A common caricature of Christianity is that it is a religion of judgement. It is said to have a God who tells people off; a God who praises the good and punishes the bad. And some people like that sort of God, and that sort of religion.
But I don’t. Indeed I think the purpose of religion is mercy - learning to be merciful, and showing mercy. When the scripture says, ‘Judge not less ye be judged’, its inferring that mercy is cultivated when we look at the sufferings and weakness of others and see something of ourselves in them.
So when we meet a victim or a perpetuator of crime our religion encourages us to see something of ourselves in them, and be merciful. When we look at the plight of those on Manus Island, and other detention centres and refugee camps, our faith encourages us to something of ourselves in them, and be merciful.
And I believe when we are merciful, God meets us in that moment.
There are some Bible stories that on first reading – and sometimes second and third readings – I find difficult. I want to skip past them, and pretend they aren’t really there. And today’s parable from Matthew 25:1-13 is one of them.
On first reading its lesson reminds me of the Boy Scout’s motto: “Be prepared!” The foolish bridesmaids weren’t prepared enough, and the wise were. So the foolish missed the coming of the bridegroom and then were shut out from the party.
But the lesson is more potent, and far-reaching, than just ‘Be prepared’. For the story-teller seems to have the bridegroom representing the second coming of the physical Jesus to earth, and it is this Jesus who then forever shuts out the so-labelled ‘foolish’ young women.[i]
This story is part of the ‘end-of-time-fix-up’ discourse in Matthew 24 and 25. It wasn’t a story told by the historical Jesus. Rather it was a story constructed sometime after the war and destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Its purpose was to encourage the faithful in the Christ communities who had been suffering and waiting for God to vindicate them; and to tell off those Christ followers who hadn’t been so faithful – indeed to tell them they would be shut out of God’s future and hope!
It’s about an end-of-time-judgemen-Jesus that Christians like me simply don’t believe in. For it’s a story that seems to be about winners and losers, and a Jesus/God who shuts the door on losers. As our hecklers this morning reminded us, there are other scriptures in the New and Old testaments that contradict this scenario.
There is however another way to approach and read into this parable that I’d like to introduce to you; and that is to see ourselves in the actions and attitudes of the characters: the wise, the foolish, and the bridegroom.[ii]
The cultural context needs some explaining: In traditional village life in the Middle East weddings took place by the groom and several close friends going to the house of the bride, which could be across the other side of the village or even in a neighbouring one. When the bride was ready she would be placed on the back of a riding animal, and the groom, with his friends would form a disorganized, exuberant parade as the groom brought the bride back to his family home. It’s at the groom’s home that the wedding banquet would take place.
Note that several of the ancient Greek, Latin, and Syriac texts of this parable specially mention the groom and the bride. The bride might have been later edited out by copyists influenced by the idea that ‘the church is the bride of Christ’.
At the groom’s house the bridesmaids as well as others in the village would wait in the street for the arrival of the meandering wedding party. Our parable takes place at night, and therefore those waiting, like the 10 young bridesmaids would have lamps.
Let’s notice some things about the groom’s arrival: He’s late! Badly late! It would not be surprising if the bride, or her family, delayed the groom’s departure from the bride’s house [not that apportioning blame would do much good]. Having stood at many church doors many times awaiting the arrival of many brides and their entourages, I note the cross-cultural similarities here. That said, to start a wedding banquet at midnight is pushing it, in any culture! I would also not be surprised if the groom’s patience was also being tested.
The story-teller – somewhat humorously I think – has those awaiting the groom and bride at the groom’s house all fall asleep. The story-teller also thinks its jolly late to start a party!
Then, let’s notice some things about the so-labelled ‘foolish’ bridesmaids. First, they came with lamps, and with enough oil to stay outside until a reasonable hour. Like everyone else, as the hours ticked on, they fell asleep, and their lamps ran out of oil. They had not brought extra oil.
There are some people who are good at seeing possible adverse situations, and prepare for them. Often it is due to experience. When I go tramping, for example, I pack a number of things that will help me or others if someone has an accident, or runs out of bandaids or food or whatever. My experience over 50 years of tramping helps. To run out of something is no great crime – we’ve all done it at some stage! The important thing is to learn from it and try to do better next time. Being unprepared, ‘foolish’, is part of who we are as humans, and part of why we need each other.
Which leads me on to notice the so-called ‘wise’ young women: They are good Girl Guides. Well trained. Prepared for whatever contingencies may arise. However, they missed one important lesson from their Guide training: ‘You are part of a patrol, you are not alone, you look out for one another and look out for others in need.’
These five so-labelled ‘wise’ bridesmaids chose their needs over the needs of others. They cannot share because they might not have enough for themselves. They’re not sure, but just to be safe, they’re not sharing what they have.
