I have a confession to make. Some of Jesus’ parables give me a headache.
Take today’s story about the ten bridesmaids – Jesus makes a distinction between five who are foolish and five who are wise. Well, that sounds like us, right? Except that most of us are both wise and foolish at the same time, and Jesus isn’t usually given to either – or thinking. When the foolish ones realize they don’t have enough oil, the wise ones refuse to help, saying they won’t have enough if they share. Surely Jesus isn’t saying this is the way we should behave – he’s all about abundance. Then the Lord of the manor, even though he selected the bridesmaids, when some arrive late, says he doesn’t know them, and casts them into the darkness. Is this an image of God? It’s certainly not one I recognize.
I officiated at a wonderful wedding yesterday. Not only ALL the bridesmaids, but ALL the groomsmen, were late. I missed a cue and was late starting the procession. We all had a great time anyway. And I think God thoroughly approved. Well, as a priest friend of mine once remarked about this parable, “You know Paul, maybe understanding every single one of Jesus’ parables is simply above our pay grade.”
But the takeaway for me lies in the last sentence. “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The truth is we’re all capable of behaving like the forgetful foolish bridesmaids, and like the cheapskate wise ones, to say nothing of the insensitive Lord. And we all know that the world can be a pretty unforgiving and dangerous place when we’re not prepared. But we also know that when we are prepared, by living our lives with open hearts and open minds, miracles can happen.
Our dearest friend from London, Mike, was visiting last week, and on Monday, he asked me to show him around Manhattan. Remember what a beautiful sunny day it was? Well, I was delighted. What I forgot is that Mike, who lived for many years in Scotland, is what they call a Munro Bagger.
There are 282 mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet, called Munro’s. And the crazy people who vow to climb every one of them are called Munro Baggers. So Mike’s plan, revealed to me only very gradually, was that we would spend a solid 12 hours walking the length and breadth of Manhattan, including two trips across bridges to Brooklyn and back.
At about the midpoint, Mike commented that I seemed, well… a little peaked. “No kidding,” I thought. A few minutes later, I failed to notice a particularly high curb, tripped over it with both my feet, and made a solid face plant on the pavement.
Fortunately, I didn’t pass out, but before I knew it, there was a large pool of blood forming under my face. And that’s when the first miracle occurred.
Out of the crowd of passing New Yorkers, five individuals, none of whom knew each other, immediately stopped to help.
One well-dressed fellow who I imagined to be a hedge fund manager by the size of his wristwatch, pulled out a cell phone, ready to call 911. A harried looking woman took one look, rushed off, and reappeared with a bag of ice (“Where do you get a bag of ice in a minute,” I wondered, “much less a New York minute?”). A third woman produced a roll of paper towels, and a fourth a fresh bottle of seltzer she’d bought. The fifth man, apparently homeless, gently repeated, over and over, “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.”
And the second miracle? Every one of the five stayed for about 15 minutes while we held the ice to my face, got my nosebleed under control, got me all washed and toweled off, helped me sit up, and finally stand. They only left when Mike declared me absolutely fit to resume our hike.
What was it about these five New Yorkers that made them immediately suspend everything they were doing, silence all the “shoulds” and the “to dos” in their heads, break apart from the pack, and interrupt their lives to help a stranger? Most others just walked past, but somehow these five were awake, they were prepared.
They had a clarity of purpose, a priority for being people of compassion, that stopped them in their tracks when they saw a fellow human being in trouble. They were living with open minds and open hearts.
And isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling each of us to – to stay awake, be prepared, keep our minds and hearts open, so that we can act without hesitation, when one of God’s people need us?
We usually associate being prepared with being cautious, avoiding risk, keeping ourselves safe, making sure we have enough, right? Just like the five so called “wise” bridesmaids in today’s gospel. But for Christians, maybe that’s the opposite of being prepared. The reason we’re asked to be prepared is so, when the call comes, we’ll have the courage and the faith to actually risk living Jesus’ good news. And the way we stay prepared is to do the hard work of staying connected to God and to the shared wisdom around us that keeps our minds and our hearts open.
Christians understand that God is always creating opportunities for us to be God’s eyes and ears and hands in this world. But as Martin Luther King reminded us, we’re only aware of these opportunities when we stay open to the “fierce urgency of the now.” And it’s only when we act on that awareness that God’s kingdom breaks through into the world.
So let’s be prepared – let’s keep our minds and our hearts open – and we may just get to play a part in God’s next miracle!