PRAYER: God of love, we thank you that you are always with us. Teach us your ways that we may offer you our presence in our lives in all that we say and do. Pour out your Spirit that we may know what it means to be your people, present to one another, present to you.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
This parable from the beginning of Matthew 25 is a bit problematic. On the one hand, it seems as though it’s a warning about the second coming. The imagery of the bridegroom arriving to claim his bride is typically interpreted in that way – as an allegory about the second coming. Except that in this case, the context of a wedding as seen in this story in this culture, this parable implies that the bridegroom is arriving with his bride already, so that would challenge that common interpretation.
On the other hand, regardless of the mixed imagery, it seems to be telling us to stay awake – be ready; to not be like those foolish bridesmaids who fell asleep. The 13th verse explicitly says, “Keep awake!” Except that the wise bridesmaids fell asleep too. So that makes us wonder why there is this delineation between wise and foolish when the ALL fell asleep.
Or it seems to be telling us that we should be prepared like the wise bridesmaids who brought enough oil… except that Christ spent all of his time telling people to share what they had, and here he seems to be complimenting these bridesmaids who refuse to share from their excess. I mean, Jesus talked about the shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep to go find the one who was lost. Wouldn’t the Christ-like response in this parable be for the bridesmaids who have enough to share with those who don’t? Surely Jesus would not be telling us to send people away who are there prepared to be part of the celebration!
No, this parable is problematic because it isn’t what it appears to be on the surface.
The five bridesmaids that didn’t have enough had to go scrambling; they had to go running around hoping to get enough supplies, and by the time they returned, it was too late. The door to the wedding feast had been closed and even though they pleaded, “Lord, lord, open to us,” they were denied entry. The bridegroom said, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
“Lord, Lord, open to us…” Towards the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’”
All of the bridesmaids showed up ready for a celebration, and they had to wait. The bridegroom was delayed. But quite frankly, not having enough oil for their lamps would not have been the end of the world. Even if nine of the ten bridesmaids didn’t have enough oil, one lamp would still have provided light. They could’ve stayed and used the light from the five lamps instead of all ten.
The important thing wasn’t whether the bridesmaids had enough oil; the important thing wasn’t whether or not they fell asleep. The important thing was that the bridesmaids were there, that they were present. They woke up and saw the wedding party coming, and they disappeared because they thought that having more oil was more important. They panicked. They were afraid that what they had wasn’t enough.
It’s like the story of Mary and Martha when Jesus was teaching. Martha was busy in the kitchen focused on the logistics of having a houseguest while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. Martha complained to Jesus who said that Mary had chosen the better part. Mary was present to Jesus; Martha was too busy for Jesus.
Just before Jesus is arrested, he goes off to pray and he tells his disciples that he is deeply grieved, and tells them to stay awake, but they cannot. He asks them, “Could you not keep awake just one hour?” But they fall back to sleep. I don’t doubt that the disciples literally fell asleep in this instance, I believe there is a deeper meaning. Their teacher told them that he was deeply grieved, and the could not be present enough for him to stay awake. To be present. It means that we have to be focused on the priorities. And those foolish bridesmaids believed that it was more important that their lamps be lit than they themselves be present for the bridegroom.
What does it mean to be awake – to be present in today’s world?
We have been inundated with polarized arguments about what it means to be present, what it means to be awake. There are those who, with no sense of irony whatsoever, proclaim that what’s wrong with much of the world today is how awake we are to the suffering of others, and yet that is precisely what Jesus did, what he taught his disciples to be. Being awake and present to a hurting world means to live with the compassion and love that Jesus demonstrated for us. It means focusing less on our own troubles and more on those of others.
This is what our 8-week Contemplative Prayer Workshop has been focusing on. Contemplative prayer is about slowing down our thoughts, letting go of our need to be so regimented, and ceding control to God. Allowing our time with God to be less about talking and more about listening, more about being present. It is oftentimes a posture that we are unaccustomed to, and yet it is one that is inviting; it is one that allows us to breathe deeply in the spirit of God.
