Matthew 25:1-13 | Psalm 78:1-7
Here’s a story that we all know well; and for once, a story that makes perfect sense. Wise and foolish bridesmaids; the wise, prepared for all eventualities; the foolish, not thinking ahead.
And as a result of their foolish failiure to prepare, they end up excluded, left out of the wedding banquet.
We even get told the punchline, the moral of the story in the final words of our reading: “keep awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour”. Sound advice, especially in a context where the early Church expected Jesus to return at any moment. Stay focussed. Stay active. Don’t slack off. Stay awake.
It all makes perfect sense… except where it doesn’t. Look again at that final admonition “stay awake”. But falling asleep wasn’t the mistake. Or rather, if it was, it was a mistake made by all ten of the bridesmaids. They all became drowsy, they all fell asleep. If “stay awake” was the point, then all ten of them failed the test.
So we’re told that the point of the story is that we should keep awake – and it’s worth noting that translators differ on whether the words at the end of the reading: ‘keep awake, therefore’ are Matthew quoting Jesus, or Matthew adding his own punchline to Jesus’ story – the Greek doesn’t distinguish, doesn’t tell us where the quotation finishes – but the story itself doesn’t seem to support that moral. Was the failing of the foolish bridesmaids falling asleep, or lack of preparation?
And once you start to pull the threads, the parable starts to come apart in other ways as well. Something else starts to nag at me as I reread it.
Those wise bridesmaids…
Hear the story again:
Ten young girls, waiting to play their role at the wedding of a friend. All of them fall apart, because the bridegroom is late. When they wake up, half of them, unprepared, suddenly realise that they need more oil for their lamps. But that’s ok, because the other half have come prepared, with flasks of oil for their lamps. Surely they can spare a little for their forgetful friends?
But no, their attitude is harsh – it’s your stupid fault you forgot the oil. Go and get yourself so more! We can’t possibly help you out. We aren’t willing to take the risk that our oil might run out.
Is this really the attitude, the behaviour, that Jesus is praising? This mean smugness on the part of the well prepared, at the expense of those now in need?
Is this really the image of the kingdom of God? That those who have made the right decisions, have been prepared (even though they too fell asleep), will refuse to lend a hand to help the foolish?
There is a worldly wisdom displayed here – a practical wisdom, making sure that you are ok, that you are able to play your part in the celebrations. But is it the wisdom of the Kingdom of God?
There is something disturbing here – praise being given to those who act wisely but selfishly, those who send away a friend in need, rather than sharing what they have, through their foresight, available.
And when something doesn’t seem to quite fit, when something about a parable jars with you, or disturbs you; I’m fairly sure that’s when the parable starts to work. When it pushes you to ask more questions, to set aside the obvious, and wonder about other readings. For I’m certain that this is a major part of the reason Jesus used parables, told stories, rather than simply providing us with rules: that there is always more than meets the eye.
And that got me thinking – what mistake did the foolish bridesmaids actually make? Of course, they were unprepared – the obvious point of the parable. And they compounded their error by falling asleep – Matthew’s punchline – for had they stayed awake, they may have realised their problem sooner, and fixed it in time.
But what about when they awoke, and realised that they were in trouble, and that the others would not help them?
I wonder if the biggest mistake they made was, at that point, to leave, to try to buy more oil.
On one level, of course, it was the thing to do. They had made a mistake in their lack of foresight, and compounded it by falling asleep; their friends refused to help them out, so they set out to solve the problem. They go to get more oil, to fix the mess they’ve made, to make things right.
And doing so, they missed out on the wedding banquet.
Suppose, instead, they had stayed – with their lamps dark – to greet the bridegroom. Would he have told them they were no longer welcome, simply because they had made a mistake? If this is a parable of the kingdom of God, surely not.
Or would the bridegroom have laughed at their foolishness, and told them to set the useless lamps aside and come in to join him at the feast?
So perhaps the foolishness of those five was not so much in their lack of preparation – for which of us has never been unprepared; nor their falling asleep – who amongst us is always alert, always ready, always living such that if Jesus came back we would be 100% happy about how went spent our last day, our last week.
Perhaps their final foolishness, the thing that really caused their grief, was a lack of trust in the generosity of the bridegroom. For they has this sense that if they were to go to the banquet, they needed to get everything right. They had made mistakes, so they had to fix them. They couldn’t possibly show up unprepared, with the evidence of their foolishness obvious for all to see.
To meet the bridegroom they felt they had to have it all together, all sorted, all under control. Anything they had done wrong, they needed to make right – before he came for them.
It’s an attitude I’m sure we all recognise in ourselves: where I have failed, I must fix, where I have been foolish, I must compensate. And it stems from a true and good root – the desire to take responsibility for our failures, and to take concrete steps to put them right.
But it becomes the greatest of all foolishness when we conclude that until we have fixed things up, we are not welcome at God’s table, in God’s kingdom, at God’s banquet.
We join together today at another banquet of the kingdom, the celebration of holy communion. And there is no need to have everything sorted, everything fixed. If your lamp is out of oil, don’t rush off. Stay, lamp or no lamp – for here, by the grace of God, all are welcome.