From Matthew 25.1-13, Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
The kingdom of heaven is likened by Matthew to the most celebratory of events: a wedding banquet. In this parable, the groom is returning home with his bride, who is not mentioned.
It is the job of the bridesmaids to await and greet them, to be ready whenever the wedding party arrives. They are an integral part of the festal procession.
The story continues: Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.
The point is perhaps obvious to us, but not so in Matthew’s time: Jesus’ return is taking much longer than expected and no one knows when he will return. But return he will.
The problem here is not about falling asleep – both the wise and the foolish slept. Perhaps as a precursor to Jesus’ experience in the garden with his disciples, this makes sense: Jesus was disappointed in his followers for their inability to remain awake with him through the night, but they were still his followers.
Jesus continues, But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’
Here, then, is a moment of decision for all the bridesmaids: the wise ones must choose whether to share; the foolish ones whether to stay or go in search of more oil.
When asked to share, the wise ones say no. We can judge their seeming callousness harshly. Are we not taught to share even to our hurt? So how is it ‘wise’ to say no?
Perhaps if we focus here on the plight of the fools, we miss the point. Maybe the point is the return of the groom with his bride. Maybe the story is not about us, but about God: what we do, we do not for our own sake nor our own glory nor even our own benefit, but rather for the glory, the welcome, of God.
Now the wise ones could have given their lamps to the fools as an act of merciful grace, but that would be a different parable with a different point.
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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
What or who is the door and who does the shutting? A traditional view is that the door is very gateway to heaven itself. Perhaps.
But a door has two sides and this door is as present to those on the outside as to those on the inside, as aware of the persistent knocking from outside as of the festivities on the inside.
The door is witness. And even if it is a portal, it is a portal from life to life.
Those on both sides of the door live, one side bereft, the other fulfilled.
Maybe it wasn’t about the oil choice, but rather about the leaving choice. Maybe the fault of the foolish bridesmaids was not so much in their lack of preparedness, but about their panicked decision to leave just when the groom came.
Telling this story, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, who had come to him in private to ask him when the day of reckoning would come and what would be the signs of his coming, of the end of the age.
Maybe being ready is about what we do in the meantime, not in terms of ourselves, but in terms of others: if I have no light within me, I cannot light your path.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a reminder that waiting is a drag, but oh my, what a party there will be – so maybe Jesus is reminding us that the drag of waiting has its own glorious end.
And that is something worth waiting for.