The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection)

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Flickr Creative Commons Copyright Brijesh Bhaskaran

Matthew 25: 1-13 | Proper 27 | Year A

(When the gospel is read, have different readers interrupt the gospeller with the italicized verses of Scripture. Visually, either have the disrupters stand, almost in protest, and remain standing through the reading. Conversely, have the disrupters process behind and surround the gospeller.)

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

— “But if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

— In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” –

At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”

— A smoldering wick he will not snuff out — 

“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you.”

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you —

“Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”

– Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” –

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.

– In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light. –

The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.

– But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. –

And the door was shut.

– “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. –

Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!”

But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”

– If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. —

 +  +  +

For most of my life, I have identified with the five wise bridesmaids, always seeking to have enough of the good stuff in my lamp – good works and faith – to persevere in a dark, sinful world.

I envisioned myself as one of the wise, holding onto my lamp in the dead of night.

But my sympathies changed when I spiraled into deep doubt for the first, but certainly not the last, time. Suddenly, I saw myself as a foolish bridesmaid, watching as my lamp’s light evaporated into a thin tendril of smoke, quite jealous of those whose faith still burned so brightly.

I was foolish, begging my lamp not to die.

I could no more conjure more faith or light in my life than the foolish bridesmaids could conjure up the needed oil in the dead of night.

So I began to ask, “What mistake did the foolish bridesmaids make? What made them so foolish?”

Everyone fell asleep, even the wise, when they should have kept awake. Surely they cannot be faulted for not being watchful enough as the story’s closing admonition indicates.

And it was the bridegroom, not the bridal party, who broke social protocol and arrived exceptionally late for their own banquet. Surely they cannot be shut out for being late to the banquet. The bridegroom was the late one!

But what would have happened, I wonder, had the bridesmaids simply continued to wait, with sputtering lamps and dwindling lights?

What would have happened had the bridesmaids simply waited in the darkness of the night?

To me, this was their mistake. They left, when they should have stayed. The bridal couple surely would have welcomed their friends into the light of the banquet, unconcerned about the state of their oil lamps, happy just to see their friends waiting for them.

What faith it would have taken, though, to wait in such frailty, in such honesty!

So 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.

But there is more that bothers me about this parable. What are we to do with those wise ones who couldn’t spare an ounce of oil, those wise ones who chose their needs over the needs of others? What are we to do with them?

Truly, I can think of nowhere else in the Bible that we have afforded such selfish behavior such an exalted place. No, they say, 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 what we have.

The wise and the foolish, it seems, operate on the same premise of scarcity and fear. Neither trusts the love the bridegroom has for his friends. Neither trusts that the bridegroom will embrace all 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 break up the bridal party and send the foolish away to beg and 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. Surely, the groom thought them to be derelict friends who couldn’t wait up with him just a few more hours. Perhaps he thought they had simply given up and gone home during the long delay.

But nothing could have been further for the truth. They have done nothing wrong. They bear no great sin. They wanted to please the groom so much they have gone to amazing lengths to scrounge up oil while the rest of the town slept and the wedding party feasted.

Yet, traditional takes on this passage continue to praise behavior that runs counter to the central message of Jesus: the gospel of radical inclusivity and compassion.

Yet, we lionize the wise ones, the haves who refuse the share with the have nots.

Yet, we celebrate the wise ones who are responsible for the cold hell the foolish must endure.

And then, what are we to do with this bridegroom, this apparent Christ-figure who acts so uncharitably, who tells the industrious foolish bridesmaids to go away? Is this the same Jesus, the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the lost one, the woman who leaves no stone unturned in search of a lost coin?

In a word. No.

According the customs during the first century, the groom would have arrived to the wedding celebration with the bride, not as the text seems to imply, to get the bride. The bridesmaids would have been her friends and would be awaiting her return with the groom. Indeed, many scholars agree that the original parable likely included the bride and the bridegroom arriving late together. However, this would contradict the conventional understanding of the story.

If the bridegroom is already with his bride when he arrives, then how can this parable be interpreted as the return of Christ for his bride?

