The grandmother carries her cellphone everywhere she goes. Overall, members of her generation might not be labelled the most technologically-savvy, but she has learned how to make calls on it and how to text. She has figured out how to read the number of bars that signal receptivity and knows how to keep the battery with ample charge. Most importantly, however, she never turns the phone off and she never, ever, puts the ringer on silent or even on low. If that means it might ring out loudly in the middle of something else—in the middle of a meal, in the middle of a worship service, in the middle of night—it doesn’t matter. People will have to understand, and they will understand once they know why that cell phone is so important, once they know what it helps her be ready for. She is awaiting a call. It is not just any call, mind you, but rather the call that an organ donor has been found for her granddaughter who is suffering from a life-threatening health problem.
And as those things tend to go, the call could come anytime. Their wait has already lasted nine months, seven months longer than her family had initially anticipated. Everything is in place: the surgeons, the daily rounds of physical therapy, the tens of thousands of dollars it will take to perform the surgery…and now it is a waiting game.
The picture of faithful anticipation, that grandmother is a member of this congregation. She is an inspiration to me, and those who know her know that every fiber of her being is poised for that day to come, so that she may to respond and arrive at bedside. That phone call means life. And so, you see, it would be foolish to turn the ringer off.
It would be foolish to turn the ringer off. It would be foolish to do anything—or to fail to do something—that could cut yourself off from a future of life, that could exclude you from a time of celebration and hope, from the chance to be included in a bright new day. On the other hand, it would be wise to wait with all of your resources of mind and body focused on preparedness of that day as if it could arrive—as if the phone could ring—at any given moment.
That is the point of the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that Jesus tells his disciples not too long before his final days in Jerusalem. As Jewish people who were anticipating the arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the Son of Man, they might have started to wonder just when Jesus’ own exciting kingdom of the future was going to explode fully onto the scene. It was also the message taken to heart by early Christians, like the Thessalonians, for example, who could have sworn that Jesus, once resurrected and ascended to heaven, would be back very soon. And yet he appeared to be lingering.
That time of lingering brought about anxiety in some, and fatigue in others. The wise bridesmaids, in this parable, are like that patient but pragmatic grandmother who travels everywhere with her cell phone ringer on. They know what to do with that anxiety and fatigue, and have come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event that the wait for the bridegroom goes on longer than anticipated.
And that, as it turned out, was something that could very well happen. In first-century weddings, all the financial and legal negotiations of two houses’ fortunes coming together had to take place before any celebration or consummation was involved. As the attendants for the couple waited outside at the Dominion Club or the Jefferson Hotel Ballroom the bridegroom and the bride’s family could have easily gotten tied up elsewhere, trying to iron out the details of the wedding contract.
Every wedding back then, as it turns out, involved a bit of a waiting game. As a guest, you would not want to be caught unprepared when the bridegroom finally showed up. That is, if you wanted to join in the grand celebration, you needed to do whatever you could to prepare for that moment to start. After all, if the bridegroom finally shows up in the night, he might slip by without notice. Therefore, it would be helpful to bring lamp-like torches. And some extra oil in case you run out. Keep the cell phone ringer on, as a loud as you possibly can.
For those who hear this parable, especially those who have heard Jesus even refer to himself as the bridegroom on a number of occasions, at least two things would have made an impression. First, Christ might seem to be delayed, detained by some obligations or commitments we don’t yet understand. Followers could expect a lull between his first earthly appearance and the time in the future when he promises they would see him again. Moreover, they cannot predict when that lull would end, although many people will try to. It might last for ages, inexplicably dragging on through the night—or through centuries of nights—long past a time we think would be opportune.
Second, this time of waiting comes with certain obligations for the people who long to be reunited with him. A spiritual wakefulness is entailed. Just as the bridesmaids stand at the door of the banquet hall, right there at the edge where they can probably hear the party musicians warming up and smell the food that is being laid out on the tables, those who follow Jesus wait with a sense that the new kingdom is just about to dawn, that they already have in mind what they’ll do and how they’ll live once the kingdom of mercy comes in full. When the door finally opens to that bright new day, they’ll be right there in the midst of it.
In our time as we await the return of our Lord I think that we can fall prey to foolishness just as easily as those five bridesmaids. Some of us, for example, will be convinced by the false theology that some type of so-called rapture will occur, that Jesus’ sudden arrival means that a select number of people will be sucked up from daily life into the heavens to be with him. While some Scriptures, including Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, seem to suggest that possibility, no one gave them that unbiblical interpretation until a minority sect the 1830s gained popularity. Thoughts of the rapture make for great science fiction books and movies, but it fully denies the fact that Jesus himself repeatedly talks about his kingdom’s full arrival as something that happens on earth when he joins us. It also suggests that God is somewhat vindictive and despising of the world he has created and redeemed.
All too often, however, I think our foolishness can lean in the other direction—that is, we think the world really never will be different, that the doors to a bright new future in this life or the next will never open, that we just inch along with no real hope in sight. To be honest, apathy is a far greater temptation than anxiety. Complacency is what cuts us off from a future of life and hope.
Interestingly enough, an inspirational quote on a bag I received when I dropped by a local restaurant this week for lunch took a noble stab at eliminating that complacency. It was noon, and we all kind of inched along methodically in this dimly-lit eating establishment through our burritos’ assembly line, numbed, perhaps, by another instance of the daily grind—but there the cheery bag waited for us at the end. It read, “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”
While I can appreciate its attitude of optimism—and while I certainly want more people to do things that make the world better—I’m not sure bridesmaids who wait for the bridegroom should sign on so quickly. After all, our Lord did not come and die in order to make the world better. He came to make it new. We do, in fact, hope for a perfect world, and we have that Jesus’ love will achieve it, just as we see the cross as a victory over evil. We do anticipate that, at some point, the doors will swing open and the eternal celebration of God’s victory in Christ will begin for us, just as we are confident it has already begun for those who have died.
No, it’s not romantic to perform works of justice and compassion, to practice peacemaking and care for the world’s poor, regardless of which political party you affiliate with. It’s not naïve to forgive others seventy-seven times, to share talents and time generously. It is not idealistic to worship in the assembly of Christians with regularity, to speak out for those who can’t speak for themselves. It’s not romantic or naïve to do these things. It is wise to do so. It is wise to illumine the dark world with our mercy and our diligent longing for God’s presence. It’s wise because these things are like oil for our lamps that prepare us to greet him when he does arrive. These things are what we, led by the Spirit, naturally do as we stand with our ears to the door of that great future where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
As that faithful and fiercely-loving grandmother demonstrates, there is a good life in waiting, holding the torch-lamps up. We do what we can to make sure we don’t miss that call that means life. Strengthened by his presence now in the Word and mystically in the bread and the wine, we wait and we work and we watch for our Lord and his blessed, perfect world with our ringer…on.
To do otherwise would be foolish.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.