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The story of the 10 bridesmaids is weird and kind of upsetting. It’s the 1st of 3 final kingdom of heaven parable teachings that Jesus gives the disciples before his death. It’s gonna end with a banger but it starts here.
Jewish New Testament scholar Dr. Amy Jill Levine gave “advice about preaching parables, but I think it’s useful for all who study. 1) Jewish parables (which would include Jesus’) are very rarely about God, they are about people, so don’t over spiritualize; and 2) often, there is no “meaning” or “point.” The parable is supposed to make you ask questions, to notice your reaction to it, and to drive a conversation with those in your reading community. It is the starting line toward revelation, not the revelation itself.”
AJ Levine would advise against looking for the moral in the parable the one piece that we can pull out and make it simple and clear what the meaning purpose and moral is of a parable for our lives. Instead, we are to look for the truth of what it is to be human and to live on this Earth in these bodies. The truth of what it is to be made in the image of God and how we learn to be in community together–to live in the kingdom of God. And sometimes truth is as complicated as humanity, but morals of stories don’t set us free, truth does.
Now I can be a planner. This is probably because I am a catastrophizer- I see all of the problems in the worst-case scenarios and I want to make a plan to make sure those don’t happen sometimes mean I’m pointing things out and people are like why can’t you just see the good and I’m like but there’s a thing that we’ve got a deal with 1st. It’s not my best characteristic.
But when you’re working in a youth ministry it’s nice to have extra things. I’m also a people-pleaser, so I like to be prepared. Even now I have been known to carry a giant purse. Do you need a pen, markers, chapstick, lotion, hand sanitizer, I got you. Do you need a snack, a cell phone charger? I prided myself on my Girl Scout “be prepared”-ness. I have often been mocked for my giant purse but they laugh less when they need a bandaid or a safety pin.
Early on when I was dating Kelly and I carried my giant purse filled with all the things anyone could need, she asked for floss. I didn’t have floss. I was missing that one thing I needed at that moment.
When I was much younger, I prided myself on my spiritual readiness, my scripture knowledge, on my certainty that I was right, on my ability to interpret the moral answer to a parable, on how good I could be, or how long I would pray.
But there is always someone who prays longer or better, or seems to get more or better blessings.
And then there was a time when I had nothing left. These were times when I had no answers to life’s hard questions, no answers to prayer, no prayers to give, no certainty. It was a time when I was full of doubt. It wasn’t the last. These were times when I ran out of oil.
There have been times when I have been the bridesmaid who is so prepared, who is so certain, the Bridesmaid with extra oil; and there have been times I have been the bridesmaid whose light is growing dim in the darkness of midnight.
The thing about these bridesmaids, is that we’re told 5 were wise and 5 were foolish but we’re never really told what made the foolish ones foolish. I know what you’re going to say, it was about not bringing extra oil but it doesn’t really seem to say that in the text, it’s not quite that clear.
And we’re never really told why the wise ones were wise. And we assume it’s because they brought extra oil and they were prepared. But they respond in this time of need with a sense of fear and scarcity they might not have enough just in case, so there is not enough to share.
They deny the 5 help. And send them away to go knocking on the doors in the darkness. It doesn’t take us long to come up with a plan for these 10 bridesmaids that doesn’t involve leaving and waking the town. They could have buddy system-ed into the feast, walking arm in arm. They could have waited for the groom to arrive. He was seen from a distance, so he must have had a light of his own. They could have waited for his light. But the full 5 with extra’s best idea was to send them away.
And this parable is told by Jesus who had said “Give to anyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:24
Even so, we are invited to call those who withhold wise. We do that today. We valorize those who have more than enough. We put them on the cover of our magazines and celebrate that they were to acquire more by withholding from those in need. Our social media is filled with influencers who seem to have it all figured out and they’re living a picture-perfect life where they are not out in the middle of the night looking for diapers or dinner or oil, those who say to us in explicit or subtle ways tell us that we are not enough.
Maybe that is what made the 5 foolish, that they listen to the lies that they needed more or better than who they were. Maybe that’s why they were foolish because they didn’t trust that the groom and the bride would welcome their friends regardless of their fading lamps. Maybe that is why they were foolish because they left. Maybe they were foolish because they did not see the blessing in the darkness and were moved by fear and scarcity instead of faith and love and abundance.
They weren’t the first to listen to the lies and then feel shame about who they were, That privilege is given to Eve and to Adam. And carries through generations to us too.
It will come to be said by the early follower Paul: “if you think that you are wise in this age you should become fools so that you may become wise for the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” 1 Corinthians 3:18, 19 What if no one is wise here at least not by the standards of the kingdom of God.
Because the 5 with extra oil held onto it and were responsible for sending the other 5 into the night with the hellish experience of having to knock on people’s doors at midnight asking for oil. They told them to go elsewhere, to be more or different than they were, leaving them scrambling in the darkness, them missing the moments. The ones with extra oil were to be their sister’s keeper and out of fear or arrogance they were not. They missed the opportunity to be beloved community together, to see God in the community that shows love.
What would have happened if they had stayed? What if they had waited in the honest of the darkness, spent a few moments in that uncomfortable place, and waited on the groom, who let’s say is Jesus, and would meet them where they were, with more than enough light, and more than enough grace, and more than enough welcome to embrace them as they were? In their struggle and pain and brokenness, they ran until they could do it “correctly,” “perfectly,” when they just needed to be there, to be honest about their fading light, to light the light of the one who would meet them shine for them. They just needed to stay.
Our stories reveal a God who met people in the wilderness, in the darkness, on the road between who they were and who they were becoming. Jacob fleeing his past and being given a new name. Moses who had made himself small though is his call was world-changing. Nicodemus, under cover of darkness, given words of new life.
And what if, when the bridesmaids knocked on the door after they had gone away, they had tried so hard to hide their true selves, to be someone else, that they were no longer recognizable? What if the voice that they heard is not anger but sorrow: “I don’t even know who you are anymore.”
A parable is just a story that tells us a little about the world that is and is to come. It is about people, about us, and it is meant to invoke something in us. It is to tell us something about how we see each other and ourselves and our communities. We are invited to find ourselves in the stories, and haven’t we all be been each of these characters at different points in our lives maybe even different points, sometimes in the same day.
Haven’t we been those with lights flickering low, oil running out, full of doubt, or brokenness, or shame, or fear? Haven’t we all thought a lot of ourselves in how well we’ve done, judged others for not using their bootstraps correctly, and held on tight in scarcity? Haven’t we been the groom, refusing to make space for others?
And maybe, in the end, that’s what this parable does. Maybe that’s what all good short stories do.
They allow us to find ourselves, warts and all. They leave us to ask questions and reshape the world around us.
“So, if you find yourself feeling like the foolish bridesmaids, remember you are enough, to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It is a holy place and God will meet you there.
So 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 community. The chance to give of yourself is a holy place and God will meet you there.
So if you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open wide the door to the banquet feast. Welcoming those who have made mistakes and who walk in darkness is a holy place. God will meet you there.” David Roberts