It can’t. Because this parable isn’t about the return of Christ.

Here it is instructive to remember that Matthew was a book written shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem at a time when Jewish institutional leaders were understandably licking their wounds and retrenching. They were clamping down on rebellious and heretical strands of Judaism, including, of course, the Jesus movement. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out. In other words, this is a story about real life, about religious leaders who literally shut the doors of the synagogue to the Jesus movement.

When Jesus gets to the end of his kingdom of heaven series (Bridesmaids, Talents, Sheep & Goats), he informs his listeners who were the truly foolish and who were the truly wise in each of his parables.

In the end, Jesus says, those on their way to heaven will be decided by what they gave away, whether they fed the poor, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned.

Whether they shared what they had. Whether they shared their oil.

If they hoarded what they had, they, of course, already enjoyed their reward. It was comforting, of course, but temporary.

The wise on earth had their wedding feast on earth.

But that is not how it will be in the kingdom of heaven.

I could go on and on about this parable. It is my favorite piece of Scripture. Because, more than anywhere else in the Holy Scripture, I find myself in this story. And I guess, more than anything, that’s what I’d like to share today.

Because as it turns out, I’ve probably been each of this parable’s characters. You probably have been too.

I’ve been the foolish whose lamps have run out. I’ve been the wise who feared sharing and losing what they had. I’ve been the bridegroom who refused to let people in.

And maybe, in the end, that’s what this parable does. Maybe that’s what all good short stories do.

They allow us to find ourselves, warts and all.

So, if you find yourself feeling like the foolish bridesmaids, remember to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It is a holy place and God will meet you there.

So if you find yourself feeling like the wise bridesmaids, remember to share what you have, even if it scares you. Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting and beloved community. The chance to give of yourself is a holy place and God will meet you there.

So if you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open wide the door to the banquet feast. Don’t let hurt feelings and fear insulate you from others. Welcoming those who have made mistakes and who walk in darkness is a holy place. God will meet you there.

___

I first preached this interpretation in 2006 at Grace Episcopal in Fairfield, California. It was my first sermon.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    An excellent and daring exposition of this parable that I’ve puzzled over at times myself. Yours is almost like a rabbinical approach, which most Christians are not willing to do — put the scripture out on the table, openly admit the problems, hash it out and explore it from different vantage points. Thank you for sharing this!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Thanks for this! I sometimes think we’d do better if we approached parables from a rabbinical perspective. Amy-Jill Levine’s books Short Stories by Jesus is terrific on this point.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this. I’m preaching on this text this week and while I am fine with the bridesmaids, from any angle, I keep getting stuck on the closed door and the “I don’t know you”. The idea that Christ is not the bridegroom…..blows the whole thing wide open.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      It’s not a common approach, and I expect I’ll get some pushback (I usually do when I preach or share this), but at the very least it gets people thinking. Which is more than I can say for most of my sermons. :)

      • Jennifer

        It’s almost the only thing that makes sense though, as this is contrary to so many other texts. Where I keep going is “The kingdom of heaven is like this” which would include the WHOLE of the story, even the selfish ones, even the unprepared outside the door. But why is that dern door shut?? Maybe Christ is still outside the door too and all the foolish ones need to do is turn around…

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        I think this has to be read along with the Talents and Sheep & Goats. I think that line Kingdom of Heaven is like this encompasses all those texts, not just the Bridesmaids. If we read that as one movement, with the final “least of these” text as the conclusion this interpretation begins to make more sense. Part of the problem is that we’ve chopped up these into stand alone stories whereas I’m sure the author stitched them together purposefully.

      • Jackie

        If the parable is talking about the kingdom of heaven shouldn’t we look at other places where Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven? What then do we do with Matthew 7:21-29? It’s has some parallels to the Lord, Lord.

  • Paul bergmann

    I think jesus (if this truly is his) would’ve loved people ripping into the inconsistency of this parable against this other teachings of grace and inclusivity. I think he would have smiled being called out and maybe say as he did to the syro-Phoenician women “you have great faith!”

