November 8, 2020
In Jesus’ day weddings encompassed whole communities. The bridesmaids role began with the bride as she waited for the groom to arrive at her home. When he arrived, the bridesmaids would lead a procession back to the groom’s home where the ceremony and festivities would occur. If the groom arrived late, the procession might occur in the dark and the bridesmaids would have lamps to light the way.
‘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.” 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
It is the start of Winter Awareness Week in WI — jointly sponsored by the State Emergency Management team and the National Weather Service. Whenever a winter storm warning is issued, we who live in these parts know what to do. We get gas for the snowblower, shop for milk, bread, fruit, and frozen pizza. Maybe some will purchase toilet paper, too. Then we await the storm the weather forecasters have warned us is coming.
Today’s parable is a bit of a warning and while it has many interpretative possibilities, I’m only going to note a few, starting with the topic of waiting.
Matthew wrote to first century Christians some 80 years after Jesus’ departure. Living under threat, they were eager for the promise of Jesus’ return to be fulfilled. But they were growing tired of waiting. In fact, they were questioning whether he was still coming at all. Had he been in an accident on the way? Did his GPS lead him to the wrong destination? “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” Jesus had said, but gosh, this whole waiting around business is getting quite old.
To instruct his readers, Matthew delineates between two types of waiting — wise and foolish. Using the bridesmaids as the example, the wise come with extra lamp oil. The foolish do not. They were not prepared for the longer, unexpected wait.
Is this a topic of interest to us? Are you waiting for the return of the Lord? Personally, I know of no one who is actively waiting. No one over all my years as a pastor has even mentioned it.
So, what might this parable teach us if it is going to have any application after 2000 years of waiting on Jesus’ return? While we may not be actively waiting — we know this world is not as good as it gets. There is a new day, a new creation coming, no more tears, no more war, no more sickness, no more death.
Matthew points out that the wise waiting people brought extra oil for the longer wait. The foolish ones did not. And when they asked the wise ones for some of their oil, they were rebuffed. Which makes me wonder where we get “oil” for the living of these days which fills our faith-tanks and ignites our engines of Christ-like living?
Or to put that more like Matthew: How do we keep the lamps trimmed and burning when the time does not seem to be drawing so “nigh”?
Throughout the gospel of Matthew, part of finding the “oil” would seem to be about doing those things Jesus has taught his followers to do:
loving God and neighbor,
resisting the forces of violence,
feeding the hungry and
healing the sick.
This is thrust Matthew’s been laying out since verse one. As well-known theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if you’re not able to overcome the darkness.”
Now, before I finish, I have one more question on the topic of oil supply. Why didn’t the ‘wise’ bridesmaids share their oil? I am troubled by their stinginess. Their selfishness had significant consequences. The five who had to go buy oil missed the party. They were locked out.
Scarcity is not a thing in God’s kingdom. Smug in their own preparedness and wisdom, the “wise” bridesmaids forget all about mercy, empathy, kinship, and hospitality. They forget that the point of a wedding is celebration. Gathering. Communing. Joining. Sharing. It does not occur to them that their stinginess has consequences. That it sends their five companions stumbling into the midnight darkness. That it diminishes the wedding, depriving the bridal couple and their remaining guests of five lively, caring companions.
I am not sure what it will take for us Christians to live fully into the abundance of God, even while we wait. But our assumptions about scarcity are killing us. We are so afraid of emptiness, we worship excess. We are so worried about opening our doors too wide, we shut them tight. We are so obsessed with our own rightness before God, we forget that “rightness” divorced from love is always wrong. We live in dread that there will not be enough to spare. Enough grace. Enough freedom. Enough forgiveness. Enough mercy. Somehow, we would leave people out in the dark than give up the illusion of our own brightness.
What would it be like to stop? To stop all of this. What would it be like to care more about the emptiness in our neighbor’s lamp than the brimming fullness of our own?
Finally, as the parable ends with harsh words of exclusion I ask: what if Jesus is not the door slammer? It is possible, given the context in which Matthew’s Gospel was written, that Jesus is not the bridegroom in this parable. We know that the Matthean “Jesus movement” of the first century was in conflict with local religious leaders who considered their Christian peers heretical and deviant. It is likely that there was much discussion around who belonged and who didn’t, who was “in” with God, and who wasn’t.
Sound familiar? One of the great tragedies of the Christian story across history is that we are better known for policing our borders than for welcoming our neighbors. We are quick to say, “I don’t know you,” to those who believe or practice differently than we do. We feel safer and more pious behind closed doors than we do with open arms. Maybe this parable is showing us the ugliness of the closed door.
As I wrote at the start, there are many interpretative possibilities for the parable of the bridesmaids. Other angles. Other facets. Other questions to ask and challenges to ponder. Which ones speak to you? Where do you see yourself in the story, and where do you see Jesus? Locate yourself and locate him. Start talking. The doors are open and the wedding hall is full of holy light. This is the place to begin.
1 Matthew 24:44b, NRSV.
2 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 209