New England’s Autumn strips the color from branches, baring the most essential elements of the landscape: rocky escarpments, slanted roofs, skeleton trunks. Wandering under the shifting skies, every image becomes sharply distinct and somehow certain, more real. Autumn owns the moment in the same way the virgins awaiting the Bridegroom owned the moment. In Matthew 23:1-13, the story of the ten seems to be all about the moment: five had lamps and oil; five only brought the lamps. Only the five who were prepared were able to actually welcome the Bridegroom. The others were off searching for the oil.
We stand at this moment, maybe at every moment, with those ten women. Beneath that message about preparation is a deeper and compelling reality linked to our common humanity. That short pericope wrestles with purpose, awareness, choice and relationship. The virgins, after all, were on a mission of sorts. There was an assigned task, one that required more than showing up. Woody Allen may have argued that 99% of success is showing up, but planning for that, anticipating possibility, also matters. To achieve their purpose, the virgins needed resources. Imagine if they had forgotten not just the oil, but the lamps themselves. More than that, a conscious understanding of the broader situation was necessary.
Being there, showing up, mattered. This two thousand year old story captures exactly what “waiting” means for us today. Every honking horn points to our needs for immediate gratification. Every automated answering machine, with its multiple steps and reassurances that your call is indeed important to them, exposes the frustration that can be part of waiting. The parable whispers softly that patience and perseverance are life necessities, and how we wait makes a difference.
In a sense, the whole story is about the importance of the choices we make as human beings, and how those choices impact ourselves and others. Each choice falls somewhere along the continuum of enhancing relationships or jeopardizing them. This is about how, with all the contemporary emphasis on human individuality, we are also, achingly collective. In so many ways, we are dependent on the right choices made by others. The Gospel effortlessly highlights that.
I have often wonderd what ultimately happened to the five who searched for the oil, if they got a second chance or found themselves searching for that, if they even realized what had happened or that it might be necessary to change patterns of behavior, review choices, acknowledge the loss as an opportunity. The Gospel doesn’t say. That, too, interfaces with the uncertainties that undergird human lives. And yet, that very open question is a comforting validation of what it means to be human.
In essence, the gift of life, of being, of connections and even of purposes. has been entrusted to each of us. What we do with it and how we do that matters not only for self, but for all those we companion. The journey of life is not one of isolation, but one of connection and celebration, of losses and gains, of moments entangled in every century, decade, year and day. Preparing for the journey matters; being entrusted with the lifetime matters even more.