There is a certain irony that in a week that involved so much anxious waiting we have this parable about waiting, waiting late into the night, waiting so long you run out of energy. It seems strange to talk about waiting today, since the wait for election results is ostensibly over. The joy in my neighborhood yesterday was loud: fireworks, pots and pans, shouts, car horns. I imagine you experienced something similar where you are, at least those of you in the DMV. Utah and Goshen might be having different responses.
After all the excitement, I admit it is hard for me to settle down enough to unpack this text from Matthew. We are on the other side of the wait, at least the immediate big wait. And – there are plenty of other things we wait for – children to be reunited with their parents, the virus to go away, the dishes to wash themselves, an end to racism, world peace, the reign of God. What does this parable tell us about waiting?
In this text from Matthew 25, Jesus is nearing the end of his life and ministry. The pressure is getting more intense. His preaching is getting gloomier and more damning. He must have a sense that it will not be long until he is confronted not only by the religious leaders but by the state as well. Indeed, in Matthew 26, Jesus finishes this long sermon and predicts that he will soon be crucified. He himself is in an ominous time of waiting.
The urgency of what he anticipates has an impact on how he preaches. He is no longer saying, “Let the children come.” He is no longer healing people or passing out mass quantities of food. Ever since he arrived in Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, he has been downloading all the wisdom he has to the disciples and religious leaders and whoever happens to be near by. He lays it all out there in the starkest ways possible. Even as the whispers turn more violent, he doesn’t tame his message. He doesn’t try to build bridges or make sure everyone is comfortable with his teachings. He keeps on preaching.
And Jesus is human. I can imagine that as life gets more difficult and the danger feels more imminent, he might start praying familiar scriptures from the psalms and prophets, in his heart, even as he speaks difficult truths to his listeners. Can you hear it, the interwoven conversation between his head and heart?
Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten attendants who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. (Matthew)
with the psalmist I say: O God save me!
Adonai, help me, and hurry!
At midnight there was a cry: ‘Here comes the bridal party! Let’s go out to meet them!’ (Matthew)
Let those who wish me harm
flee in disgrace. (Psalm 70)
When the attendants returned, now with their lamp oil, they pleaded to be let in. (Matthew)
Amos wrote: Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. (Amos 5)
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’ (Matthew)
We think of Jesus as gentle and merciful. We teach our children, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But this is not that Jesus. This is the Jesus who slams the door. This is the Jesus who brings the sword to divide family members from each other.
This is the voice of God in Amos, who will not accept offerings. Neither seem to have much patience or show mercy. Jesus says, you are either in or out. Amos says, you are faithful or you are not.
What do we do with scripture like this? We are people of peace, people who work to bridge divides not create them. We try not to dehumanize those with whom we disagree. We work at seeing the image of God in each other, even in our “enemies.” We believe in unity, in working together. That is always preferable to division, isn’t it?
And, we might ask ourselves, who benefits most from unity or the perception of unity. (I tread carefully here, because I do believe that this country desperately needs unity right now.)
When you hold the power – unity is a wonderful thing. It is a great message to keep people in line and keep things going in a particular direction. Often when unity is preached by people in power, it is not a message of change, it is a message that attempts to keep the status quo or re-establish the status quo and waiting is a convenient tool, perhaps even a weapon. White people aren’t ready to go to school with black people, wait. Men aren’t ready for women to lead, wait. Straight people aren’t ready for queer people in the church, wait.
Jesus tells this parable of waiting outside, of preparing for a long wait. It is a message for those whose power might be the ability to wait for the right time. For people whose best option is to settle in for the long haul with their lawn chairs and blankets and thermos of hot coffee, to prepare for a long wait – this is a message of good news.
Not everyone can hear this message as good news because not everyone waits. There are people who do. not. wait. They hire others to stand in line and wait for them. And there are people who do not wait because they have other ways around the waiting, they know the secret back entrance. Maybe this is why this parable is kind of confusing. When we have all that we need, when we aren’t used to waiting, when we know how to game the system, a parable about waiting just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But Jesus is talking here to people who know about waiting. They don’t have money or power. They have time, all they have is time. So they understand the need to settle in, to prepare for a long wait until the door opens and the party begins. Jesus doesn’t give details about the wedding reception. In this parable, the point is not the party so much as process. The people who do not prepare for a good long wait, they miss out.
Part of preparing is making sure you have enough energy, enough energy reserves for your lamp to keep burning. This week I spent time online, waiting with people across the country. The young faith leaders did not spend time complaining about the wait. They helped us all refuel while we waited – even as they kept us right by the door. Part of refueling was celebrating the organizing work: how many conversations they initiated the past year, how many neighborhoods they canvassed, how they registered people to vote, and then encouraged first time voters. We refueled by hearing stories of people who have too often been passed over, and now are leading the way. Even as we waited together there was new unity and new energy forming among the multifaith, multirace, multilanguage gathering.
This short story from Jesus is not the only parable he tells, it is not even the only parable he tells about weddings or waiting. It is certainly not the final word Jesus has for his followers. But it is a word for those who don’t have many things go their way, who have been let down, who have been left out. It is a word of hope that when you prepare for the long haul, when you gather with your people, you might just be at the head of line and get let in.
This is not a word of hope for those who don’t know how to wait, who think they can sneak in at the last minute, who think they can slip the maitre’d some money and saunter in. This is not a word of hope for those, who Amos refers to, who think they can use burnt offerings or the juiciest foods, songs and beautiful harp playing as their ticket.
This is good news for those who are told to wait and then told to wait some more. Keep refueling with prayer and deep breaths. Keep refueling with walks in nature and bike rides and community – in the ways you can during a pandemic. Keep finding your people and maybe find some people you didn’t know were your people, and work together. Do what you need to do, what you know to do, to refuel while you wait.
Because the door is going to open. Justice is going to roll down. And when justice rolls it is not a lazy river. The river of justice roars as it washes away falsehood and oppression – and that river of justice keeps flowing, on and on and on.