Let me start by saying….What is up with this parable today?
The parable of wise and foolish bridesmaids sounds so intriguing, so cute, so cut and dried. But then I really read the gospel for today. I really looked at what it was saying and I was overcome with many more questions than I had answers. And I am afraid I’m not going to be much help in sorting it all out. But let’s look at it together, shall we?
So we know that a parable is a story told to represent something else. In this case we can be pretty sure that the bridegroom is Jesus and the bridesmaids are the people waiting on his return. That would be us.
The first thing we have to think about is the use of the term “bridesmaid.” In our society, bridesmaids are often thought of us giggling, immature, sorority sisters all dressed alike in unbecoming gowns and probably slightly hungover from the bachelorette party. But a better translation of the original text would tell us the women in this story are virgins or maidens. These young women are tasked with going out to meet the bridegroom and escorting him to the bride’s house for the wedding party. The groom must be treated with dignity and respect. He must be given the royal treatment.
So ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bride groom. We are immediately told that half of them are wise and the other half are foolish. They have taken lamps to light the way. The wise ones took extra oil. The foolish ones did not have such a contingency plan.
And wouldn’t you know it, the groom was late! In fact he was so late all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep while they were waiting for him. (Perhaps they were indeed tuckered out after that bachelorette party.) At midnight they were roused from their sleep with news that the bridegroom was on his way.
Girlfriend! Get up, fix your hair, put on your shoes, and trim your lamp!
But so much time had passed, all the lamps were nearly out of oil. The bridesmaids who had not brought extra oil asked to borrow some from their friends. The girls with the extra oil said “Oh no you better don’t. There isn’t enough oil for all of us. Go out and buy some more for yourselves…
And so we come to my first problem with the parable. Why were the “wise” bridesmaids so mean? Even if they didn’t want to give away their extra oil, why did everyone need their own lamp lit? Couldn’t each two of the bridesmaids share the light of one lamp? Surely they all knew the importance of their task. Why not use the oil they had and escort the bridegroom as originally planned.
Today’s gospel comes from Matthew. And earlier in that book – Matthew 5: 40-41 – Jesus instructs his followers:
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
So why are we now hearing a parable about some nasty bridesmaids who don’t want to share a little bit of oil? And these bridesmaids are considered “wise.” I’m getting mixed messages here.
But the unprepared bridesmaids scurry off and unbelievably find an all-night bodega and oil supply store in first century Middle East. But after their late-night shopping spree, they return and find the bridegroom has already arrived and taken their fellow attendants into the wedding banquet and shut the door! They knocked on the door and asked to join the party. But the bridegroom says he doesn’t even know them.
(Wouldn’t the dresses matching the other five bridesmaids have been a clue they were on the guest list?)
But they are turned away.
So here I encountered problem number two: Earlier in Matthew’s gospel – Chapter 7, verses 7 and 8 – Jesus tells his followers to
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”
I’m confused. Originally there were no conditions on the knocking. Jesus didn’t say “The door will be opened…unless you are an unprepared, foolish bridesmaid.”
So why in this parable are those who knock refused entry?
And then there’s the kicker to the entire parable: Jesus’s warning after he tells the parable – his point to the story he explains as this:
“Keep awake. For you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Keep awake? Keep awake?
After that story, you’d think the lesson learned would be something like “be prepared” or “don’t count on someone else to get you into the kingdom of heaven.”’
But “keep awake?”
If that was the lesson of the parable, then all ten bridesmaids failed! All ten of them fell asleep while they were waiting for the groom to show up. And what I find so amazing is that Jesus told this parable to his disciples just days before his crucifixion. In the very next chapter of Matthew we read the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane and having to wake the disciples up three times during the night. It seems even the disciples couldn’t really understand this parable.
And I’m just going to throw this out there: I don’t appreciate the description of those entering the kingdom as the “wise” ones and the ones left out in the cold as the “foolish” ones.
Jesus told us directly to lend to those who want to borrow. He told us directly that whoever knocks will find the door opened for them. There were no confusing parables when we heard that good news.
So what are we supposed to take home from today’s reading?
I am afraid we could get too caught up in the idea of being prepared.
What must we do in order to worthy Christians?
What must we do to be ready when Jesus comes again?
What should I be doing to make sure I have enough oil when the bridegroom shows up?
Perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about being prepared as we should sure to “keep awake.” And by that, I’m suggesting that we always be vigilante to the world around us and to our own lives.
The bridesmaid’s biggest mistake was not being awake and ready when the groom showed up. They had been asleep and were not thinking clearly when they were roused.
Their only real job was to escort the groom to the wedding. Perhaps instead of running out to buy oil in the middle of the night, the foolish bridesmaids should have asked the groom what he wanted them to do. They were there to serve him.
If he wanted them to buy oil, they could do that.
If he wanted them to share lamps with their better-prepared sisters, they could do that.
If he wanted them to walk in the dark and maybe stub their toes, then they could do that as well.
So I’m going to venture that is doesn’t truly matter if you are wise or foolish…prepared for unprepared. Sure, it would be nice if we always had extra oil handy in case of emergencies. But we are human and there’s only so much we can do.
We must remember our single task – to escort the groom when he arrives. The kingdom of God is here among us. Let us escort Jesus to our party right now.
We are Christians and our job is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the world around us. I don’t think we are wise to stash away a supply of extra oil for some unknown day and time. The end of today’s parable assures us we will NOT know the day or the hour. I think our time would be much better spent making sure everyone has enough oil for the daily life right now.
What really matters is that your heart - and your mind - and your spirit - is awake and always ready to accept God – accept Jesus – accept the Holy Spirit – when they show up.
For God’s presence is here among us right this very minute.