I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. (Solomon 2:4)
I’ve never liked the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and it’s not hard to see why. I know with perfect certainty that I would be one of the ones rushing to get ready and forgetting to bring extra oil. Or remembering but not being able to find it in the chaos of my life. Or tripping and spilling it on my way. All the explanations about how the wise virgins can’t share, because the oil is personal testimony, or a relationship with God built on years of diligent prayer and scripture study, or many acts of service and a charitable heart, only leave me feeling more inadequate, more envious (and, I may as well confess, resentful) of the people I know who are disciplined and tidy and careful, whose “ordered lives confess the beauty of [God’s] peace.” (John Greenleaf Whittier–The Brewing of Soma)
My life is far from ordered: I look around and see it strewn with overly ambitious and doomed projects, dozens of journals with a single entry for January 1 (always resolving to lose the same ##@$! ten pounds!), a pantry with lots and lots of stuff for whichever meal it was time for when I went shopping (the kids always hope it’s lunch—they’ll happily eat snack packs of chips and granola bars and string cheese for every meal), piles of books I haven’t read, post-it notes reminding me of things I should have done a month ago, the stack of CDs I got out to listen to while I mopped the kitchen floor (and the still half-dirty kitchen floor, because I never did find the Bruckner motets that would have provided the necessary oomph to do the whole thing), heaps of laundry that might be concealing a small child or rodents of unusual size (but hopefully not both).
And that’s only the mess you can see; there’s worse, much worse—dank piles of unkindness, mounds of fear taller than the laundry heap, a dozen broken friendships and a few thousand broken promises, the dust of missed opportunities and decades’ worth of squandered moments, ugly streaks of sloth, memories of lies and betrayals shoved under the bed, drawers overflowing with faithlessness and disloyalty, petty resentment and meanness hidden in baskets under pretty cloths, closets full of disappointment and despair, the scum of failure and shame clinging to everything.
An invitation to a wedding would incite bouts of frenzied sepulchre-whitening—more than shame, more than penitence, even more than fear, I am animated by the constant, desperate lust for approval. I am skilled at mask-wearing, at making things look ok with safety pins and duct tape and Spanx and makeup. Even my children know how to throw all the mess from the living room into the back bedroom when the doorbell rings. Of course I would put off buying oil for the lamp until the very last minute. I don’t really want to look carefully at what is in the dark corners—everything looks better in hypocritical semi-darkness.
It’s so easy to imagine the hurry to catch up to the wise friends. I don’t even have to imagine, really; I know the pace of that breathless, frazzled really-fast-walk-in-high-heels only too well. And the pit-of-the-stomach anxiety that I’ll be found out. The tone of voice just a little too high, the clever anecdote just a little forced, the laugh just a little too loud, not quite loud enough to cover my fear that they will learn my secret, will see that I don’t have enough oil, enough talent, enough goodness, that I don’t deserve to be there, that I can’t be one of them.
And oh, the horror of the lamp going out, the moment when they really do see what a mess I am! Of course I would run away, try to buy something that would make me more like them, hurry to prop up what’s left of my pretense. All the while, I would be thinking not lovingly of the coming bride and groom or their kindness in inviting me, but with fear and shame of what the other women might say about me, and with deep dread that the bridegroom would never understand or forgive my inadequacy.
But what if that dread is terribly mistaken? What if the message of this story is the same as the Parable of the Laborers that follows it? That we have enough, that we are enough, if only we won’t hide the gifts we have, or wish for more or different ones. What if the sin is only pretending, trying to hide our few talents, believing that we can’t love or be loved by those who have more (or less) than we do? What if preparing to avoid fear at all costs is also a kind of running away? What if we all turned up our lamps to burn out as brightly and quickly and joyfully as they could, knowing that in Zion,
The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory.
Thy sun shall no more go down; neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.
What if the bridegroom’s “I know you not” is not a condemnation, but an expression of regret? What if he doesn’t know me because I won’t let him? What if he really means I don’t know him, because if I did, I would wait for him. If I knew him, I would not be so afraid of the dark, or of my friends’ opinions, that I could not lose my selfish terrors to be with them in happy anticipation of feasting together with him. I would be able to be quiet, to wait, to trust, to hope, to love. I would remember that “[his] grace is sufficient” for those humble enough to wait for him in the darkness. He would bring me to the banqueting house, covered by grace, clothed in light, glorious under the banner of his love.