This past Sunday one of the lectionary passages was the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids. It’s a troubling passage, that people often boil down to be attentive and be prepared. However, if you read the passage more closely, there are a few things that make a modern day reader uncomfortable. Let’s take a look at the parable and re-familiarize ourselves. I also highly recommend looking at the two following parables in Matthew 25. I am going to be covering a lot of ground in a relatively short post, so stick with me.
The 10 Bridesmaids
“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.
One of the first things to pay attention to in this parable is that it is a “kingdom of heaven” parable. There are many parables where Jesus talks about what the kingdom of heaven is like. And this is one of many. Knowing that this is a kindgom of heaven parable gives us a context for the story. Always, always pay attention to context. What comes before the passage? What comes after? Just because it is a parable, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a larger context. And we mis-interpret a passage when don’t look at the context. The second thing to notice in this parable is that there are two types of bridemaids. There are the wise and the unwise. Many times in Jesus’s parables there are two groups. The wise and unwise. The sheep and the goats. And so on… In this parable the wise are prepared and have extra oil to spare upon the bridegroom’s arrival. While the unwise bridesmaids are close to running out. While the typical interpretation is that we need to be prepared and patient, for the bridegroom can arrive at any time, I would like to posit a different interpretation to this often read and often confusing parable.
Many times Jesus’s parables are not what they seem. And his parables often answered a question, got the listener to think in new ways, and pushed people to look at something in a new way through story. When reading a parable, it is always important to read the parables in context. The Parable of the 10 Bridemaids is in the context of a larger story being told in Matthew 25. Jesus doesn’t not tell one parable here, but three in succession that all seem to tie together. After the Parable of the 10 Bridemaids, Jesus then launches into the telling of the Parable of the Talents, and ends with the telling of separation of the the sheep and the goats. Each of these stories have a common theme woven through them: the economy of the the kingdom of God. There are the haves and the have-nots. There are those who have been given much. And those who have been given little. And the question in all three of these stories is how do we handle this in the kindgom of God. How are we to use our resources? What is the economy of God’s kingdom?
One of the troubling portions of this parable is the focus on having enough oil for the lamp. The bridesmaids seem much more focused on oil for their lamp, rather than the arrival of the bridegroom. This attention seems misplaced. And instead of waiting for the bridegroom, the bridemaids concerned themselves with more futile things, such as having enough oil for their lamp. This lead the 5 “foolish” bridemaids to leave their post to get more oil and miss the arrival of the bridegroom. Could it be that even if they had run out of oil, the bridegroom would have welcomed them in. The oil for the lamps in the parable seems to be a distraction. And leads me to think about what are the things that distract us from what is important? Do we get focused on the minutiae of our lives and miss what God is doing?
Another troubling portion in this parable is that the 5 wise bridemaids had oil leftover. Though we often praise these bridemaids for being prepared. From my perspective, these 5 “wise” bridemaids are complicit in the door being shut on the 5 “unwise” bridemaids. Instead of sharing what they have, they tell the other bridemaids to get their own oil. From the many parables I have read, this isn’t in line with how Jesus taught us to live. And I find it interesting that though these 5 bridemaids are called “wise,” it is followed with the story of the talents, when each man was given talents, from 1 to 2 to 5. And it was the one who hoarded their one talent that is judged harshly.
So the question remains, why are some in and some out of the kingdom of heaven? Are the 5 unwise bridesmaids out because they ran out of oil? Are they out because the other bridemaids didn’t share? Do we get into the kindgom of heaven by just being prepared ourselves, or is their a higher call in the economy of the kingdom of God. In the second parable, the one who multiplied their 5 talents is rewarded. And the one with the single talent who buried it is punished. And the story ends with these words: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” These words are troubling when I read them, which leads me to believe that there is more to the story.
In the final story, Jesus tells us of the sheep and the goats and leaves us with these words from Matthew 25:44-46: “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In the economy of God it is not ultimately who has the most that enters the kindgom of heaven. It is those who have been given much and share what they have with others. And read in the context of the sheep and the goats, the parables of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Talents have more to say than what originally meets the eye.