Based on Matthew 25:1-13 The Ten Bridesmaids
When I think about today’s parable, I am always a bit perplexed; confused, and uncertain what to make of it. I know that Jesus’ parables are meant to make us think and rethink but this one seems so out of context with our present life and culture that I find it even more challenging than normal. To begin, we do not have bridesmaids waiting to escort a bridegroom into his wedding banquet! Nor do we use oil lamps anymore. The details of this story trip us up as we read it because they seem foreign to us. And the common explanations of it don’t do much to aid our understanding.
First there is the interpretation that if you don’t over prepare for the bridegroom, anticipating his tardiness, then you fail! That interpretation is not helpful to those of us who aren’t the best organizers and planners, nor does it seem to fit in with our image of a gracious and loving God. And why should those who leave to get more oil be completely shut out of the kingdom? Wasn’t it the bridegroom himself who was late and therefore caused them to run out of oil?
Another interpretation casts the bridesmaids with the extra oil as being selfish hoarders who lack compassion because they refuse to share their oil. Some interpreters try to justify the wise bridesmaids’ actions by arguing that the foolish bridesmaids are simply lazy. They ask why should the wise ones help such sluggards? Afterall they worked hard to be ready, why shouldn’t everyone be like them? But what does this say about the ones who struggle and work hard to gather just enough oil, assuming the groom is on time? And didn’t all the bridesmaids fall asleep while waiting on the bridegroom? Are the two groups of women really that different?
Neither of these common, easy interpretations sit well with me. I suspect some of you may find them uncomfortable as well. Both paint a picture of exclusion and division. That doesn’t sound like the gospel. So how should we approach this parable? Can we find any good news in it? Or is it simply a warning that if we fail to do enough or be prepared enough, the Lord will turn us away upon his return? Is this a story of acceptance based on proper works?
There is of course, both conviction and grace in this parable, but we must sift through the details to find the hope and promise within it.
One thing that stands out clearly to me is that those interpretations I mentioned are based on human judgment. We hear this story and immediately we begin to separate the characters into camps; one good and wise, the other bad and foolish. And once we have set up these camps, we place ourselves and each other into them. We tend to identify with one group or the other and in so doing we either commend or condemn ourselves. In light of these judgements we deem people either worthy of salvation and acceptance or not.
But here’s the thing, in this parable the only judge is the bridegroom. While he accepts some, he also rejects others. But there is no clear explanation why the bridegroom says he doesn’t know the latecomers when they call to him. The judgment is his alone. For our part, the only clear difference between the two groups is that one left to get more oil instead of staying and facing the bridegroom with dim lanterns.
So rather than entering into judgment on these women, let’s think about the consequences and reasoning behind their actions. Obviously leaving led to some bridesmaids missing the groom’s arrival. Clearly not what they intended. So why did they leave? Was it because they feared not being enough, prepared enough, resourceful enough, or wealthy enough to bring some extra oil (just in case!)? And what about the bridesmaids who refused to share their extra oil? What was their motivation? They feared their abundance wasn’t enough for them and others. They saw their supply as limited, so they sent the other women away to fend for themselves. Both groups of bridesmaids are concerned with having enough, with being ready when the bridegroom arrives. Their focus is on what they have or do not have rather than on what the groom brings with him. And it leads to their fear driving their actions. But what if instead of fear, it was trust and that guided them? What if the oil in this parable is in fact a metaphor for faith? That no matter how great or how small your faith, it is enough.
I am reminded of the story from 1 Kings about Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath. In it there is a drought in the land, the brook has dried up and so the Lord sends the prophet Elijah to Zarephath to a widow. The Lord promises that this widow will provide for Elijah and so the prophet goes. But once there the widow tells him she has only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. And that she is even then planning to make a meal for herself and her son, that they may eat it—and die. The widow is operating from a place of scarcity. She sees only what is lacking. And it drives her to despair. But the prophet tells her that the Lord will provide, that the flour and oil will not run out until the rains return.
Now the widow could have laughed and rejected this promise but instead she trusts in it. She allows her faith, what little is left, to direct her actions. She prepares food for herself, her son and the prophet and continues to do so every day just as the Lord promised., until the rains returned.
When I place this story against our parable this morning, I am reminded that we all come to Jesus with as much or as little as we have. No matter how hard we try to prepare, in the end we can never be certain that our efforts will be enough. Instead we need to learn to trust, to be patient, and to use whatever amount of faith/oil we have and let the Lord be our security. Too often we see the word as if there are limited resources. Like a pie that once it is cut up, it is gone. So, grab the biggest slice you can now and don’t share it. But the truth is, there is always another pie in the refrigerator ready to be shared. The kingdom of heaven is full of abundance and grace. The bridesmaids who left to get more oil didn’t place their trust in the one who was arriving. If they had then they would have seen him, even if it were dimly. That is why when they return, the Lord says I don’t know you-because these bridesmaids didn’t know the one who provides. I suspect that had they stayed the course and remined by the side of the other bridesmaids, they could have shared the light from their lamps and all 10 of the women would have entered into the wedding feast. Or perhaps like the widow’s oil, their oil lamps would have kept burning and they might have witnessed a miracle.
How often do we act like these women and see only the limits that this world sets up? How often do we allow ourselves to become so concerned with how much “oil” we have or don’t have that we miss the arrival of the bridegroom? We turn inward, looking at our weakness and limits rather than looking outward to the bridegroom’s arrival.
As we grow closer to the end of the church year, we will hear more and more texts about Christ’s return. We long for his arrival yet like the bridesmaids we can grow weary and tired and fall asleep while we wait. This parable is a reminder that even when we fail to be fully prepared or we fall asleep, Jesus still arrives. However, it is always on his timetable, not ours.
Thank God his arrival is not dependent on us or our abilities (or lack thereof). Instead our hope and our future are in Christ himself. For the bridegroom WILL return and will call us to him. We need only wait and do our best to keep our lights shining so that we will recognize him when he comes, and he will know us by our faith.