I am fortunate in that I do not have a long commute to work. But there have been a few times when I have needed to take the Long Island Railroad during morning rush hour. What I found fascinating about those trips is how people use their time on the train. Most people are on their phones, probably doing any number of things: scanning email, sending a few quick texts, checking Facebook, reading the news. Some people are reading the paper: catching up on the headlines, reading the sports page, or checking the financial reports. Others use their hour on the train to catch up on sleep. That one always scares me – how people sleep lightly enough not to miss their stop is beyond me. And I suppose there are a few people like me, who enjoy the people watching. But those are rarely the morning regulars – they got over that fascination a long time ago and chose some other way to spend their time.
We make choices every day: how we spend our money, what we will do with free evenings, what groups we want to be involved in, and with whom we want to spend our time. What we do while commuting is just one example of the myriad choices available to us on a given day. But over time, those choices begin to shape who we are. Those choices begin to define whether we are an avid reader, someone who is connected to the goings-on of the world, someone who is physically fit, or someone who is known for their volunteer work. What seem like inconsequential decisions, like regularly watching a TV show, a standing appointment with a friend for dinner, or joining a civic group, slowly begin to shape a life. Those little choices we make day in and day out shape who we are and what our life is really about. In my line of work, I go to a lot of funerals, and that is one of the consistent things I see: the choices a person makes over time informs who they are. So in a eulogy, someone is described a devoted mother, or an avid sailor, or an advocate for the poor.
Our gospel lesson today is all about how our choices matter.[i] The most obvious choice we see is the choice by the foolish bridesmaids not to bring extra oil. Actually, the foolish bridesmaids make two choices. First, they choose not to bring extra oil, perhaps assuming the groom will not be long. Second, once they realize they are out of oil and the others are not going to share, they choose to go buy more. Neither of their choices is illogical really. Based on the customs of the time, the maids should not have needed extra oil.[ii] Their choice not to bring extra oil is a perhaps presumptuous, but not scandalous. The second choice is reactionary. The wise bridesmaids tell them to go and they do – in the middle of the night, the foolish maids make an impetuous decision that ends up costing them greatly. The foolish maids’ choices create a world fraught with risk – where split-second decisions leave the maids with little footing in a world that is constantly throwing choices at them
But the foolish bridesmaids are not the only ones making choices in our parable today. The wise ones make choices too. When faced with the needs of the oil-less bridesmaids, the wise bridesmaids send the foolish ones away to get their own oil. They do not consider sharing their oil or allowing the foolish ones to stand with them. Quite frankly, they should not have to share. They have thoughtfully constructed a world in which careful planning and preparation pay off in great rewards. Their choices have lead to a world in which everyone fends for themselves, where pity is not necessary, and boundaries are clear and concise.
And of course, the bridegroom makes a choice too. When the foolish bridesmaids knock at the door, the groom has a choice: he can justifiably send them away since they were not considerate enough to be ready and waiting for him; or he can be forgiving and graciously allow them into the celebration. The choice of the groom to close the door leads to a world in which mistakes are severely punished and there are no second chances.
This parable is one of those parables that does not leave us feeling good about the world. In fact, the choices of the characters in the parable depict a world that is marked by rigidity, scarcity, and lacking in forgiveness. We know this world all too well. All we have to do is listen to the current debate in the United States about immigration. Whenever we debate the issue of what to do with illegal immigrants, the arguments are similarly marked by rigidity, scarcity, and a lack of forgiveness. We worry about the drain on our resources with illegal immigrants – the health care, education, and social services needed for them. We worry about the jobs they will be taking from legal citizens. And we worry about our capacity for compassion – I have heard many argue that we cannot save every child in the world by welcoming them here. All of those fears are valid. And so we draw boundaries, we put up limits, and we say no. We make choices that shape our experience as Americans. And like the bridesmaids with extra oil, our decisions could probably be labeled as wise.
Although that wisdom is usually praiseworthy, and is clearly praised in our lesson today, for some reason, that wisdom does not sit well with me this week. Instead, I have found myself wondering what other choices the three characters in this story could have made. [iii] The foolish bridesmaids could have simply chosen to stay. Sure, they would have had to risk being in the dark for a while, and leaning into the light of others. They may even have had to plead their case with the groom once he arrived. But at least they would have been there. They could have stayed. Staying would have been scary and made them vulnerable. But they could have chosen to stay. Meanwhile, the wise bridesmaids could have chosen to either share their oil, or stand side-by-side with the foolish ones, letting their light shine the way for both of them. Sure, they were within their right to refuse. They are the ones who thought ahead and did the right thing. But they could have chosen another way. They could have chosen to share their abundance with the foolish. The bridegroom had a choice too. The groom had every right to refuse entry to the foolish maids – based on what he knew, they were late and unprepared. He had no obligation to let in people to his celebration who do not care enough about him to be prepared to wait for him. But the groom could have chosen to let them in anyway. He could have chosen gracious hospitality, even to the undeserving maids.
I recently had a conversation with another parent about creating healthy eating habits for children. She was explaining to me a philosophy in which parents let children guide their own eating choices. So instead of serving children the healthy food first and then bringing out the dessert, the parent is to put everything out on the table and allow the child to serve themselves. The argument is that through experience, the child will eventually learn that loading up a plate with dessert leaves the child unsatisfied, if not sick. Over time, the child will learn what foods make her feel good, what portions she needs to feel full, and how to plan her plate accordingly. Truthfully the idea sounded crazy to me – like some hippy, permissive parenting that would lead to malnourished, unruly children and wasted healthy food. But then again, I tend to choose a world guided by structure and order imposed from an authority. This parent was suggesting a different kind of world guided by trust, that makes room for growth through mistakes, and that leads by example.
That is the funny thing about choices. Our choices shape our world. Most people read today’s gospel and think: Okay, the moral of the story is to choose preparedness and alertness and when Jesus returns, we will be ready. But instead, the moral of this story might be that the choices that we make shape our world – and our choices may not be as obvious as we think. So yes, we can choose to live lives with strict boundaries and rules, lives that are guarded and have limits, and lives that are grounded in consequences. We can also choose to live lives that are grounded in forgiveness, that make room for mistakes, and that make us uncomfortable, but also make room for joy. Sometimes those choices will be obvious: when we actively decide to forgive someone who has wronged us or when we purposefully decide to share our resources even though the other does not deserve our generosity. But sometimes the choices will not be so obvious: when we commit to a new ministry, even if we are not sure where that ministry will take us or what that ministry will demand of us; when we choose to give up some of our disposable income to support the work of this church, even if we are not sure we can spare the money; or when we give up some of our family’s outside commitments so that we can be more present in the life and work of the church. Those choices demand sacrifice, vulnerability, and work. But those choices might also be the choices that make someone say at our funeral, “He loved the Lord, he loved the church, and he boldly lived a life of trust and abundance. And look where his life led.” Amen.
[i] Anthony B. Robinson, “Choices that Matter,” Christian Century, vol. 110, no. 29, October 20, 1993, 1011.
[ii] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 286.
[iii] David R. Henson, “The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable” as found at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2014/11/the-breaking-of-the-bridesmaids-how-scripture-undermines-a-parable/ as posted on November 3, 2014.