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Oh wow! I truly appreciate being compared to the Syro-Phoenician woman, one of my favorite characters in Scripture. You are right. It’s her ethic I’m employing here … and that might be worth a whole blog post. Thanks for the insight!

    • http://newyorker.com/books/page-turner/science-fiction-classic-still-smolders Isaac Edward Leibowitz

      The Syro-Phoenician woman—or anybody within earshot—should have slapped the bejesus out of Jesus for referring to her as a bitch who had to beg for scraps.

      Jesus is a jerk, if only because he constantly dehumanized other people, calling them all sorts of foul names like dog, swine, snakes, etc. This dehumanization technique was observed in the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the psychologists who wrote about it thinks dehumanization is so evil that he calls it the Lucifer Effect.

      Dehumanization: The Lucifer Effect
      lucifereffect.com/dehumanization.htm

  • Paul Lombardo-Fox

    Thank you! Very thoughtful and helpful discussion. I wonder too about the other characters alluded to in the parable, and mentioned by you in passing – the “friends, relatives and shopkeepers.” Might they not be included in the exclusion from the party? Sleeping, unaware, locked up behind their own closed doors. And yet, SOMEONE helped the “foolish” to fill their lamps, sharing what they had so that the invited guests could attend. Simply bystanders, or yet another thread of the story that deserves attention?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      That would make for a GREAT way to retell this story!

  • http://www.georgerstewart.com/ Isherwood Williams

    Who wants to live in some Kingdom with a single monarch lording over, anyway? Anybody who thinks monarchy is a good system (save for parliamentary systems with a neutered figurehead) is as progressive as, say, King Louis XVI.

  • jtheory

    I remember having Revelation 2:4 as my life verse for years, always reminding myself just how much I didn’t love God well enough. In my times of doubt and fear I’d turn to that verse and condemn, judging myself til I fell before God begging Him to help me to love Him.

    Your story reminded me of that. Nowadays I’m trying to learn to wait when I feel in love, and wait when I doubt, and wait when I hate, and wait when I feel indifferent, when I’m certain and uncertain, in the darkness and the light.

    And trust that God will find me and love me and draw me into the Kingdom no matter where I am.

    Thank you.

  • Maurice Frontz

    I find the interpretation of the parable by Klyne Snodgrass in his magisterial book ‘Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus’ far more convincing and faithful to the text. I really don’t think one needs to rewrite the parable from this perspective in order to have a grace-filled Jesus. The message is ‘be watchful and be ready’ for the inbreaking of the kingdom, even when it seems far away.

    • WilmRoget

      The problem with the message you assert is that in context, it contradicts what Christ taught about grace and compassion. It also makes a case for a works=reward theology.

      • Maurice Frontz

        Then why did Jesus tell the parable? If you believe that he told the parable or something like it, you need to accept it as a PART of his whole message. You can’t simply ignore the obvious thrust of the parable because you don’t like it. I don’t think this invalidates grace at all. If I believe that I am saved by the grace of Christ, I hope that I would want to at least try to listen to what he says.

        I refer you to Snodgrass’s book. He is no fundamentalist, but his book is a very potent antidote to the kind of ideological evisceration of the parables that I have had to endure over the past several weeks of Matthew.

        Peace be with you.

      • WilmRoget

        “f you believe that he told the parable or something like it, you need to accept it as a PART of his whole message. ”

        First off, my belief is not contingent on agreeing with your interpretation of anything.

        Second, your accusation” You can’t simply ignore the obvious thrust of the parable because you
        don’t like it.” is a form of bullying. I am not ignoring the ‘obvious thrust’, I am challenging your interpretation.

        Third, there is a difference between your interpretation of this parable, and Christ’s message. You are not Christ, nor is Snodgrass. And your false accusation early ‘rewrite’ is very dishonest.

        “I don’t think this invalidates grace at all.”

        The problem is that your interpretation contradicts Christ’s message about grace and compassion.

        “I refer you to Snodgrass’s book.”

        I find that lazy, frankly. It is almost as if your purpose in posting is to sell Snodgrass’s book.

