Today’s parable about the bridesmaids is one that isn’t particularly popular to preach on. It’s a sad story. It’s sad to miss out on something, whether it’s a party or it’s eternity with God. And we can relate in these pandemic times, we have missed a lot of good times, We’ve seen people lose heart and lose their health, and lost loved ones to alcohol, drugs, depression, disease, and death. What is the best way to be instructed today by this parable that Jesus is telling to his disciples near the end of his time on earth? What can we learn from this story from another time and another culture?
In Jesus’ first century culture, weddings had some rather distinct features. The groom and his family would gather at their household while the bride and her family and guests gathered at her household. then the groom and his family would make their way to the bride’s house to collect the bride. It would be late in the evening when the groom would arrive to escort the bride to his father’s house. Last minute haggling between the groom and his father-in-law over the dowry was commonplace. Such haggling symbolized the esteemed value of the bride, but many times delayed the wedding. When both parties agreed upon the dowry, the groom would lead the wedding party from the bride’s house back to his father’s house for the ceremony and reception.
The wedding party from the bride’s house would take the longest route to their new home. The more houses they visited, the more well-wishes and gifts they received. Along the way there would be much jovial visiting and vibrant hospitality food and drink. As a result, no one ever knew when the couple would show up at their home, where the final festivities occurred.
With that information perhaps we can understand why the ten young women were awaiting the arrival of the groom. Whenever the preliminaries were and the wedding party might be returning to the groom’s house quite late. For security reasons, once the doors were shut to the groom’s house, they would not be reopened. If the young women were not there, ready to go inside when the party of the groom arrived, they would miss the festivities.
Well, you know the rest of the story. Five of the young women planned ahead and five did not. Jesus called the latter group of women, “foolish.”
The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take enough oil with the. The wise ones brought extra. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
Then the young women woke up and began to trim their lamps the foolish ones said to the wise,”Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”
“No,” the prepared young women replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”
But while they were on their way to Walmart to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. (Nah, there was no Walmart and they couldn’t get oil at that time of night.) The young women who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet and the door was shut.
Later the other young women returned to the groom’s house. But the door was bolted.
Then Jesus adds these important worlds “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13). Jesus is talking to the disciples now. He’s saying, “Life is full of the unexpected.” Isn’t that true? As someone has said, “If you want to make God laugh, show God your calendar or your day planner.” There are some things in life you simply can’t anticipate.
So the five girls in the story who didn’t bring enough oil and got left out of the party and forever are remembered as the foolish ones. It’s not like they could go out to Walmart in the middle of the night. Let’s give them a break and look at the wise ones too, remembering that this is a parable, a teaching story, Jesus is not giving a news account. And let’s think about what the oil stands for in this story.
The wise ones in the story were called wise because they were prepared. But prepared for what? What was all that extra oil for and why did it take so long him to get there? I think the answer is that they truly did not know when the groom was going to get there, maybe the weather was bad, maybe his donkey was sick, or maybe he and his family had trouble getting all preparation completed and all the refreshments ready for a multi-day reception. Similarly, we do not know the future, now when our lives and our world will end and or when we will enter eternal life with Christ.
All the bridesmaids/virgins were prepared to wait for the bridegroom but the problem came when the waiting lasted longer than they expected.
Are you making the connection, that in this parable, the bridegroom represents Jesus and we are the bridesmaids? And the end times, the end of the our world is portrayed as a wedding banquet prepared by a father for a son. The purpose here is to encourage vigilant preparation for the return of our Lord Jesus, to be ready and not miss out, whether it is today or centuries in the future.
Biblical scholar William Barclays points out two universal warnings from the parable from Jesus to us, his imperfect disciples, the unprepared bridesmaids, and for us.
First, the parable warns us that there about two things that cannot be obtained at the last minute. It is far to late for a student to be preparing the day of the final exam. It is too late to acquire a skill or a character if we do not already possess it, when some task offers itself to us. Similarly, it is easy to leave doing things so late that we run out of time. We do not have unlimited time and we don’t know when it will run out. Do what’s important today, love, help, forgive, teach, be kind.
Secondly, the parable warns us that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed. The foolish virgins found it impossible to borrow oil when they discovered they needed it. We cannot borrow a relationship with God from somebody else; we must possess it for ourselves. We must be clothed with it. We cannot always be living on the spiritual capital which others have amassed. There are certain things we must obtain for ourselves , for we cannot borrow them from others. Some things take time, a lot of time, a lot of prayer, a lot of faith, hope, and love. (Barclay, William, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2, 2017, p.374).
I wonder. . .Have you had to do a lot of waiting lately? Two millennia later, staying ready at all times has not been an easy or successful task for humanity.
How can we wait wisely?. The wise were considered wise because they were prepared. All the bridesmaids/virgins were initially prepared to wait for the bridegroom but the problem came when the waiting lasted longer than they expected. They all thought they had things under control, but it turned out that some of them were unprepared.
What does wise waiting look like? How do we wait? As the wise bridesmaids of this parable, believers are called to maintain their lamps lit and live as children of the light in the midst of a dark world. For the wise virgins, it was a wedding, a joyous occasion. We read the their celebration included a nap, a wonderful insertion of self-care into their preparation for the big night. (One of my favorite ways to wait.). It was not an uptight situation for the wise bridesmaids, because they were patient and they were prepared.
But waiting is not always fun. There are tough times and moments of discouragement in our personal lives, in our work, or even at church. But as a church we don’t have to wait alone in the dark. We can care for the lamps of our witness. We may both weep with those who mourn and we rejoice with those who celebrate. We may offer our prayer of needs and concerns as we also praise God, giving thanks for all that is good. In life and death, we are still God’s children. Sometimes it takes tears to restore our visions and perhaps realize that Christ is waiting there for us even as we wait for him. As with the wise virgins, we are prepared to wait in hope and service whether Jesus comes to us or we go to him. It is a hope that will never disappoint us.
Are you prepared to wait with wisdom? Are you prepared for life? Are you prepared for death? Are you prepared for disappointment and heartbreaks and everything that goes with being human? You can be if you are willing to put yourself, those you love, and all you treasure into God’s hands. Your lamp will be filled to overflowing. And you will be prepared for whatever tomorrow may bring.
Theologian Nancy E. Bedford suggests that our communities discern together how to make imaginative and creative efforts, even if small, to follow God’s leading. This discernment and response can foster new hope and help transcend feelings of despair and defeat.
One theologian suggests maybe the oil represents hope, love, or faith, in the story. What do you think? The bridesmaids who brought the flasks of oil brought hope that hat though the bridegroom might be delayed, they had no doubt that he would still arrive. In the end, they were ready not only for the wedding, but for the wait.
Pleases pray with me that we may be is wise in our waiting for the healing and the coming of God’s reign in the world.