Wisdom, Judgment, & Bridesmaids

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

1 "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.


Reflection: Wisdom, Judgment, & Bridesmaids

Because we’ve had quite a few parables come up in the past few weeks, I’ve gotten to talk a little about parables in general— of the way they don’t have one “right” interpretation, of how they were meant to unsettle their audience. Parables have been seen at times as simple stories that make the complex understandable. I actually think they are oftentimes the opposite. They are complex stories that make the simple difficult to understand. Jesus even quotes Isaiah in this same Gospel story saying that he speaks in parables because:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Mt. 13:14-17)

Parables are purposefully complex, misunderstood, and upsetting. The reactions people have Jesus’ parables range from confusion to wanting to kill him. Lastly, Jesus is not pointing afar in his parables. He is pointing back to himself. At their core, parables are about Jesus. They are about the Kingdom of God that he embodied. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The punchline to every parable is the death and resurrection of Christ.” I would add his life, too.

Once we get to Matthew 25, where our reading tonight comes from, Jesus’ parables have gotten darker. More dire. Jesus is in Jerusalem where he will soon be killed. He has already entered the city on a donkey to shouts of Hosanna! Which is a shout both of praise and a cry to be saved. We will talk more about that following Palm Sunday, but Jesus is in this time between being welcomed as a king and dying as a traitor. 

Matthew 25 groups together three parables, beginning with this parable of oil and bridesmaids. It is followed by the parable of the talents (where a master gives servants a bunch of money, and two trade and make more money and one hides it in the ground for fear of losing the master’s money), and ending with the parable of the sheep and the goats— which contains Jesus’ very famous line: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

All three have a stark element of judgement at the end. They all have the common thread of someone returning— a bridegroom, a master, the Son of Man—and those who are present being either included or excluded. But what is the basis for being included or excluded? And what is the inclusion and exclusion these parables point to?

Let’s begin with bridesmaids. Bridesmaids have a much different cultural expectation in this text than in our current context. Their job was very different than bridesmaids today. They were to welcome and celebrate the bridegroom. This would usually happen in a grand procession during the day. The lamps were to light the way home at the end of festivities. The wise bridesmaids were extremely weird to pack extra oil. They were prepared for the groom to show up at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way. The bridesmaids who Jesus calls foolish expected things to go the way they had planned—for the groom to show up when and where he was expected. And when he didn’t, they went off to try to refill their lamps (which I don’t know where in this time what market you’d get oil at midnight) rather than continuing their primary job of waiting to welcome and celebrate with the bridegroom.

Oil also has a bit of linguistic nod that we don’t get in English. Oil was used for lamps and for what were known as acts of mercy, like anointing the sick. The words oil and mercy are similar in Greek— Elaion and Eleos— and could be interchanged as a play on words. Even further, olive trees also have a striking similar name because the trees were named after God’s mercy for the way that they provided oil so generously.

What might be happening here with the bridesmaids and the oil?

The wise bridesmaids are wise in two ways— they are prepared with an abundance oil and they stay focused on their primary task. The foolish bridesmaids are foolish both in expecting things to go as they had planned and leaving the primary task to scramble to find oil. This parable is about Jesus, positioned in this Gospel mere days before his death. If there was anywhere unexpected for Jesus, the bridegroom, to show up, it is on the cross. Yet, the Kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says, will be like this. If there ever were foolish bridesmaids, who run off when they were not prepared for things to go array, it is Jesus’ closest followers. If ever there were wise bridesmaids, who brought their oil, who waited in hope, who were not bent by the words of the foolish, it was the women at the cross, at the tomb, and on Sunday morning of the resurrection.

Yes, Jesus was looking toward his own death and resurrection, but we can go further still. How might we, too, not be excluded, not miss these appearances of Christ and the celebration of new life in places that are dark, when it is late, when we are tired of waiting? What ought we be primarily concerned about? Perhaps it is by cultivating abundant mercy and hope within us—carrying plenty of oil and waiting for the bridegroom. Next week the lectionary takes us to the final parable of Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats, which lays out that Jesus is among the sick, the imprisoned, the stranger, the vulnerable. We are to keep awake and not miss Christ in our midst. 

The men disciples missed Christ in his death and in his resurrection. The women had the privilege of being let into those holy moments and bearing witness. That’s judgement, inclusion and exclusion. We are invited to be like the wise: bearing an abundance of mercy and awake to the presence of Jesus in unexpected places. Yet, when we are foolish, may we do as the men disciples will later do, accept forgiveness and continue the journey to wisdom.