Some of you might have heard this phrase, which came into the cultural mainstream during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The simple phrase conveyed a host of different meanings – stay aware of what is happening in society, and how issues of racism and justice are woven into so much of the fabric of our daily lives; stay aware of the fact that the narratives that we see and hear on television need to be received with a sense of discernment, with critical awareness, even at times with skepticism. Stay awake, stay alert, stay woke – for it is only by keeping your eyes open, seeing the world as it is, being and becoming aware of truth that problems can be addressed, change can happen, the world can become a better place.
Although the phrase was first used in the African-American community, over the past few years it has been used in wider contexts. People talk about getting woke to the dynamics of sexual power and misconduct in the relations between men and women, and it is not entirely uncommon, these days, to hear references to individuals – and recently, at times politicians — who are said to have become woke to certain social problems and challenges. Such references to being “woke” or the invitation to “stay woke” conveys the sense that a person has insight, awareness and knowledge – and is putting that insight, awareness and knowledge to good purpose. And once one’s eyes have been opened, once they have been “woke” to a situation or challenge, they can no longer turn a blind eye, or be lulled into complacency. They have to stay woke.
It is interesting to ponder that term in relation to today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. As those of you who have been here for the past few weeks will know, the narrative leciionary is inviting us to read through some of Jesus’ parables, including today’s story about the we have been invited to do for the past few weeks, the narrative lectionary invites us to read the parable of the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids.
The story is fairly straightforward. In certain traditions of Jewish culture, it was common for the groom to come to the bride’s family’s home, and for them to lead a procession, with her attendants, from her family home to the groom’s home where a wedding feast would be celebrated.
The first plot twist in Jesus’ story is revealed when the bridegroom is late to arrive. So late, in fact, that all of the bridesmaids grew tired and fell asleep.
Falling asleep was not the problem. Rather, the problem – and the next twist in the story – is revealed when the groom eventually arrives, in the middle of the night, but half of the bridesmaids do not have sufficient oil in their lamps to join the wedding procession. They had fallen asleep but had not taken the steps or done what was necessary to be able to light their lamps when that light was most needed.
Those whose lamps had gone out tried to borrow some from those whose lamps remained lit, but to no avail. While it is possible to question whether those who had oil should have shared with those who did not, such a question is not the point of the parable, since the story is not about the importance of sharing – there were lots of other stories about that. Rather, the story was about the need to keep one’s own light lit, to keep one’s flame burning, even in the darkest hours of the night. And we, as readers, are invited to ponder the strange dilemma that the bridesmaids confronted – that being whether there was a very likely chance that the “dealers” that they were sent out to buy oil from would have been very easy to find at midnight. Stocking up on oil to keep one’s light lit was meant to be a task undertaken in the daylight hours, not in the middle of the night. As with health, starting to pay attention to good habits is wiser to do when things are generally good, not put off until one is in the middle of a terrible health crisis.
And this message is confirmed by the end of the story. The bridegroom arrived, albeit unexpectedly and far later than anyone would have anticipated, and led the attendants who were ready to celebrate into the wedding feast. The doors were closed and locked, leaving the foolish bridesmaids out of the party. Those who had not kept their lights shining were not ready to join the party.
And the consequences were difficult. The bridegroom claimed not to have known them – in words that bear a distinct echo of Jesus’ earlier words in this same Gospel in which he stated that there would be some who would call him Lord but would not do as he commanded, leading him to respond that he did not even know them.
And then, the final words in today’s reading – keep awake, therefore; for you know neither the day nor the hour.
It can be good for us to realize and to remember that the Gospel texts, as we now have them, were compiled many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is good indication, from both the New Testament epistles and from the Gospels, that the earliest Christians had a very keen sense that Jesus’ return was imminent. Some texts had stated that some of his friends and earliest followers would not die before he returned. But days had turned into months, months into years, and years into decades. Like the bridegroom in today’s story, Jesus’ return – though still anticipated – was taking much longer than anyone had anticipated.
And people are people – something that is initially anticipated with great enthusiasm, if delayed, can allow other distractions to get in the way. And distractions can mount up, to the point that one loses all focus or attention on the goal that had originally been envisioned.
As happened with the bridesmaids, and with members of the original Christian communities those decades after Jesus had walked among them,, and certainly with each and every one of us, not only decades – but thousands of years after the coming of Christ.
Very few of us, in fact, probably give much thought to the coming of Christ. Froom time to time, we might hear those who speculate on the timing of the second coming, but most of us – probably rightly – dismiss such speculations with very little thought.
And we get on with life. Which is understandable – almost as understandable as a group of bridesmaids who fall asleep when the bridegroom’s arrival is so delayed.
This story, therefore, is asking each one of us a question.
And the question is this – have we allowed the distractions of this life to lull us into a state of spiritual complacency, to the point where we allow the light that we are supposed to shine to grow dim? This passage, and many of the passages in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, invite serious reflection on how we live, what priorities we live by, what actions and attitudes we demonstrate, what activities fill our time, our minds, our attention?
Having been awakened to the truth of Christ, having been made aware of the message of his gospel, have caught some vision of the kingdom that he came to initiate in this world, do we keep our lives attuned to his call to us? Do we allow our light to shine, as he called and invited us to do? Or have our lights grown dim, the eyes of our spirits to droop, our spiritual lives to lose the passion, the enthusiasm, the dedication, the focus that should shape them?
When I was much younger, I remember a Sunday School class that was based on a simple yet interesting question. The question was this – if being Christian was a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Are you living your life in such a way that there is enough proof to find you guilty of being accused of being a follower of Christ?
It is a question that all of us, of any age, are probably wise to ask ourselves from time to time. Does your claim to follow Jesus make any demonstrable difference in your life? Or have you – like the foolish bridesmaids – grown distracted, drowsy and – when the time comes –unable to shine any of the light that Jesus longs for you to shine in this world?
Well, if so, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to refuel our lamps so that we can shine our light, even in the darkest hours. It’s time to rekindle the flames of a passionate spiritual life – through the intentionality of prayer, and worship, and service to others – so that others can see, tangibly and demonstrably, the effects of his love at work in our lives, so that his light can shine, even in this world’s darkest hours.
And then, having recovered that sense of passion and purpose, to do what we can to retain that focus, to retain that commitment, to keep fuel in the lamps of our souls, to keep our eyes open, and our hearts attuned to his presence, his call.
In other words, once we wake up to his presence, we are called to keep our lamps lit, so that, even in the darkest hours, light will shine.
We are called to stay woke.