by Daniel Harrell
So far in this season-long series on “doors in the Bible,” I’ve offered that when Jesus says “ask, seek and knock,” the invitation is to the kingdom of God. To accept the invitation is to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our own. Seek the kingdom first, Jesus said, and you’ll have everything else that you need, even if it’s not all that you want. The key is to trust God knows what he’s doing, that like any loving parent, his concern is more for your ultimate well-being than for your immediate wishes. We may not always like this arrangement, but if you’ve ever been a parent or a child, then you know not liking something you get is sometimes just too bad.
Regrettably, too bad gets real bad for five young women in this morning’s parable. Invited to be bridesmaids in their best friend’s wedding, they neglect to stockpile a little lamp oil and end up locked out of the reception. Had the bridegroom showed up on time they’d have been fine. But he was late, and they weren’t ready for that, and so, well, too bad for them. Those who were ready went with the bridegroom into the wedding banquet and the door was shut. The negligent bridesmaids knock but the door will not open. Worse, the bridegroom tells them to go away, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Jesus says this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. But seriously, what’s to like about having a door closed in your face?
As someone who has had hundreds of doors shut in his face, I can tell you it’s not a pleasant experience. I spent one summer decades ago selling Bible encyclopedias door-to-door in Pascagoula, Mississippi. I was a college freshman and somehow let myself get talked into cold-calling on unsuspecting deep south Southerners who scorned salesmen from the north as carpetbaggers–and I was just from North Carolina. Doors in that Bible belt buckle routinely shut mid-pitch, my potential customers offended by my insinuation of their Biblical ignorance: “Son,” they’d say, “How do you reckon I need an encyclopedia to understand God’s Word? You saying I’m stupid?” Cue the door slam.
Nevertheless–like that fellow in Jesus‘ parable who kept pounding at his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night until he got what he wanted–we were trained to be tenacious as salesmen. Were were also trained to be wise as serpents, also like Jesus said. Whenever the door slammed in my face, I high-tailing it round back where I’d knock on another door of the same house. When the owner reappeared, I’d sheepishly look down at my shoes and say, “I sure hope you’re nicer than that lady at the front door.” I think that was supposed to be funny, but mostly it came off as insulting.
They taught us another trick. I’d ring the doorbell and then back up into the middle of the front yard holding my sales case. When the owner answered, I’d wave “hello” from the distance and then I lower my head and charge for the door, the logic being that out of fear the owner would open the door to avoid giving me a concussion. This was a tactic beyond idiotic. I had a headache for days.
As a kid addicted to constant praise who succeeded at everything he did for most of his adolescent life, I could not handle the constant rejection of door-to-door sales. So I quit and said to hell with that.
Speaking of hell, this is a Judgment Day parable. It’s wedged in-between four others that follow our Lord’s rather grim forecast of the end of the world–one filled with persecution, darkness, doom and gloom. Jesus promises he will return one day to make everything right, but his return, he says, will be like a thief in the night. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the parable prior, a wicked slave takes advantage of his master’s tardiness by beating his fellow servants, then getting high and getting drunk. Jesus warns, “The master of that slave will return on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the familiar parable following, three employees are each given varying amount of money to multiply–five talents, two talents and one talent respectively. The first two employees double their master’s investment, while the third buries his portion in the ground, too lazy to even deposit it in the bank. The master returns “after a long time” and condemns this third employee as a no-talent bum and tosses him too “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And then finally comes the disturbing parable about how the way you treat the hungry, the sick, the stranger and the prisoner is how you treat Jesus himself. “Whatever you have done to the least of these you have done unto me.” Do it badly and the punch line comes more as a punch in the gut: “‘You are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Compared to getting sliced into pieces, confined to darkness and eternal fire and weeping and gnashing your teeth, having a door shut in your face is not that bad. That is until you realize the wedding reception represents heaven itself. In this parable about the bridesmaids, Judgment Day is the Big Day, and as we all know, the Big Day is a Big Deal.
Whenever I do premarital counseling with couples, we’ll discuss conflict resolution, sharing chores, raising kids and the like, all of which sound stressful, but they’re always shadowed by the details of wedding planning. Couples get overwhelmed not by the pending challenges of holy matrimony, but by the color of dresses and flowers and cocktail napkins and whether to serve chicken or fish. Is anybody allergic to shrimp? Champagne costs how much? Last year the average wedding in America ran $28K. Can you imagine spending that kind of money and having the piano player you hired show up with an accordion? I was there or that. Or the brother of the bride getting arrested the night before? I was there for that too. Or how about a florist totally forgetting your day? Yep. Or a bridesmaid deciding that the black dress you planned for her to wear made her look fat so she comes wearing black yoga pants instead? Can you imagine? No matter how good the friendship, no bride is going to allow that bridesmaid to walk down the aisle. Or into the reception either. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
Throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as betrothed to his people. In Isaiah the Lord says to Israel, “Your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is known.” In Hosea, God promises, “I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.” Turn to the New Testament and wedding plans are readied. In Revelation, we read, “Let us rejoice and exult and give God the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb [who is Jesus] has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” Despite a long history of sin and rebellion, the future of God’s people is not rejection or even cool relational distance, but the joy and passion of a marriage forever young. Jesus points to that Big Day in this parable, using cultural wedding customs as analogy. In ancient Hebrew weddings, the bridegroom would process to the bride’s house for the ceremony, and then afterwards, that night, everyone would process back to the groom’s house for the reception. The bridesmaids’ responsibility included escorting the groom back to his home for the party, with blazing bright torches rather than small little lamps. This was the Big Day after all, a day Scripture foretells as full of light.
