“Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her,” we are told in the Book of Wisdom. We are also told that “one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”
It’s comforting, isn’t it? Far more comforting than Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids. Five of whom were foolish, and five of whom were wise.
They were all in place on time, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom—but he was delayed. He was delayed so long that the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish, fell asleep. When the cry went up that the groom had arrived, the foolish bridesmaids realized that their lamps were beginning to flicker, and they had not brought any extra oil to keep them going.
They asked their fellow bridesmaids to share their extra oil with them, but the wise bridesmaids refused to share.
So much for solidarity.
No, the wise bridesmaids sent the foolish bridesmaids to the oil dealers, in the middle of the night, and by the time those five foolish bridesmaids returned, the doors were closed, and, when the poor women asked to be admitted, they were turned away with that particularly cutting line Jesus uses so often in his parables: “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”
The line doesn’t particularly fit here, though, if you think about it for a minute.
Of course the bridegroom knows them. They were selected as bridesmaids, they’ve waited long into the night, and, because he was late, they get rejected.
Hardly seems fair, does it?
Well, of course not.
It’s a parable, not a true story. If this were a realistic story, the fact that all of the bridesmaids fell asleep might have played a role, especially in view of Jesus’s last words, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
If this were a realistic story, Jesus would be doing little more than telling us, as I learned in the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.”
But for what?
Jesus doesn’t really specify; he just starts out the parable with the simple sentence, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.”
Most readings of this parable interpret the wedding and the long-delayed coming of the bridegroom to be the Second Coming of Christ, which will end the current, sinful order, and institute the Kingdom of Heaven.
Or, as some of our friends who stress the Book of Revelation like to think of it, the End Times.
Which certainly fits with Paul’s description in the reading from First Thessalonians, where he writes that
we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
These warnings of vigilance were given nearly two thousand years ago. That’s a long time to wait. And yet, in this same Gospel, Jesus says “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.“
Some cite this saying, and this parable, and other warnings of the end of things as imminent, as proof that Jesus and the disciples were wrong.
But, again, that’s taking the parable as a realistic, straightforward story.
If we open our eyes a little wider, and put away literalism, we can see that the world of Jesus and the disciples did end. In 70 AD, after successfully besieging Jerusalem, the Romans sacked the City and the Temple. As Flavius Josephus, himself a former member of the rebellion that sparked the siege, described the fall of the Temple:
While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistanceThree years later, when the garrison at Masada killed itself rather than surrender, the last spark of rebellion was extinguished.
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
The literal end of the world is one event that will happen at a time we cannot know; scientists can’t tell us, because we can accelerate the day, or try to postpone it.
But in a very real way, the end of the world happens again and again, on a large scale and on a small.
When the Third Reich collapsed, and the camps were discovered by the allied troops, when atomic bombs went off in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a world ended.
When one partner in a loving marriage dies, what Kurt Vonnegut called “a Nation of two,” a small world, has ended, never to be recaptured in this life.
When politics split a town over party and racial lines, ending friendships, causing the local high school to fear race riots, a world has ended.
We don’t live in the post-World War II consensus anymore, and we don’t live in an era of civility, or an Era of Good feelings.
That world has ended.
But when the world fails us, or, maybe I should say, when we fail the world, the Kingdom of God breaks through, and invites us to walk with Wisdom.
We have a choice: to frantically deny the change, to try to put the clock back, or to recognize that the world we are living in is still God’s world, not ours, and that, as Jesus also said, “behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
And that kingdom of God isn’t ours to have for ourselves; we are, like the bridesmaids, both the foolish ones and the wise ones, the carriers of the lamps, meant to each of us contribute to the lighting of the way from the old world that is dying, to the new one that is being born.
How do we do that? By, living our lives in such a way that we are, as St. Francis is so often quoted, preaching the Gospel, using words if necessary. And the best way I know to do that I learned here, from Bill Tully’s favorite blessing, urging us to remember that
Life is short,
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So… be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind.
And what if this was a realistic story--what then would become of those poor, foolish bridesmaids, left out in the cold night?
Well, we learn from our mistakes, sometimes, and Wisdom, we are told, “hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.”
And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “Keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, it will be opened.”
So I think of the variant of the parable told by Thomas Merton in a poem he titled “Les Cinq Vierges (For Jacques).” I found it, newly translated from the original French, in an essay by Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, titled “Got into the Party After All.”
There were five virgins
Who arrived for the Wedding of the Lamb
With their motor-scooters burned out
And their gas tanks
But since they knew how to
They were told to stick around anyhow.
So that’s it: there were
Five rowdy virgins
But really caught up
In the action.
There were then ten Virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
 Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, in “Got Into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Amy –Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Matthew, 171, 172-3 (2001)
 See Matt Viser, “A year after Trump’s election, York, Pa., is forever changed,” Boston Globe, Nov. 4, 2017.
 Thomas Merton, “Les Cinc Vierges,” trans. Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, in “Got Into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Amy –Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Matthew, at 178.