"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids: Matthew 25:1-13

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Today we’re going to take a look at this parable of the 10 bridesmaids from Matthew’s gospel. Our first stop is to take a quick look at the context of this portion of that gospel, to see where the parable appears in the sequence of Christ’s words (always the first step to assess meaning in a scriptural passage). If we begin in the closing of chapter 23 we hear Jesus condemning the scribes and Pharisees. The full weight of this departure sequence begins in chapter 24, with the warnings of the end times, “many false prophets will arise” and “alas for women with child in those days…for it will be a time of great distress”. After the end time warnings we reach today’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. This parable stands in a set of three right at the end of the teaching phase of Christ’s ministry, and right at the beginning of the dying and rising part of His ministry. The 10 Bridesmaids stands along with the good and lazy managers (recall the one buries his master’s coin) and the great judgement – the sorting of the sheep and the goats immediately prior to the passion narrative. This is the climax of Christ’s earthly teaching.

I want to emphasize one other point, and that is the clear division that Christ describes in this last few chapters. Many try to explain this away, but you cannot do it without rewriting the meaning of the text. The fate of those found to be unwise, or unfaithful is universally bad: the outer darkness of wailing and grinding teeth, exclusion from the wedding feast of the Father, a place of eternal punishment. This all culminates in the image of the sorting of the sheep and the goats, and either entry to the Kingdom, or eternal exclusion. These are blunt and frightening images, and they underscore the seriousness of what Christ is talking about. These are truly life and death situations.

There are a ton of misinterpretations of these parables as well, and as I’ve said many times, the ultimate goal of some preaching seems to be to remove the threat from Christ’s words. I find, as a general rule in reading God’s Word, that if each encounter does not convict me again of my sinfulness, and my intense need for God’s intervention in my life, I’m probably misreading the passage. So, this is not a parable about sharing, or about how Christians needed to find ways to replenish their oil, lest their lamps run out. These miss the point entirely.

The point of the parable is not to talk about sharing, or lack thereof, or how to sustain yourself, but of the importance of having the proper attitude of discipleship. Look at the language used throughout chapters 24 and 25 and 26, here I’ve pulled out the repeated themes to emphasize what is being said about the Bridesmaids today. Keep awake/hold yourselves ready/keep awake…and why? Because you do not know on what day the Lord will return…worse still, he will come at a time you least expect him (perhaps while cleaning rugs, or trying to remove a troublesome spark plug complete with choice words?) This sequence of warning teachings is made all the more serious by the transition into chapter 26 after having said “be ready” because “no one knows” repeatedly Jesus says…now is the time that I die.

These three parables are introduced by a sentence which tells us exactly what the parables are meant to illustrate: “When the day comes, the kingdom of Heaven will be like this.” “the day” is the end time, when Jesus returns to judge, the Greek word is parousia, the description of the coming judgement. The point of the parables that follow is to emphasize the need to be prepared for a God who will return when you least expect it. I have some sense of this attitude that Christ is promoting, because eternal readiness is the way of the soldier. You are always either doing your mission, or training for your mission. The motto of the last unit I was posted to was ‘ad saltum paratus’, literally, ‘ready for the leap’. This is one of the reasons why the Scriptures are full of soldier imagery, because their vocation reflects Christ’s command to vigilance and preparedness.

At the other end of the parables we have challenging conclusions from each of them – five bridesmaids excluded, the lazy servant cast into the darkness of wailing and gnashing teeth, and the eternal punishment of the goats. In each case the exclusion is from the wedding feast of the king, which is the metaphor for entry to the kingdom of heaven. These are not parables for the light hearted, and they are not parables to be blunted with gentle words about sharing, or re filling empty lamps, for they are all parables about watchfulness, preparation and the coming sorting.

Ok, on to the Bridesmaids. The setting is a wedding feast, and the bridesmaids are sitting and waiting for the bridegroom to lead him through the dark with their oil-powered torches. This is a common image of a wedding feast, and the bridesmaids are supporting players for that feast, to provide a path of light for the bridegroom. Wedding processions were common parts of the multi-day celebration of weddings in this time, and processions from the bride’s to the groom’s home were often done at night, requiring light. The wedding feast is the King’s feast, the Lord’s feast, and represents the kingdom of heaven. The bridegroom is likely Christ, although the parable works without either of those images being in place, as the theme is watchfulness.