We’ve talked in this workshop about those things that we long for, and how God longs for us. Human beings have a built-in longing for God. We naturally long for / desire God, and that desire is part of what makes us human. In all of God’s creation – God created one being – longed for one creature that could self-consciously return God’s love and longing. God made us in God’s image. We cannot force a longing in our hearts, but we can trust that God’s grace is at work, that a divine love is active in us, waking us up to the deepest, often hidden reason for our very existence and freeing us to begin to follow that longing to its truest end: friendship with God, genuine enjoyment of the One who made us.
In our third week, we talked about the fac that we are present when we pay attention to our experiences, when we pay attention to the people in our lives. Simone Weil wrote that Attention is the very substance of prayer. We read from Mark’s gospel the story of when Jesus walked through Jericho and a blind man called out to him. Even though everyone around this man was telling him to hush, Jesus stopped. It says, “Jesus stood still.” Every fiber of his being giving full attention to that one blind man. Absorbing the man’s cry, the pain in his voice. Everything else falls away as Jesus looks at that man’s face. “What do you want me to do for you? You are my present reality, right here, right now.
In the fourth week of the workshop, we included patience. In that conversation, we compared the difference between willingness and willfulness. Willfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence. Willful people – most of us most of the time – approach life with an agenda, and an agenda is just another way of saying, “the way I want it.” When our willfulness is frustrated – when we don’t get our way – our patience is lost, and we are not able to be fully present.
Willingness is more subtle. Willingness is not a dull, get-walked all-over-like-a-doormat approach to life. Willingness surrenders the illusion of control. It recognizes that our lives are involved in a process larger than ourselves. It asks, “What might an engagement with reality – with this moment – look like if I’m open to grace, love, and beauty right now as they unfold?”
In our fifth week, we engaged with our imaginations and looked at prayer through a lens of playfulness. That’s another way that we are present for one another, in our playfulness, in being open to divine possibilities, able to see new avenues in what we typically would see as dead-ends. Being present for others allows us to find seeds of hope in an otherwise barren dessert. Playfulness helps us to approach life with God as an end in itself – can shape our approach to prayer, those times we have reserved for giving our full attention to being open, available, and responsive to God.
Being present for others opens us up to being vulnerable, and that’s what our sixth session was about. Dropping our defenses and being vulnerable is necessary for being open to the gift of God in our lives. And to the gift of others as well. – part of the posture of an everyday contemplative. Being vulnerable allows us to offer our truest selves as much as it allows us to receive the gift of vulnerability from others.
Last week, we talked about nonjudgment. How can we be contemplative – be present for others if we are harboring judgment of them? But we go through our lives judging everything. We judge others, we judge ourselves, and we judge our circumstances. Thomas Merton writes, “For it is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. It is the love of God that sends the winter days when I am cold and sick, and the hot summer when I labor and my clothes are full of sweat: but it is God who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood.”
Most importantly in this, we must remember that judgment is not our job. It’s God’s and God doesn’t need us to tell God what to think.
Allowing ourselves to be present for God, and present for others is a way that we can break free of those things that anchor us to our human limitations. We loosen our grip on trying to control life based on our own anxiety and agendas. Being present, and not worrying about how much oil is in the lamps is freeing.
Throughout the generations, the message from the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures was to stay awake, to get ready. We will be starting the Advent season very soon, and it is my prayer that we enter into this holy time, preparing ourselves to be present with God, listening for the voice of hope, curious and compassionate, empathetic and demonstrating the love that God has given us.
Let this Advent season be a time for us to testify to God’s love, to be courageous in how we offer ourselves to others, bringing forth God’s spirit, It doesn’t matter if we don’t have enough oil. It doesn’t matter if we nod off for a moment or two while we’re waiting. But what does matter – what matters most perhaps– is that we are present for God, allowing ourselves to share that love and be present for others. Be not afraid. Be present, and be made whole.
To God be the glory.