That the bride is not mentioned is inconsequential. The parable’s not about her. That all the bridesmaids fell asleep on account of the bridegroom’s delay doesn’t matter either–though Jesus does seem to be hinting he’s not coming back as soon as some people expected. Tardiness is no problem if you have enough fuel. The wise women are wise because they were ready. The foolish are fools because they were not. Why wouldn’t the wise share their fuel with the fools? Because if they had there would not have been enough oil to light any lights. Each had been counted on to do their job well. The neglectful bridesmaids scurry off to find a gas station, but by the time they get back it’s too late. The bridesmaids have been reduced to party crashers and nobody is letting them in.
Many of Jesus’ other parables start with some sort of inequality in play: an admired Pharisee opposed to a despised tax-collector, the rich man versus Lazarus the beggar, three employees with three different allotments of talents. By contrast, this is an equal-opportunity parable. Each of the ten bridesmaids are entrusted with a lamp to keep lit. Their subsequent wisdom and foolishness is measured solely by the extent to which they do their jobs well. Each had the same responsibility and possibility for success; each was free to do it or not. Freedom can be a funny thing. It allows us to choose whether to do right or wrong, to help or to hurt, to love or to hate, to attend or defy, to make beautiful or ruin. In this way, freedom resides at the root of sin: we each make our choices. God grants freedom for the sake of relationship. Love cannot be coerced and still be called love. Our abuses of freedom never result in its removal. But God does hold us accountable. We are responsible. This is the parable’s lesson.
Decades have passed since I quit that book-selling job. Nobody buys encyclopedias anymore. Publishers don’t even print them. Still, that failure haunted me. After quitting, I impulsively started driving the 700 miles back to North Carolina. At the halfway mark, somewhere around Montgomery, Alabama, I remember thinking that I had just enough fuel to either go back and keep my commitment or head the rest of the way home. We each make our choices. I’d made a promise to do a job. I’d been told it was hard work. I’d been trained and supplied to succeed if I applied myself. Stick with it and there would be money to make. But I couldn’t handle the rejection and hated the job, so quit. I ran away. I felt guilty about that choice throughout college. Guilty enough to enroll in seminary and became a minister.
You’ve heard me say how what we believe is not what we say we believe. What we believe is what we do. Protestants have historically carved a deep divide between faith and work, but Jesus said you can only know a tree by its fruit. He asked, “Why do you call me Lord but not do the things I command?” This applies to the work we do (or don’t do) on behalf of the hungry, the sick, the stranger and prisoner, the least of these with whom Jesus places himself in solidarity. But it also applies to the work we do everyday at our jobs, as the parables of the wicked servant and the employees and talents make clear. Faithful fruit is not only prayer and Bible study and going to church on Sundays . The trades we ply Monday through Friday, the very bulk of our lives, are to be infused by the faith we profess too.
As we learned so vividly through our Innové project, business and everyday work are means of service. We can change the world by creating goods and providing services that enable people and the earth to flourish. Instead of just another product piled on in pursuit of monetary profit, or another shiny gadget or efficient gizmo for the sake of personal convenience, good work strives to help and heal, to restore and give hope. The Scriptures commend that “whatever you do–cook, cleaner, doctor, lawyer, builder, teacher, accountant, parent, volunteer, student, engineer, door-to-door salesman, bridesmaid–whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” Doing our work for the Lord gives it value and worth apart from the money we make or the reviews we receive. Done for the Lord, our work glorifies God. Glory is that torchlight that honors God, a light that also shines back on us from God and reflects to all who witness what we do. In this way, work takes on the shape of worship and solicits from us all the quality we can give it, while at the same preventing it from ever becoming our idol. Done for the Lord, work refuses to sacrifice family, health or friendship to its ends for it does not prize fortune or status. The glory of God becomes not only sufficient reward, but true satisfaction.
The Creator of heaven and earth freely graces us with opportunity to participate in his creativity in community with other creatures, the entire created order and with the Creator himself. God graces us with freedom to do for the sake of relationship, relationships of love and commitment and obligation, just like a marriage of love. With love, obligation is pure joy. With love we freely give and do in ways no amount of money could ever afford. We’ll readily purchase and put on ill-fitting formal clothes, dance embarrassingly to silly songs and consume lukewarm hotel food every weekend for people we love. How much more then for the Lord who loves us: who formed us and forgives us, who saves us and redeems us and one day ushers us into eternal life?
I drove home home after quitting, And once there I called my sales manager who was also a very good friend. I wanted to confess, to let him know I’d let him down. I’d made a commitment but not followed through. I gave up because the work was too hard. He compassionately listened, but then laughed as he always did, believing laughter to be the best remedy for everything, and told me to just get in my car right now and go on back down there and be the best darn book-seller I could be. The guy was such a goober. But after a sandwich and a shower, I did just that. I got in my car and drove all the way to Mississippi that night, worked hard for the rest of the summer, endured a lot more rejection, but sold a lot of books–thousands of dollars worth of books–which has nothing to do with this parable necessarily, but everything to do with commitment, with friendship. Everything to do with love.