The story I offer now is an old one. It comes to mind today because the ending is the same as the one in the story Jesus tells today. The door was closed on me.
I was in the 3rd grade. Our class room was on the second floor. There were two entries — the one we normally used and the one we used for recess. The one we used for recess was actually an old iron fire escape. Without a key, the door only opened from the inside.
It was afternoon in the fall of the year and we were outside for recess. Normally, I would have been playing with friends from my own class, but the second grade class was enjoying recess at the same time. My sister, Martha, was in that class and I got to playing with her. When I looked up again, my class was gone.
Now ours was a new teacher, and no doubt, she was still learning how to best corral the energy of 40 nine-year-olds. Her method for gathering our attention and signaling it was time to go back inside for lessons was to stand in the middle of the playground and hold one hand up in the air. We were to make a single file line in front of her and she would lead us back inside.
I was not the first one to miss it. In fact, just the week before two boys had gotten busy and had not looked up at the right moment. When they realized they had missed it, they went around to the school’s front doors and came in. She sent them back outside and ordered them to sit at the top of the fire escape steps until the end of the school day.
As it turn out, that day it was my turn. I ran as quickly as my nine-year-old legs would take me to the top of the stairs. I peered through the window to see my classmates taking off their coats and hanging them on their assigned hooks. I saw our teacher tell them to ignore me — not to open the door to let me in. By the example of others, I knew it would do no good to enter by another way. I was something like those foolish bridesmaids we hear about today. And so I sat on those top steps and waited until the end of the school day came and I was finally let in. I was told to sit down at my desk where our teacher told me to make up the work I had missed. I will never understand her surprise that by now I was choking back tears. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may wonder how I ever made it through grade school — not to mention a couple of graduate degrees!)
Again, I offer this now because it ends in similar way to the parable Jesus tells today. Recalling my third grade experience of being locked out’ helps me test the point Jesus offers now.
But here is my struggle with the words before us today. While the words of the parable end with Jesus telling his listeners to ‘ keep awake’ — my sense is that is not really his point — at least not in the way we might normally understand it. For as the story is told, both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fell asleep. So it seems to me that this ‘keeping awake’ must not be that of a third grader keeping her eyes glued to her teacher during afternoon recess so as not to miss her silent signal. Otherwise, what would be the point of recess at all? Even so, this ‘keeping awake’ does have to do with being prepared — always aware — that the end of ‘recess’ is right around the corner —- that the bridegroom could come at any time. In fact, Jesus is expected — even if he is delayed. And somehow our living should reflect that.
No, in many ways, my third grade playground experience is a pretty poor parallel here. Indeed, the ‘signs’ of the bridegroom’s return are only silent if I put in earplugs and tie on a blindfold and if I harden my heart to it. Oh yes, in this meantime for all of us, in many ways it seems to me that Jesus would want us to live our lives not unlike a certain third-grader on the playground that afternoon so long ago; with abandon and joy. Only in the case of our whole lives, our ‘abandon and joy’ is focused on and because of what it means to live as a child of God in the world even while we work and play and care for one another and rest!
Now I am deeply aware that such single-mindedness seldom characterizes how I am much of the time. Oh yes, this is a quality I probably abandoned a very long time ago. There are always so many distractions — some welcome and some not so much — that it takes real effort for me to stay fully in any moment for very long. And so it seems to me that Jesus tells this story now as a gift — to remind us that like those bridesmaids so long ago, ultimately we are here for but one thing and all we have to do is keep our focus there. In their case? It was the arrival of the bridegroom and the celebration which would ensue. All they had to do was make sure there was ‘oil’ in their lamp so as to be able to finish the wait. It is the same for us, don’t you think?
- What experience do you have with being ‘locked out’ because of your own lack of attention or preparation? How was your experience like or unlike the story Jesus tells today?
- What does it mean to be ‘keep awake?’ What do you think the ‘oil’ represents?
- Do you experience Jesus’ story today as a gift? Why or why not?