November 9, 2014
Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew is one parable in a flurry of parables about the kingdom of God. We’ll hear two more in the next two weeks. Today’s parable compares the coming of the kingdom to a wedding. If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know that it’s sometimes possible— perhaps I speak from experience—to get all tangled up in the details, and lose track of the main thing. That’s also possible when picking apart a parable.
For awhile this week I got caught up in trying to understand 1st century wedding customs in the Middle East so I could figure out this parable. Was it customary for the bridegroom go fetch his bride at her parent’s house, or did the couple arrive for the banquet together from somewhere else? What was the specific role of the bridesmaids? What are the lamps the bridesmaids are carrying? Is that a reference to Hebrew Scriptures referring to God’s Law as “a lamp unto our feet”? Were the wise bridesmaids those who were holding onto God’s law, doing good works? Fits nicely with the reading from Amos today. But if we get too caught up in good works, we lose track of faith. Unless faith what the oil represents!? But if the wise bridesmaids have it and the foolish ones don’t, isn’t it wisdom? And what about that closed door? What does THAT mean?
If this is starting to sound like a bride panicking because she has learned that her mother wants to wear a long formal dress and her future mother-in-law wants to wear a short casual dress, and the candles are all two inches too big for the candleholders, or the florist has called to say that that particular shade of rose the bride spent weeks choosing is unavailable at this time of year, then yeah…. You see what I mean about losing track of the main thing.
Time to regroup. Deep breath. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. A wedding is mainly about loving promises exchanged. Our relationship with God is too. So let’s step back and try remember that Jesus used parables to teach people who were listening to him—people he loved and cared about. What, in this instance, is he trying to communicate about the kingdom of God?
Parables are not straightforward allegories where one thing clearly represents one other thing. Like most good short stories, parables are multi-faceted. So with no real certainty that this is what Jesus meant when he told this story, nor what Matthew intended when he wrote it down, here’s one of the messages I heard in the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, this time around. In three years, when it comes around again, I may have a completely different read.
The basics: ten bridesmaids wait to greet the groom. Five took lamps and extra oil. Five took only their lamps. All 10 should have been awake to greet the much-delayed bridegroom, but all 10 fell asleep. A shout that the groom is arriving wakes them up. The five bridesmaids without oil in their lamps ask the other five to share some because theirs are running low. Those five are worried they will run out, so they decline to share.
The five who have no oil decide to abandon their original plan of greeting the groom, and instead go off in search of oil for their lamps (at midnight!). It seems to me that this is where the difference between wise and foolish shows up in this story. Like the distracted bride who loses track of the significance of marriage amid all the details about the wedding, these bridesmaids forget that their one job is to be available and present to and for the couple.
Surely the lamps of the other 5 bridesmaids would have provided enough for all 10 bridesmaids if five did go out. And if not, when the groom arrived, surely he would have light to share. Wouldn’t the main thing be the presence of his and his wife’s friends, not whether or not they were waiting in the dark?
Meanwhile, what do we make of the other five bridesmaids, the ones who couldn’t spare an ounce of oil for their sisters, who —even though they saw their need —can’t let go of what they have? “We cannot share with you because we might not have enough for ourselves. We’re not sure, but just to be safe, we’re not sharing.” Like the foolish bridesmaids, these women have lost track of the main thing about a wedding—that it is a celebration of love These bridesmaids operate out the same premise of scarcity and fear that the foolish bridesmaids do.
The Rev. David Henson, an Episcopal priest, has this observation about these two sets of bridesmaids: “Neither trusts the love the bridegroom has for his friends. Neither trusts that the bridegroom will be delighted to see them, regardless of whether they walk in light or walk in darkness. Neither remembers the words of the Psalmist who reassures us that to God night and day are the same and the night is as bright as the noonday sun. So the wise bridesmaids break up the bridal party and send the foolish away to bang on doors of friends, relatives, and shopkeepers in search for oil. By the time they get back, they are ostracized, left out the cold and dark of night. ”
That might explain why the groom didn’t recognize them as the latecomers outside the reception. He says, “I don’t know you.” Maybe he thought they were wedding crashers. Maybe he thought that the other five bridesmaids had simply given up and gone home during his long delay. You have to admit, it would be hurtful if half your bridal party ditched you on the night of your wedding. He doesn’t know that the strangers in the dark are five bridesmaids so eager to please that they had gone to amazing lengths to scrounge up oil for their lamps while the rest of the town slept and the wedding party feasted.
Though we usually understand Jesus as the groom in this parable, I find that this harsh character who turns away the tardy bridesmaids certainly does not sound like the Jesus we have come to know and love. Is this the same Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who leaves the 99 sheep to go searching for the lost one, or the woman who left no stone unturned looking for her lost coin? This doesn’t sound like the Jesus who ate and drank with sinners in the dark.
Remember this is a parable, not an allegory, so maybe it doesn’t line up in a tidy way. The clue to the meaning of the story is revealed only at the very end of this series of parables. In case you aren’t here in two weeks when we wrap up Matthew’s series of kingdom parables, I want to tell you the conclusion Jesus draws. (If you are here, this is a spoiler alert in the best possible sense):
In the end, Jesus says, those who inherit the kingdom are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and imprisoned. In other words, those who shared their oil. Those who opened the locked door. Those who were present to the power of love. Because love is the main thing.
Again, I turn to Rev. Henson, who observes: “No matter how thin our light, no matter how dark the night, we wait, not seeking to be anything other than present right where we are. We trust that in the end, when the light of the bridegroom arrives, it won’t matter whether our tiny oil lamps are flickering still or extinguished completely. Rather the light of bridegroom will be enough for all, to illuminate the beauty of the darkness and to bring us in joy to the midnight celebration.”
The main thing is that the light of the groom will be enough for all who await hope and justice and meaning and courage and strength. We cling to God’s promise, first given to us in baptism without our knowing or understanding it: that we are God’s own beloved children forever. Whether we act wisely or foolishly, God will seek us out, liberating us from the impulse to hoard what we have, freeing us up to share, confident that we will always be provided for by a God who loves us.
Even if it’s dark and we feel unprepared, God won’t give up on inviting us to jump in the ever-flowing streams of justice and mercy, again and again, and to bring all our friends and strangers with us too—even those who have made foolish mistakes.
That’s the main thing. Amen.