        “but his book is a very potent antidote to the kind of ideological
        evisceration of the parables that I have had to endure over the past
        several weeks of Matthew.”

        In other words, you are here to revile someone for the sake of your ego.

        “Peace be with you.”

        You clearly don’t mean that.

      • Maurice Frontz

        I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.

      • WilmRoget

        “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.”

        No doubt. But it does not make what you said accurate, or civil.

      • Reststopkirk

        I just wanted to say, you sound like the asshole in this discussion, not
        Maurice Frontz. You are the un-civil one. Just sayin. Take a drink. It’s the interwebs,
        remember.

      • WilmRoget

        Ironically enough, you are the one engaged in name-calling, so your understanding of what it means to lack civility is not particularly credible.

        By the way, alcoholism tends to lead to poor decision and worse behavior. Just sayin . . .

      • Reststopkirk

        Irony. So I stumbled upon this blog (not in a drunken stupor, I might add) because the writer of this blog produces a podcast called “Moonshine and Jesus”… Now… If I get this straight your understanding of “a drink” is to be equated with alcoholism… Ironic indeed.

        I guess this kind of thinking is how “you sound like the asshole in this discussion” is conflated with actually being called one.

        I guess that is also how by one misread comment can also lead to a lack of credibility bestowed.

        My words were mean to sting, not draw blood.

        You read too much into Maurice’s words.

        I for one do not believe Maurice is a lazy snake oil salesman or a reviler. I also don’t believe I am a name calling drunk. Nor do I believe you are an asshole. You just sound like one on the internet… As do I at about this point. 😉

      • WilmRoget

        Your excuses and noise don’t accomplish anything.

        And again, the more you try to insult me, the worse you look. Keep that in mind, the insults have been yours, and your buddy Maurice’s.

        Maurice only has three comments, all here, and suddenly you show up, no comments addressing the subject matter, but directing some ad hominem at me. Coincidence, or sock puppetry.

        “As do I at about this point. ;)”

        Earlier than that.

      • Reststopkirk

        Hmmm. I’m goin with coincidence, as I am not Maurice. But, I’m sure you are gonna listen to your heart…

        As to the subject matter, I agreed with most of the blog post. I do find it hard to jump into this exegesis without a bit more thought. I guess I sympathized with Maurice’s thoughts. I think I’m more fluid than Maurice’s stance. Like I said before, it seemed that you were caricaturing Maurice’s thoughts, not truly hearing them. That’s probably why I spoke up.

        Oh well. I’m going go have dinner with my wife and kids. Drink a couple exquisite craft beers… Maybe make some noise, maybe some excuses, maybe even not accomplish anything… I dunno. I just don’t know if I’ll have enough time! But, you… You stay classy.

      • WilmRoget

        I’m going to go with ‘there’s no reason to believe you at this point’.

  • Tom

    Very much appreciated the approach to this most troubling parable. Am always looking for new ways to proclaim the “Kingdom of God.” But still having trouble with how this parable illustrates life in the Kingdom of God. Even if we bring in the other 2 parables from Matthew 25, how does this parable tell us what life in the kingdom will be like? Still the missing piece for me, but still looking for it.

  • Susan

    David…saw the remark at the bottom that this was the first sermon you ever preached, combine that with your comment that you find this to be one of your favorite scripture passages…and I have to say that you are a gifted preacher…aka Radical Rabbi. Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

  • http://stteves10.libsyn.com/ Andrew Gillies

    Great interpretation. Probably much better than mine. I think the oil is the grace of or relationship with God which is freely given. It can neither be bought nor given away. I need to think about “De-Christing” it give the context. I don’t have time to rewrite mine though.
    http://stteves10.libsyn.com/what-is-the-good-oil-proper-27-a-2014-the-wise-and-foolish-bridesmaids

  • Chad K

    David, this is really powerful to think about. You interpretation reminds me of the Lost brother(s)/prodigal father parable where neither brother fully gets what is before them. Thank you! I love your way of working it together in the end.