Think about the job of the bridesmaid in this case: to wait, and to provide light at the appropriate time. Unfortunately, the point of the story is that the appropriate time cannot be known, and so the bridesmaids must be ready and watchful. Notice that all 10 of the bridesmaids fall asleep, so even the wise drift off along with the foolish. The point, life goes on, and Christ’s command to ‘keep awake’ does not mean never sleep, but to be watchful and prepared.
The question of the wise bridesmaid’s lack of sharing of their oil can be troubling on a surface read…how do we square this with the sermon on the mount, and Christ’s words that come shortly…that which you do to the least of these you do for me? The problem is that this thought has no place with this parable, as we are not talking about the poor, sick, lame or widowed, but about a group of bridesmaids and their level of readiness for the unknown time of the Lord’s coming. For the wise to share their oil with the foolish would mean insufficient oil for all 10 of them. In any event, the root image being passed to us through the lack of sharing of the oil is the question of personal choice and your inner attitude toward preparing for the coming of the Lord. The oil is the metaphor for preparedness, and asks how are you responding to the offer of the gifts of the kingdom? Are you prepared, carrying out your Lord’s business while awaiting his return? Or will you be caught with insufficient oil during the long, dark time of waiting? What is your innermost attitude toward the coming of the Lord? Do you live your every moment in the knowledge that the thief will arrive at your home when you least expect it? This is the point being hammered home throughout the parable – are you living the reality of a Lord who is at once present, and is bodily preparing to return at any moment?

The problem comes with the unexpected delay of the bridegroom, and the running out of oil by the foolish bridesmaids. We don’t know why there is a delay, but we Christians, living on this side of the resurrection and ascension, know all too well that there is a delay. How many of the saints have waited and cried, ‘how long O Lord’, in the centuries that have passed? The point being, the bridesmaids should have anticipated the delay, and been prepared to wait through the long darkness until the coming of the dawn. “Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

While the foolish bridesmaids run off to look for oil, the bridegroom arrives and is led into the feast by the remaining five bridesmaids, those who waited with an inner attitude of watchfulness and preparedness. Once in the feast, the doors are locked, which reminds us of several of the other feast images used in the Scriptures that involve the excluding of those who had not prepared – Matthew 22, the wedding feast of the king’s son, “The wedding feast is ready; but the guests I invited did not severe the honour. Go out therefore…and invited everyone you can find to the wedding.” A hard message of exclusion. Those 5 foolish, in spite of the honour of being a part of the wedding procession, lose their place in that procession because of their lack of watchfulness, because they did not live their lives expecting the unexpected coming of the bridegroom. Their role did not guarantee them a place at the banquet. The plea of the 5 foolish, “Sir, Sir, open the door for us.” And the response, “I do not know you.” Brings us back to Matthew 7, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly father.”
The entire point of the parable is summed up in verse 13: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Be vigilant and prepared, and do not trust in the death-bed confession to secure your place in heaven, for you never know the day nor the hour. We know, by faith and Scripture, that the arrival of the bridegroom is a certainty. What we do not know is the hour of that arrival, and therefore our Godly response is constant vigilance.

I’m reminded here of another soldier story – that of night guard duty. It is perhaps the most boring and uncomfortable duty…you stand and wait and watch in the cold and darkness, and maybe see no one else the whole time. The urge to sneak off and sleep is always there, or at least to retreat to the guard hut where there is a heater. But the night guard may hold in his hands the fate of the entire nation (when in Europe I would stand night duty as the duty officer, and had the responsibility for calling out all the Canadian Forces in Europe in the event of hostilities…one person on guard). A lack of vigilance by one person can lose the war.

This is what Christ is calling us to do, to be watchful, vigilant and prepared for His coming. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds hard at work on his return! And what is that work? If we read on in chapter 25, Jesus tells us what is expected of the servants of the King: “34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Live your lives as the wise bridesmaids, expecting the groom but not relying on his prompt arrival. Live your lives as the wise servants, going about the Master’s business, so he may find you faithful when he returns. Live your lives employing the gifts you have been given, be they five bags worth or one bag worth, so that when the Master returns you may return those gifts with interest. Live your lives in the eternal expectation of Christ’s return, and in the hope that motivates you to care for those in need, however you might be called to do so. Amen.

Matthew 23 Alas for you Pharisees and Scribes “whitewashed tombs”

Matthew 24 The destruction of the Temple forewarned
The thief in the night, “Hold yourselves ready…”
Faithful and wise servant/bad and lazy servant “wailing and grinding”

Matthew 25 10 Bridesmaids “I do not know you”
The Talents, Wise/Foolish Servants “wailing and grinding of teeth”
Sorting of the sheep and goats “go away to eternal punishment”

Matthew 26-28 Resurrection Narrative

24:42 “Keep awake…for you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

24:44 “Hold yourselves ready…because the Son of Man will come at a time you least expect him.”

24:50 “…the master will arrive on a day when the servant does not expect him, at a time he has not been told.”

25:13 “Keep awake then, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

25:19 “A long time afterwards their master returned, and proceeded to settle accounts with them.”

26:2 “…in two days’ time it will be…when the Son of man will be handed over…”


Written by sameo416

November 6, 2011 at 12:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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