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Scholars aren’t quite sure what to do with this parable. The general consensus is that is sounds kind of like something Jesus might say, but not something he did say. So I hope that clears things up for you.
Personally, I have long felt the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids to be an invention of Matthew, a product of a later tradition that seems very concerned with who gets into the Jesus party and who doesn’t. That’s why we have this scenario, which appears only in Matthew, and why it comes in between two other parables dealing with how we prepare for this thing we call the kin-dom…and what happens to those who don’t prepare.
But this one is a strange one. There are no real access points for readers today. After all, we don’t even say “bridegroom” anymore, and a wedding party of 10 is just…excessive. I mean, 10 new dresses? Yikes! And no one carries around lamps, let alone oil for the lamps. Where would you even go to buy more oil for your lamp? Does ACE hardware even stay open that late? Maybe if they used flashlights and went to get more batteries…or better yet cell phones. In fact, a friend of mine from seminary, Jimmy Doyle, who always paid much better attention in Greek and Hebrew classes than I did, rewrote this parable for modern ears. His version goes like this:
“The arrival of God’s government will be like a group of teenagers waiting to Facetime with someone they have a huge crush on, and only a few of them kept their batteries charged. When the person finally and unexpectedly calls, they will say, “Lend me your charger!” to those who have charged batteries.
But it will be too late.”
I used to think that this parable surely was only a fabrication, a later addition by people who were trying to follow Jesus but had a hard time getting past their tribalism. I simply had no place in my theology for a God who would shut the door on people. But now I’m no so sure, after a week in which we have had to simultaneously hear about an angry gunman unleashing his wrath on people who were going to church, example after example of the abuse of power and harassment, most often from men against women…after a state legislature that would rather shut down nursing homes and treatment beds than disappoint campaign donors, and a sudden realization that a sizable portion of our fellow citizens seem more offended by someone kneeling during the national anthem than they are by a 32 year-old trying to date a 14 year-old. I don’t know anymore, maybe God does close the door on some people.
I still don’t think it’s forever, but I could live with a slam or two. I guess I’m saying that there is God’s love and there is the kin-dom, and the admission for each of them is different. One is settled, we are loved. And I don’t think anything changes that. But the kin-dom? You know, this place that Jesus says is all around us already, the place of justice and mercy enacted, the place of enough for everyone, the place that Jesus says we can only see if we will only develop the eyes to see it? Well, I don’t think everybody gets in there. You have to be ready for it.
This parable is part of the setup for the most famous, or infamous, part of Matthew 25, the passage we will look at in a couple of weeks, where Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats, a very apocalyptic parable that seems pretty judgy, except when we read it, of course, because we’re always the sheep, right? Well, this parable of the bridesmaids is pretty judgy, too, and apocalyptic, only from a different perspective. It’s like the anti-Boy Scout parable, where the ones who aren’t prepared get the raw deal. This is one of Matthew’s preoccupations, possibly because Matthew writes this sermon just after the destruction of the temple, Rome’s great crackdown and what must surely have seemed like the urgency of the “end”, like the end of your own personal life, the end of an era, the coming of Jesus, whatever. Times were dark and tough and you’d best get your house in order. You’d best get prepared. This is one of the reasons that these women, the ones we more colloquially call “bridesmaids” are, in Greek, called “virgins.” It’s another sign of their preparation that they remain unmarried and celibate, this was, for Matthew’s crowd (and Paul’s too, by the way) a mark of good faithfulness – because getting married divided your loyalties. Funny how we don’t really push that one anymore, either. Now we do seminars in churches on how to make you marriage more “Godly.” Paul would say – don’t have one. Still the idea of being prepared lingers in our faith tradition. I’m not sure that we can hold the urgency of being prepared for the second coming, at least in any traditional meaning, since it seems really, really behind schedule. So what, in our time and place, might we be preparing for?
Every day I walk my dog. Well, almost every day. And she kind of knows the daily schedule, so much that she anticipates it, despite clearly not knowing anything about time. I can be gone for 2 hours and she greets me like I’ve been away for 15 years. But she’ll have a look to her, and she will literally stretch…you know, the ol’ down dog stretch with her front paws forward and her tail in the air. She’s ready! She does the same when I get ice out of the fridge…that sound sends her trotting into the kitchen with Pavlovian predictability. It’s because above the icemaker on the fridge are her treats. And she is nothing if not hopeful. In fact, this is what I mean by her preparation. She is prepared BY her hopefulness. Stretched out, ready to catch any crumb you might drop from the table or any sudden urge you might have to grab a treat, she is ready. She expects it to happen, even after it doesn’t. Like immediately after it doesn’t. Even after those rare days she doesn’t get a walk, she is just as ready to go the next day, just as sure it’s going to happen.
When we are not prepared to see possibility, we often don’t see it. If we do not anticipate a redemption, or expect to see the action of God in our midst, chances are much higher than we won’t see it, for God’s work is rarely ushered in with trumpet blast and fireworks. Hope is often a quiet thing, small but relentless. It is, as poet Emily Dickinson wrote,
“…the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
In his commentary on this passage, Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon strays from the general interpretation of just punishment and says that the bridesmaids who were unprepared should have just stayed because the groom would have taken them anyway. Instead of wandering off into the night with their ever dimming lamps, they should have stayed by the door, trusting that it would be opened. The Good News that the Gospel delivers is that closed doors can be opened and nothing, including the grave, is beyond the redeeming power of God. So if we believe that, or even something close to that, then how does it shape our preparation?
There’s a quote from Robert Schuller, who I don’t generally quote, that says, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I’d alter that – what would you attempt to do if you knew that failure wasn’t the final answer? What I like about Father Capon’s interpretation is that is conveys what I believe is a deep, Gospel message, a message often lost in the over simplified, much more easily marketed idea of salvation that dominates the landscape. The kin-dom, Jesus says to us over and over in different ways, is not about the arrival, it is about the journey. Our salvation is not really about what happens to us after we die, its about what happens to us when we decide to truly live. Our salvation comes, the kin-dom comes, when we learn to anticipate a hopeful pattern, probably not on our timeline, to expect it, as we expect the sun to rise each morning.
This week we have had to struggle with a lot of horrific news, and deal with questions about how safe we are, or how safe we might even be able to be. We’ve had to face the dark side of much of our society’s gendered and abusive fabric and bear witness to systems which are supposed to work for the common good absolutely fail in that effort, and we might be tempted to take our lamps and go home. He’s not coming. Then again, we might have never shown up in the first place because Jesus is going to take care of all that when he comes back. And then again we might be tempted to avoid the whole thing altogether, to flee from the threat of the darkness and take shelter in the artificial light of our own single lamp, a light we will call safety.
And so I feel the need to remind us all of something – me included. Our goal as faithful people has never been safety, and our task as followers of Jesus has never been success. The Gospels do not teach us to measure our success in wins and losses, but in heart and soul. And the Gospels do not tell us that we are safe. They tell us that we are loved. And our task is to take these two lessons, you are loved and God is not looking for a winning record and live them out into the world, expecting to see grace, anticipating hope, planning to find redemption.
Are you ready for that?