“Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” Five were foolish and five where wise. We can tell which is which by noticing who brought extra oil and who didn’t. I wonder what bringing extra oil means. Were they the ones prepared to wait, the ones who knew that delays and difficulties may slow the groom’s coming? Were they the realists who knew things don’t always go as smoothly as we hope and were prepared to delay? The ten bridesmaids assembled in daylight, a time when extra lamp oil was not needed and the difference between the wise and foolish harder to detect. But then the bridegroom was delayed. They waited and waited but still he didn’t come. It got so late that they all got drowsy and fell asleep.
Suddenly at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Being midnight and very dark, they all got up in that half-conscious stupor that befalls those whose deep sleep has been interrupted and they pull up the wicks in their lamps and light them. Suddenly the wise and foolish become very obvious for the foolish quickly discover their lamps won’t light. They had failed to think ahead and imagine that he could come in the dark. Now they were unprepared.
“The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, ‘No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’” Where are you going to find an oil dealer at twelve midnight? The five foolish maidens leave in search of oil.
While they were gone the bridegroom comes and those who are ready go with him into the wedding banquet. The door is shut and locked from the inside. Later, the other bridesmaids return, their lights now burning brightly with newly purchased oil and they shout from outside the door, “’Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replies, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’”
A shiver runs down my back. He doesn’t know them. They are shut out. He won’t open the door and it’s locked. They are outside in the cold at two in the morning. What is Jesus trying to say to us? Are we thinking of our future, planning ahead, using our imaginations to guide us as we make decisions in the present or are we just drifting along hoping he will come while it is still light? Jesus then adds, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Maintain a disposition of readiness toward whatever goodness God brings into your life. Welcome it and swirl it around in your mouth like fine, aged wine. His troubling story causes questions to swirl in my mind. How do we keep awake, what does it mean to stay prepared, will there come a time when it’s too late?
On Thursday night Laura and I finally saw the movie August:Osage County starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. It’s a precautionary tale telling us to keep awake and not let our lives drift into dysfunction, destructive rivalries, secrets and falsehoods that twist and distort families. It is a powerful film about an Oklahoma family unraveling because the oil of grace and truth is missing. One by one the daughters, aunts and cousins abandon the family matriarch who viciously drives them all away even as she assumes her absolute control over them. At any point she could change her attitude and pour in the oil of grace and light the fire of love changing the family’s fortunes but she refuses. Instead she deepens her commitment to winning in this war where all can only lose.
Finally it is just Meryl Streep’s character, the matriarch, and her eldest daughter, played by Julia Roberts, who are left. They face each other and the matriarch again denies her obvious need for help, saying she is the strongest of them all. After a long pause, the daughter replies “You’re right mom. You are the strongest of us all.” Irony drips from her words. And then much to our surprise she hugs her mother and walks out and we know she will never return. We hear the screen door slam shut. When Meryl Streep’s character realizes what has happened a horrified look crosses her face. She is alone and it is too late. It is as though she shouts, “Lord, Lord open to me.” But it is past midnight and the door is locked. The daughter’s departure seems to say “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” Meryl Streep’s character has waited too long and she has played her hand with too much nastiness. Now she is by herself living in an empty house from which she has driven all the people who have tried to love her. Only human beings expel themselves and she has done it. She has gotten what she wanted and now she is alone. She is the queen on her mountain but it is a space no one shares with her.
But here is the beauty of the play and thing that makes it astounding. As the movie and our hot month in Osage County, Oklahoma begins, the kindly husband to our domineering matriarch who is himself soon to leave, hires a Native American woman to cook and serve them as their maid. Not wanting her around, Meryl Streep’s character subjects her to intense verbal abuse, makes fun of her and refuses to offer her human respect. We wonder how she takes it and why she doesn’t quit. Still, the quiet woman works behind the scenes seeing all and preparing wonderful meals.
The last meal the family shares is a banquet the quiet woman has prepared and everyone notes its quality though the tensions between the family members remain so high you wonder how they can eat. The Native American woman eats by herself in her own room, aware of the tension but remaining separate from it. The camera keeps switching back to her, signaling that somehow she is important to this drama. That night the Native American woman hears a commotion outside her window and looks out to discover the 14 year-old granddaughter in a danger she is too young to recognize. Risking herself and revealing how much she is able to see, the woman rescues the girl by drawing the family’s attention to predatory dangers within the family. This is the event that precipitates the family’s final explosion.
When the eldest daughter left for the last time and the screen door slammed, I said Meryl Streep’s character was alone in the house. But that’s not true. The gentle Cheyenne woman who has seen all, was upstairs. She has not left. While she was not part of the family’s dysfunction she was available when the family dissolved.
In the next scene Meryl Streep’s character is dancing crazily to music as she attempts to block out the terrible reality of her situation. We feel a mixture of empathy and contempt toward her. Then she stops dancing and looks toward the stairway leading to the upstairs of the old Oklahoma house and the woman she knows is up there. Dejected, empty and cringing pathetically, the matriarch crawls up the stairs toward the young woman, who hearing what has just happened, comes down and meets her half way. Meryl Streep’s character comes to rest under the Indian woman’s breast like a small child desperate for comfort. A Christian cross hangs from the woman’s neck and dangles there in front of us; a symbol of grace, forgiveness and peace. Even here there is hope and it resides with the forgiving victim who all along has seen it all and served them still, though they were too blind to see it. Hers is the Presence that redeems the story and makes it profoundly Christian. Even here, in the midst of this dark movie, Christ is present as forgiveness and mercy. Amen.