the cross, which has removed our sin. Redeemed in light of his resurrection, which opens for us an existence not bound by time. What we see as irredeemable, irreparable, God sees differently.
A beautiful example is in a choral work called the Ballad of the Judas Tree, referring to the tree upon which Judas hanged himself after he betrayed Jesus. Talk about a choice that had consequences.
In hell there grew a Judas tree where Judas hanged and died,
Because he could not bear to see His Master crucified.
The Lord descended unto hell and found his Judas there,
Forever hanging on the tree grown from his own despair.
So Jesus cut his Judas down and took him in His arm.
It was for this I came, He said, and not to do you harm.
My Father gave me twelve good men, and all of them I’ve kept,
Tho’ one betrayed and one denied, some fled and others slept.
In three days time I must return to make the others glad,
But first I had to come to hell and share the death you had.
My tree will grow in place of yours. Its roots strike here as well.
There is no final victory, without this soul from hell.
So when we all condemn him, as of every traitor worst,
Remember that of all His men our Lord forgave him first.
Our Lord forgave him first.
And in a final note, don’t forget that we are talking ultimately about a feast, a party! As Robert Capon reminds us, “When all is said and done – when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment – we need to take a deep breath and let out a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party…. God is not our mother-in-law coming to see whether her wedding present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
- Matthew 25:1 - 13