There is nowhere else in the Bible, that I can think of, where we have afforded such selfish behaviour such an exalted place. The text praises the ‘wise’ ones, the haves who refuse to share with the have-nots. The text praises the ‘wise’ ones who are responsible for the cold hell the foolish must endure.
Yet, before we condemn too harshly this five who would not share, let’s pause... Let’s pause and remember that like with the five ‘foolish’ bridesmaids, the five ‘wise’ bridesmaids also remind us somewhat of ourselves. For most of us there have been times when we have feared that we would not have enough; times when we have feared losing what we have; times when we have been afraid to share. There have been times when we wished others would be more like us – prepared, and not reliant on us to help them! And there have been times when we think the ill-prepared, the ill-equipped, should just accept their fate and miss out. So, let us look at these young women and see a part of ourselves in them.
Let us also notice the ‘wise’ and the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids operate on the same premise of scarcity and fear. Neither trusts the love the groom and the bride have for their bridesmaids. Neither trusts that the groom will open the door of the banquet to them regardless of whether they ‘walk in light’ or ‘walk in darkness’. [And the bridegroom later confirms their fears!]
So the wise break up the reception party and send the foolish away to beg and bang on doors of friends, relatives, and shopkeepers in search for oil. Borrowing off neighbours is normal in a village community and so it’s not long before they return to the groom’s house. But by the time they get back, the door is shut. They are left out in the cold and dark of night. When they bang on the door, the groom says, “I do not know you.” Which is worse than saying, ‘Get lost!’
Maybe the groom thought them to be irresponsible friends who couldn’t wait up with him just a few more hours. Perhaps he thought they had simply given up and gone home during the long delay. But nothing could have been further from the truth. They have done nothing wrong. They have committed no great sin. Indeed they wanted to please the groom so much they have gone to amazing lengths to scrounge up oil while the rest of the town slept and the wedding party feasted.
So, what are we to do with this bridegroom, this apparent Christ-figure who acts so uncharitably, who tells the industrious foolish bridesmaids to go away? Is this the same Jesus, the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the lost one,[iii] the woman who leaves no stone unturned in search of a lost coin?[iv] In a word: No. We need to measure this parable’s Christ-figure against the Jesus revealed in other canonical sources. And this groom is found wanting. He is not the Jesus of radical inclusivity and compassion.
But again, before we condemn this groom, let us pause and see ourselves reflected in him. This was to be his day, his wedding day, the day when he would proudly bring his new wife into his family home. So, cleaned up and dressed up, with his boys in tow, he turns up to collect this bride from her parents’ home. And he has to wait. And wait. And wait. Though no one told him beforehand, it’s one of the key lessons of marriage: learning to wait. It might have been the bride, it might have been her parents or relatives, or it might have been the dress – who knows? But he had to wait.
Sometime before midnight they set off. And you can imagine him thinking of all those guests at his family home, thinking of those responsible for the catering [and the food is cold, cold, cold], and thinking of his parents trying to figure out what the delay means: has the bride got second thoughts, has an accident happened on the road...
Finally he arrives. Now everything will be perfect. But, what is this, five of the bridesmaids have disappeared! He’s had enough. He wants to shut the door on delays. He wants to draw a line that can’t be crossed. When the five finally arrive he rudely won’t let them in. What he really wants is control back over this important day and over the remaining days of his life. And what he’s learning is another key lesson of marriage: control is not what it used to be.
So let’s pause and remember the times when we’ve had to wait, and grown frustrated, and then maybe done things – like shut doors – that in hindsight we haven’t been particularly proud of. Let’s remember the times when maybe we have refused to let people in because they have annoyed us.
You see, I don’t think this parable is in the New Testament in order to tell us to get ready for the Second Coming, whether that is in this life or any afterlife. Nor is it in the New Testament to tell us that God condemns those who are caught short, praises those who don’t share, and shuts the door in bridesmaids’ faces. Rather I think it’s in the New Testament, like any good short story, to allow us to find ourselves, scars and all.
So, if you find yourself feeling like the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids, remember to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. You aren’t condemned. It is a holy place darkness and God will meet you there.
If you find yourself feeling like the ‘wise’ bridesmaids, remember to share what you have, even if it scares you. Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting and beloved camaraderie. The chance to give of yourself is a holy place and God will meet you there.
And if you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open wide the door to the banquet feast. Don’t let hurt feelings, anxieties, and fears insulate you from others. Welcoming those who have made mistakes and who walk in darkness is a holy place. God will meet you there.
In the end this is not a story about judgement. It’s a story about being merciful, being merciful to others because we know ourselves to be also in need of mercy.
[i] Though as Kenneth E Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes [p.273] sagely notes, a ‘no’ – as in: ‘no, you can’t enter’ - in Middle Eastern culture is never an answer, but rather a pause in the negotiations.
[ii] I’m grateful to the work of David R. Henson in The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable.
[iii] Luke 15:1-7
[iv] Luke 15:8-10