There was an article in Reader’s Digest called, ‘Funny and Lame Excuses’ In the article I read about Charles J. O’Byrne, the top aide to New York governor David Paterson. Charles neglected to file tax returns for five years. “Neglected” is really the wrong word, says his lawyer: O’Byrne couldn’t pay his taxes. But he had an excuse. He said that he suffers from a medical condition called late-filing syndrome, which is caused by depression. And even though this depression did not stop him from being a highly functional professional or enjoying an active social life, it did seem to affect his ability to pay taxes—five years in a row. Did anyone buy it? Not the American Psychiatric Association. An APA representative told the New York Times that it doesn’t recognize late-filing syndrome as a psychiatric condition. And then there was the case of Vito Fossella. Last year, the then–New York congressman Vito Fossella was pulled over in Alexandria, Virginia, by the police and blew a 0.17 on the Breathalyzer—more than twice the legal limit. Vito gave this excuse; he said his high blood alcohol level was a result of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer he’d used. Did anyone buy it? After several “What do you take us for?” looks from the police, DAs, the press—pretty much everyone—Fossella changed his plea from DUIHS (driving under the influence of hand sanitizer) to just plain driving under the influence. Bad or negligent behavior with no good excuse, the Gospel lesson today is about that very thing.
In the gospel lesson today Jesus tells a parable about a wedding. Interestingly enough he doesn’t even mention the bride—he barely mentioned the bridegroom. Instead he focuses upon the bridesmaids. In order to catch the impact of this story, we need to know some historical background of a first-century Jewish wedding. Eastern and Western cultures are very different. In an Eastern culture the bridegroom is often a more important figure than the bride and frequently paid for all the expenses of the wedding. A Jewish wedding had three parts or stages to it. First, there was the formal engagement/betrothal which was almost always arranged by the parents of the future bride and groom. Later (up to a year or more) came the formal religious ceremony in the bride’s home. This was a religious service similar to our wedding service. Thirdly, there was the wedding banquet (feast), generally at night, at the house of the groom and it generally lasted about seven days and could take place right after the ceremony or weeks later. The bridegroom would come to get his bride and they would walk together to the wedding. It was an elaborate affair that cost a lot of money. It was, therefore, a social event to which their friends and the entire village were anxious to attend. The bride and the groom walked down the street and their bridesmaids would take part in the ‘welcoming ceremony’ by lighting the way with torches held by the wedding party. The torches were rags wrapped around pieces of wood. The rags were dipped in oil and they would stay lit for about 15 or so minutes. Then the oil would be burnt out and the torch would simply smolder and need to be soaked in oil again. So to wait with a torch and have not extra oil would be like bringing a flashlight with no batteries. Further it would be a major faux pas for anyone in the wedding party not to be by the road ready to welcome the bridegroom and bride. That is the background of the story. So in our story are ten young women waiting to join the wedding party. They are expecting and waiting for the bridegroom and the bride. But what happens? The wedding party comes a lot later than expected. So much later that everyone who is waiting has fallen asleep. And then when the wedding party is announced the girls light their torches, but the ones without oil cannot get theirs to light. The ones who brought extra oil need theirs for the procession through town. So the ones who are not prepared cannot join the procession and by the time they get to the party, it is too late and they are not let in.
The parables of Jesus are symbolic. In this parable for what does the bridegroom represent? After all if we do not get who he is then the story loses its entire significance. The wedding party, the bridegroom stands for the return of Jesus to the earth. It stands for the end of the age—that is—the end of the world as we know it. Then we have the bridesmaids; they represent you and me. We are the ones waiting for the coming of Jesus at the end of time. And then we have the oil. It represents our devotion our willingness to persevere in the faith. So this is the picture Jesus is coming, we are waiting. Some Christians are wise and some are foolish. The wise ones are the ones who are prepared to keep going for a long time but foolish ones are not. The foolish ones are ready only for a short wait. As the story goes, after a very long wait the wedding party is announced and the 5 wise maidens light their lamps and join the group. The 5 foolish ones are not ready and have to run off to get oil. By the time they return, the party has already begun and they are not allowed to come into the house. When they knock at the door, they are told by the bridegroom, who is Jesus, “Go away; I do not even know you.” Imagine, Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the one through whom all things were made saying, “I do not know who you are.” This is a terrifying story. If this parable doesn’t bother you, doesn’t shake you up, it is because you do not get what just happened.
The thing about this story is that both the wise and the foolish look alike don’t they? They both have torches. They all fall asleep waiting. None of those things apparently are a problem. What is the problem is that the one group, the foolish ones, are not prepared for a long wait. They are only prepared for a short wait. For this group, Christianity is something that one does for a little while but then it is not important. For them the whole business of ‘hanging in there’ is not relevant, perseverance doesn’t matter. Jesus teaches us here that one not only needs to have a right start, one needs to have a strong finish as well.
It’s like what John Wayne said in the movie, “Rio Bravo,” He said, “Just showing up doesn’t get the job done!” This parable seems to emphasize this same message. It takes more than good intentions to be a faithful member of the Christian community. The fact is being a disciple of Christ requires us to be committed for the long run. It requires us to sink our entire life into following after Christ.
So why aren’t we more devout? All of us have excuses just like Charles Byrne and Vito Fossella. The bridesmaids in the parable today I sure had their excuses, too, excuses like, “We didn’t know the Bridegroom would be so late.” or “We misjudged how much oil the torches would use” or” “My torches was defective” or even “The other girls wouldn’t share.” Perhaps our own excuses are good and perhaps they are not so good. But at the end of time when we standing in front of God Almighty and all of us will stand there and God asks us what have we done with our lives? How have we been faithful to following His Son who He sent to earth and who showed us how to live, how to love others, and how to serve; how are you and I going to answer? Are we going to say things like, “Well, you see, I like to sleep in on Sundays that’s why I didn’t make to church much; or I did not get around serving in church because my life was really busy; or I did not give a tithe to the church because I didn’t think they really needed my money.”
What kind of excuses do you and I have? Are they really any good? We have eternity in front of us. We have life everlasting waiting for us. Are we willing to risk our eternity with flimsy excuses? Are we really preparing for our next life? Are we right now really making an effort to know and serve God? That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Are we really making an effort to know and serve God? That is what this life is all about. That’s the oil the wise bridesmaids have in reserve. The wise Christians are those who are continually making an effort to know and serve God. Let’s not make any more excuses. Let’s stay prepared and let us be ready for our inevitable meeting with Almighty God. Amen