Ten bridesmaids gather in anticipation of the groom’s arrival. Five bring oil; five do not. The five without oil leave to get it and miss the feast as a result. It’s their own fault for not being prepared, right? The most common interpretation of the story lifts up the foresight and effort of the five bridesmaids who prepared for the groom. They did the work, so they were rewarded. But what if the story had nothing to do with lamp oil, and everything to do with being present?
Matthew 25 (NRSV)
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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 early Christians had expected Jesus to return in their lifetime. In Matthew 16:28, the promise is explicit: Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” He didn’t—certainly not in the manner the early Christians anticipated. It marked one of many times the church had to realize that God’s truth is different than ours. Just because it says so, doesn’t mean we know what it says. We are always in danger of reading scripture from the point of view of our experience rather than considering that God has something different to offer. What is ‘obvious’ from our point of view is often very different from what Jesus proclaimed. These inversions were true in the first century and true as we seek to understand this parable.
We face similar predicaments in real life. We all have images of how things ‘ought to be’ and we all have heard promises—that we can quote back verbatim (‘but, you said…’) that have not happened. It is usually hard to proceed when we do all the right things but find ourselves in no better shape. It is easy to be depressed or even bitter and betrayed. It is hard to stay focused when what was expected, or worse, what was promised, does not occur. Anyone who has known sorrow or tragedy has wondered, ‘Where is God?’
The early church expected relief and vindication. The early church still wanted a heroic leader who would come in his glory and make things right. He would erase their suffering and raise them up. But in real life, their suffering continued and in many ways got worse. Whatever it was that Jesus was promising, it wasn’t what the church expected. Matthew is writing in this context of anticipation and disappointment.
The ‘obvious’ reading of this parable is as a cautionary tale. Jesus (the bridegroom) might be delayed but he is coming. If you are not prepared, beware, you will be locked out. Don’t be like the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids who could not fulfill their basic responsibilities. Do be like the ‘wise’ bridesmaids who planned ahead, husbanded their resources and were allowed to enjoy the banquet. We could just as well read, save early, live frugally and you will enjoy the benefits of retirement. It is good advice and financially true—unless of course there is a massive recession or you are seriously impaired early in your retirement. Nevertheless, it is a sound pattern of living that gives you your best chance at a good life.
But I believe this parable is more than a pillar in the Protestant work ethic. I believe it has a much sharper point and suggests an unexpected grace that we miss because of our conventional human ordering of the world. All too often our first read of a parable is about us and our behavior rather than what it says about the kingdom of God.
The most important thing about a celebration is that you are present. You share it. If you are absent—for any reason, ‘good or bad’, you miss it. But we let appearances and expectations of proper behavior keep us from simple joys and from life altering ones. If you fail to sing or dance because you will look foolish, you’ll miss something. It is scary to look foolish—but there is no getting around it. We are all foolish, inadequate and sinful before God. Sometimes we clean our homes as a sign of hospitality. Other times we do not allow visitors because ‘our homes are a mess’. When does a clean home become a sign of hospitality and when does it impede hospitality? A grandfather who refuses to see his newborn grandson—because he is mixed race or born out of wedlock—misses the joy of a God given relationship. Somebody better tell him to get his head screwed on right or he will miss it forever.
None of these examples are right or wrong. The spirit of the law is always harder to follow than the letter of the law. God wants us present at his banquet. Our so called readiness is largely a function of our should’s and ought’s. None of us are ready. That was the indictment upon the Pharisees. In the name of doing right, they missed how to love. Jesus challenged that way of ‘religious’ thinking at every turn.
The foolishness of the bridesmaids was not failing to have oil. Their failing was their assumption that fulfilling responsibilities (i.e. obeying the law—meeting expectations, performing well) took precedence over making sure they were there. People make mistakes all the time but their focus was upon their performance and they assumed that their performance determined their acceptability. (In many ways this story parallels the story of the ‘fall’ when human disobedience was not the problem. It was the human failing to trust God with our disobedience that separated humankind from God.) Those are human, not God like conditions.
Likewise, the ‘wise’ bridesmaids were not models of Christian charity. Though there is much to be written about how and when we set limits on our giving, it can be argued that the wisdom of the bridesmaids was conventional not God like. But what mattered MOST was they were there to respond to the bridegroom. If you turn away, even for a good reason, you run a considerable risk. It is hard to believe we can be included even as we have failed. Yet that is the promise. We call that grace—and humans have a nearly impossible time including grace as a possibility.
The warning and indictment is upon all of us. The banquet invitation is now and ever present. We never know when or how the Lord will come. It is hard to imagine that ‘doing the right thing’ could be problematic. But I have met many people in hospitals who had saved diligently for the ‘golden years’—only to fall ill and miss them entirely.
Don’t let your expectations of a grand entry keep you from seeing him in the face of your neighbor. Don’t let the promises of a final victory keep you from the joys of the present. And certainly do not let your need to be properly prepared keep you from being there to meet him when he comes.
The Good News is that Jesus came to save sinners. His grace is far beyond human categories of righteousness. Ready or not, he came to love us. Can we risk being foolish? Can we trust his promises?
Lord, I hate looking foolish. Abide with me still. Let it be so.