November 23, 2014
One of the best things about reading or hearing a Scripture lesson is that you can usually find your own story somewhere in the Bible story. The characters throughout the Bible are nothing if not human…filled with strengths and weaknesses and quirks and qualities worth admiring. And the most memorable Bible characters cause us to hold a mirror up to ourselves, reminding us of who we are, who we strive to be, or who we’d rather not emulate.
In this morning’s tale of the ten bridesmaids, I think there’s a little something for everyone to see. When I read the parable, for instance, I can relate to each of the players. For better and for worse, they all remind me of me.
Most of the time, I read Matthew’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and identify with the five wise ones. I like to think I’m a person who has enough good stuff in my lamp to keep it lit…whether that good stuff is good works or good faith. I want to believe that my life has enough light in it that I will find a way to persevere, even in a world filled with evil and sin and darkness.
All that changes, however, if I read this morning’s story in the midst of personal doubt and anxiety. If you are going through a struggle in your life, a period when you are feeling vulnerable or fragile, a time when you’re not really sure you are measuring up and you can’t figure out how you are going to make it through the challenging days to the other side. If you are in one of those unclear, uncertain times in your life, it’s easy to identify with the five foolish bridesmaids. Daily you watch your hope and your inner strength and your confidence wane as the lamp of your life slowly fades in a wisp of smoke. Meanwhile, you look around enviously at those whose lamplights burn bright, wishing you had your own reserve of oil to draw from.
When life is going well, most of the time I see myself as a wise bridesmaid. Every so often when life is rocky, I see myself as a foolish bridesmaid. But this past week, I decided to examine this parable more closely. And when I did, the story struck me anew with questions and insights I hadn’t before considered.
For example, the parable makes it clear that the bridegroom was late for the wedding. The bridal party was right on time while the bridegroom was delayed. Presumably, if the bridegroom had been on time, all ten of the bridesmaids would have had enough oil in their lamps to keep them lit. But when the bridegroom was held up for whatever reason, five of the bridesmaids began to worry whether their lamps would blow out.
After asking the five wise bridesmaids to share their oil, which we’ll come back to in a minute, the five foolish bridesmaids go off on a mission to buy more oil for their own lamps. Which begs for me an intriguing question. Why didn’t the five foolish bridesmaids simply stay put right where they were?
What is the worst thing that could have happened? Let’s assume their lamps actually burned through the remaining oil and eventually burned out. Then the five foolish bridesmaids would have stood there waiting in the dark. Which hardly seems like the worst outcome.
Could it be that the five foolish bridesmaids left to look for oil when they should have stayed and waited? Whenever the bridal couple showed up, is it not safe to assume they would have been overjoyed to see all ten of the bridesmaids, whether they had lamps lit or not? Is it not safe to conclude that all ten bridesmaids would have been welcomed with open arms by a bridal couple simply happy to see them and share in the post wedding festivities with them?
When the bridegroom arrives, no matter how fragile our light may be and no matter how dark the night may appear, we will all be swept up in the bridegroom’s light. In fact, the light of the bridegroom will be so bright that it will illuminate any darkness with an invitation to come and join the celebration regardless of how much oil we have in our lamps.
But while we’re on this subject, let’s weigh the five wise bridesmaids for a moment. What are we supposed to say about the five bridesmaids who can’t find a way to spare even a few drops of their own oil with their fellow bridesmaids? Why is it that five bridesmaids chose to prioritize their own needs over the needs of the five others?
In the end, is this parable actually exalting selfish behavior? We can’t share our oil with you because we’re not sure, we’re not convinced, we don’t quite trust that we’re going to have enough oil for ourselves. Makes me wonder since when do you get points in the Gospel for playing it safe at the expense of the people around you?
If you think about it, both the five, so called, wise bridesmaids and the five, so called, foolish bridesmaids suffer from the same dilemma. They are both afraid and they both operate out of the premise of scarcity. One group clutches their oil tightly fearing they will run out. And the other group goes out searching for oil, fearing they will rejected if they don’t have any. As a result, neither group trusts the bridegroom who will likely embrace them whether they have oil in their lamps or not…whether they have enough light or no light at all.
Rebuked by the five wise bridesmaids, the five foolish bridesmaids set out on a wild goose chase in the middle of the night searching for oil. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why that’s a bad thing. They haven’t really done anything wrong. They simply wanted to please the bridegroom so much that they went to amazing lengths to scrounge up oil long after most people would have been fast asleep. And yet by the time the five foolish bridesmaids return, they are shut out of the wedding reception. Left in the cold. Banging on a closed door which the five wise bridesmaids and the bridegroom refuse to open.
In fact, the bridegroom himself in the parable actually drives the five foolish bridesmaids away…leaving his actions subject to deeper scrutiny. If the bridegroom in the parable is actually Jesus Christ, as most traditional interpretations would indicate, how can we condone a Christ-like figure who acts with such callous disregard for those in his wedding party?
How can the bridegroom be Jesus Christ when we know Jesus Christ went out of his way to look for the one lost sheep while he left the other ninety-nine behind? How can the bridegroom be Jesus Christ when we know Jesus Christ went out of his way to turn over every piece of furniture in the house searching for the lost coin?
The answer, I think, is that the bridegroom is probably not Jesus Christ. The bridegroom in the story falls just as short as any other character. For he was the one who barred the doors for the foolish bridesmaids when God would have demanded through Jesus Christ that the doors be wide open to welcome anyone who wanted to be included in God’s celebratory feast.
According to Jesus Christ, those who hold on too tightly to what they have, hoarding their treasures and refusing to share with those around them, enjoy their reward here on earth. But that reward is only temporary. The five wise bridesmaids in today’s story enjoy the wedding feast as long as it lasts, because they are the ones inside the doors.
But when the time comes for God’s kingdom, the ones who are left outside the doors are the ones who will receive their just rewards. The ones who don’t have enough oil in their lamps. The ones who are poor and imprisoned. The ones who are thirsty and hungry. The ones who are naked and sick and lonely. The ones considered the least among us, sisters and brothers alike…
So where does that leave you in this morning’s parable? Now that you have looked and listened more closely to the story, which characters remind you of you?
If you are like me, chances are good you have been each of the types in today’s Scripture lesson. You’ve been one of the foolish bridesmaids who’ve seen your oil run out and longed for more. You have been one of the wise bridesmaids who’ve refused to share what you have for fear of losing out. And you’ve been the bridegroom refusing to let people in and welcome them with open arms.
The parables Jesus told in the Gospel are all invitations to find ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t just leave us there. Once we find ourselves in the parables, Jesus offers us a chance for a makeover…an opportunity to find ourselves once more.
So if you ever find yourself feeling like a foolish bridesmaid in this parable, wait patiently in the darkness and don’t run away. Darkness can be a holy place where God comes and finds you.
And if you ever find yourself feeling like a wise bridesmaid, remember to share what you have even if it scares you that you won’t wind up with enough for yourself. Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting community and compassionate generosity. When you give of yourself, you create a sacred place where God comes and finds you.
And if you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open the doors wide. Don’t let judgment and condemnation and hurt feelings insulate you from others. Welcome those who walk in darkness and welcome those who have made mistakes and God will come and find you as well. Amen.