A couple of months ago I was sorting through some stacks of paper that I had gathered from my office at church. They were from the beginning of the year – before Lent, before the pandemic, before so much that has happened in the last eight months. In those stacks I came across a notepad – just a boring 8½ by 11 notepad of lined white paper. Many of the top sheets were filled with various lists and scribblings that I no longer needed, so I tore those off and recycled them. But in the middle I found a page with three words – chronos, kairos, and empathy. Chronos and kairos are Greek words for different understandings of time. We’ve talked about them before. Chronos is about clock and calendar time, the time we’re used to measuring in minutes, hours, days, and months. Kairos, on the other hand, is more about an opportune time, often a season of indeterminate length in which something significant happens. As Christians we sometimes think of chronos as human time and kairos as God’s time.
And of course you know what empathy is. That ability to understand and feel what another person feels. To speak and act from a place of concern that comes from feeling connected to another person.
I have no memory at all of why I wrote down these three words. No idea. But when I found them, they seemed like a time capsule meant to be opened for this season.
What do we do when things don’t happen according to the timeline we want?
How do act with empathy while we wait?
Today’s gospel is originally addressed to a community that was worried about time. For the early church of Matthew’s gospel, waiting for Jesus to return was a central focus. In a very real way they were living the words we say each week in the Apostles’ Creed:
[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried.
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
The early church expected that Jesus would return – and that he would return soon, that we would cast judgement on all of creation and bring the kingdom of God fully into being. Those early Christians lived in conditions of persecution and oppression by the Roman empire. They longed for Jesus to come and free them from that oppression, but by the time Matthew’s gospel is recorded – around the year 80 or 90, a lot of time has passed while they were waiting. Many people had died without Jesus making a return appearance. People were getting tired of waiting.
So that’s the historical backdrop against which today’s parable is traditionally interpreted. Jesus is the bridegroom who is long delayed. The bridesmaids represent different versions of being prepared – or not prepared – for his return. And if you’re not ready when Jesus shows up, then you will miss the party.
That seems the most straightforward interpretation of the story, although an unsettling one. But I’m going to go a little rogue this morning and interpret the story differently.
The story is usually titled “The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids,” and that’s certainly the contrast that gets set up in the story.
But recent years have made me wary about dividing people neatly into two categories and insisting that one must always be better than the other. That kind of binary thinking doesn’t leave much room for nuance. It gets us into trouble.
So this morning I’m not going to call this the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
What if we called it instead “The Parable in Which Everybody Screws Up”?
Let’s start with the scapegoats of the story – those bridesmaids who don’t bring the oil for their lamps. We have no idea why they came unprepared, but whatever the reason, they didn’t bring what they needed to bring to this important celebration. Without that oil their lamps were not going to be able to shine into the night. Their job was to bring what they could to the party, and they dropped the ball – or the oil, as it were.
But I’m not going to go too easy on the supposedly wise bridesmaids. Sure, they remembered to pack the oil for their lamps, but they aren’t willing to share it. If they’d offered some oil to their sisters in need, then everybody could have enjoyed the wedding banquet together for a while. But somehow it was more important to have access to the party themselves and to forget about the people who got left out. In a story that ends with a reminder to keep awake, let’s remember that all of the bridesmaids fall asleep. Instead of sleeping, they could have together figured out a way to make sure everyone had what they needed to come to the party.
Even the bridegroom. I know we’re meant to see the bridegroom as Jesus, but what if the bridegroom is just a guy who keeps people waiting while he negotiates the terms of the dowry for hours? Someone who thinks he’s so important that everyone else should have to wait for him to show up? Maybe he likes to wield power in this way. Maybe he likes being the center of attention, and showing up late gives him even more of that attention he craves.
I know I’m playing a little fast and loose with the parable, but don’t we all understand at least one of these pitfalls?
Ask yourself these questions:
What is that I sometimes fail to bring to a situation? Maybe it’s patience, maybe it’s courage, maybe it’s empathy. What might happen if I showed up with those resources fully in hand and used them to make the situation better?
And what resources do I have that I can share with others? How might I work to open the door to those who are being left out of the celebration?
And how can I use my power on behalf of those who need me to show up? Who is experiencing long-delayed justice, long-delayed peace? How might I help to bring that justice and peace into reality, with no more waiting?
In the end we do none of this with our own preparedness or generosity or power. We are people of preparedness and generosity and power when we remember that everything we bring to the party comes from Jesus. No matter what other identities we hold – as family members, as voters, as participants in political parties or religious denominations – our primary identity comes from Jesus. Jesus gave his life so that our lives could be bound together in love. In his life, death, and resurrection, he shows us what sacrificial love looks like, the kind of love that leads to transformation. The kind of love that leads to new life.
It’s time. In both a chronos and a kairos sense, it’s time for us to do the work before us – the work that brings everyone into the celebration. No waiting. No falling asleep. No holding back. No one left out.
It’s time. To live with empathy and love for each other, trusting in Jesus, who shows us that there is always new life, always a new way.
It’s time. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