Kukui Nuts and the Works of Mercy

For Sunday, 8 November 2020: Matthew 25:1-13

[Jesus said to his disciples:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 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.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that Jesus is the bridegroom who is returning for his bride, the Church. His advent has been delayed, however, and so the wise and foolish bridesmaids represent Christians who are awaiting the second coming of Christ and must remain vigilant and ever ready to welcome the bridegroom who is coming at an unexpected hour. This wedding imagery, coming so close as it does to All Saints’ Day, makes me think of the bride in the book of Revelation whose wedding dress is made of “fine linen, bright and pure” symbolizing the “righteous deeds of the saints” (Revelation 19:8).  

I admit that this story told by Jesus to his followers initially leaves me a little confused with a couple of questions. First, why did the wise bridesmaids refuse to help their foolish sisters by sharing some of their lamp oil? After all, this is the same Jesus who said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Second, like the wedding dress in Revelation, what might the oil in the flasks represent in this story?

In the Greek language of the New Testament, the words for “oil” and “mercy” have the same root. Could it be that the wise bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom were busy engaging in works of mercy while the foolish were neglectful of the same? Perhaps the wise were not being selfish but simply unable to do for the foolish what only they could do for themselves.

There has evolved in the history of the Church lists of charitable actions known as the “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Among these acts of mercy are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned; to bear patiently those who wrong us, forgive offenses, comfort the afflicted, and to pray for others. There is something here for any who choose to be wise in this present age as we await the arrival of the bridegroom.

When I was ordained bishop, I received as a gift from Native Hawaiians a stole decorated with the leaves of the kukuinut tree. I learned from them that the Indigenous people of the Islands used these nuts to extract oil to be burned in torches for light. In fact, the word kukuimeans light or torch and represents protection, peace, guidance, and enlightenment. Traditionally, the wearing of a kukuilei was reserved for royalty.

In the nineteenth century, King Kamehameha and Queen Emma ruled as monarchs of the Hawaiian Islands. Their reign is noted for its service to their people, particularly after an epidemic of smallpox brought to Hawaii by foreign visitors afflicted the Indigenous people. Thereafter, the royal couple devoted themselves to works of mercy for the well-being of their subjects through the building of hospitals, schools, and churches. Devout Anglican Christians, these Native Hawaiians are commemorated on the calendar of the Episcopal Church on November 28.

During this season of isolation and social distancing in the days of a pandemic is a good time to take inventory of our engagement with the works of mercy. I believe that if we keep our flasks filled with the oil of mercy, the energy that fueled the light of the wise bridesmaids as well as Kamehameha and Emma, our lamps will be found burning brightly when the bridegroom arrives. Even though we know neither the day nor the hour, there is a wedding banquet being prepared that you will not want to miss!


Vision Quest

For Sunday, 1 November 2020: Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes up a mountain. Like Moses of old, who climbed Mount Sinai to receive from the Holy One the Law for God’s people, Jesus ascends and brings with him God’s people themselves to hear further instruction in the ways of the Most High. In many parts of Native America, when one is said to “go up on the hill” is meant  that an individual has fasted, prayed, and gone alone to seek a spiritual vision for one’s life from the Creator. Jesus’ people on the mountain also receive a vision for their lives from Jesus, the very incarnation of the Creator.

The vision we are given for our lives as followers of Christ is a difficult one. It begins with humiliation but ends in glory, denial culminating in fulfillment.  Like Jesus, who “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified,” we walk the way of the cross praying that “we may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99). The vision commences with poverty, grief, hunger, thirst, the labor of peace-making, even slander, but is completed wonderfully with comfort, fulfillment, mercy, joy, gladness, and being claimed as children of God and inheritors of the kingdom. I am reminded of the old Cherokee proverb: “When you were born, the world rejoiced as you cried. Live your life so that when you die, you rejoice as the world cries.”

There is a Christian counterpart to the traditional Vision Quest of many tribes. Catherine de Hueck Doherty introduced to the west from the Russian Orthodox Church the practice in her 1975 book, Poustinia: Encountering God in Solitude, Silence and Prayer. “Poustinia” is the Russian word for desert and is a sparsely furnished room or cabin where one goes for twenty-four hours to be alone in fasting and prayer with the intent of seeking God. Oftentimes, this brief retreat begins and ends with prayer and conversation with a spiritual director. With extra time on our hands due to the pandemic and demands of social distancing, perhaps a poustinia experience is a possibility.

This Sunday coincides with All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day. It is also two days before election day during a difficult and divisive season in this country. As the “saints,” the holy ones joined to Jesus through repentance, faith, and baptism, we remember to carry on his work through the peace-making called for in today’s Gospel lesson. With the psalmist we pray: “Let God’s ways be known upon earth, God’s saving health among all nations” (Psalm 67:2). May it be so in the U.S.A., the tribal nations, and all the peoples of the earth.

Michael G. Smith, OblSB, is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and holds a doctorate in preaching.  

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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.