  • Peter Lockhart

    Echoes of what I have prepared for tomorrow in what you have shared… I had an additional thought the bride is never mentioned but what if we raise the question of the place of the church as the bride. One (we) who is (are) tasked with sharing in welcoming and celebrating the event of the coming of Christ? An afterthought really. http://revplockhart.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/its-not-about-oil.html

  • http://www.georgerstewart.com/ Isherwood Williams

    Any old excuse will do for Christians to make sure that they—whomever “they” may be— are ostracized, left out the cold and dark of night.

  • FG

    You don’t account for Jesus referring to the prepared virgins as “wise” and the unprepared as “foolish.” He doesn’t chastise the wise virgins for not sharing as you see to. Also, there were a variety of wedding customs in first century Palestine so it would be problematic to postulate that the groom was arriving with his bride.

    • WilmRoget

      Actually, Mr. Henson does account for the being called wise. Remember, wise isn’t always a compliment when Jesus is talking.

  • Stephen McCutchan

    It is critical that we note when Jesus begins to tell the parable that he says the kingdom includes all ten bridesmaids. The kingdom is made up of both the wise and the foolish. This parable is followed by the parable of the talents and even more scary, the parable of the judgement of the nations. isn’t it possible that we could come prepared as the five “wise” did, foolishly become unresponsive to the needs of others, as they did, and then discover when the door is closed that the master, not the late bridegroom, is also locked outside with the 5 “foolish” where Jesus is often found to be. “As much as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me.”

  • Herm

    If I of no oil had stayed in the same room with the other bridesmaids none of us would have been in the dark. It is the bride that I have been chosen to serve and not the self-centered bridesmaids who would deny the potential of my service to her. The best answer to those who asked that the oil be shared would have been, “I need not share my oil because there is more than enough light for all of us to share and see until the groom arrives.” The cup graced to me runs over and I shall not want for light to serve the wedding party.

    Congratulations on a well prepared first sermon!

  • cliff

    I prefer your slant on the story much more than the traditional one. However these parables seem to be following up Jesus’ point in Matthew 24 about the coming of the Son of Man and the need to “keep watch” and be ready for his coming. Those servants who are wicked (24:48) the bridesmaids not ready (25:7) or wicked and lazy servant (25:26) or anyone uncaring (25:45) will all miss out. I do not like that thought. I want everyone included but Jesus and the apostles seem to have a bent to excluding as Revelation 21:8 says “cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, immoral,,. etc.” and they will be kept out of the kingdom of God. Even if I don’t like it.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    Well I suppose one might say that those who were wise in this story were the ones who conserved energy. :)

  • nathancolquhoun

    I read this and sent it off to my community after we wrestled with it that Sunday. Many people struggled with this text because it seemed so backwards – it was hard to just accept that the wise virgins could be so selfish. This reading was a beautiful contribution, so thank-you.

    Sylvia Keesmaat has a brilliant reading on the Talents parable as well (http://www.nathancolquhoun.com/2007/04/26/the-upside-down-world-of-the-parable-of) – which I think reading your reading on the Virgins and Sylvia’s on the Talents, then puts the Sheep/Goats in nice harmony and helps make more sense of what is going on here and why these stories are lumped together.

  • Don Frueh

    Thank you for your wonderful commentary and for providing this great forum. I serve a UCC congregation in Portland, OR, and we have been dealing with a series of parables (we;re using the Narrative Lectionary). The result of helping folks to break open the parables and look at cultural context and THEN make the associations for us in our time has been amazing. Keep up this great work!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Thank you! YOu’ve solved a mystery as to why this post is suddenly active again!!! It’s the Narrative Lectionary … I have been so confused! :)

  • Chang in Vancouver

    A parable is meant to illustrate a point with a simple example from common life. If the point is simply to be prepared for the coming of the bridegroom because the bridegroom is the focal point of the entire wedding and the attendant wedding feast, then the lesson is simply to be prepared for God’s timing rather than rely on the itinerary of the wedding planner. Be prepared to join the celebration of Jesus’ union with His church on His timeline, and not your own foolish assumption of when it may – or worse, should – occur.