Several weeks ago as I was meeting with Jasinta, Bret and Bettie about music choices, I was whining about today’s gospel because it seems so counter to Jesus’ messages of hospitality and inclusive nature. And I’ve continued to wrestle with this text since then because it’s hard for me to find the good news in this passage.
So I decided that together we could look at this passage and perhaps find a way to see it as meaningful in our current context.
When Jesus provides his followers this parable of the 10 bridesmaids, he has moved from the Sermon on the Mount to the general audience, the beatitudes that we read last week, and now is at the Mount of Olives with the 12 disciples. The parable is presented to his most intimate and faithful group, helping them to understand not just the Kingdom of God, but also the end times...the time of judgment...the time when who’s in and who’s out will be made clear. He is preparing them for things to come, and there is a clear message that they need to be just that--prepared.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus shares a wedding related parable. Let’s look at it again more closely in its historical context. In the time of Jesus, the custom was for the wedding guests to assemble at the parent’s of the bride’s house to be entertained while awaiting the groom. When the groom approached the home, the guests and bridesmaids would light their torches and go out to greet him. As a procession, the party would walk to the groom’s home to be met by his parents. There an extended banquet of several days would follow.
However, in the parable that Jesus offers, the groom is late and the guests and wedding party have gotten tired and fallen asleep. It is only when someone announces that the groom is approaching that the lamps are lit and the party goes to meet him. However, for 5 of the bridesmaids, they had run out of oil, and are sent away from the party to find more. When they return, the door has been shut and they are told they’re too late.
This is where I get stuck. Why didn’t the other bridesmaids share their oil? Why didn’t the groom invite the women in? How long were they expected to “keep awake” and why are they being rebuked for it? I thought the kingdom--the great heavenly feast--was open to all, so what’s happening here?
And then great wisdom was shared with me about this parable...remember, context is everything!
The gospel of Matthew was written at the later half of the 1st century. The audience would have been made up of “second generation Christians” who were living after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70. The community was made up of Jews and Gentiles that was moving away from Jewish temple traditions to form their own unique experience. Given this historical knowledge, we can start to make sense of the parable from Matthew.
One thing we can determine is that the audience of Matthew as “second generations Christians” were a community that waiting...they, like us, were waiting for the post ascension return, or second coming, of Jesus. In their time of waiting, some had strayed and some had remained faithful. We can describe the community as the bridesmaids...those who were prepared and those who let their oil run out...the faithful are welcomed into the banquet, those who had strayed, were left outside.
In a lot of ways then, the parable is like that of the sheep and the goats...a distinction between the faithful and those who had wandered off.
And so while this historical context helps me understand what the writer of Matthew is getting at...that we need to be faithful while we wait, that we need to be prepared, that we need to stay focused on the coming of Jesus...it still leaves me a bit perplexed as to why the oil wasn’t shared. All this time we’ve been told to take care of our neighbor, to heal the world, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community. Shouldn’t we offer our oil and make sure everyone gets in to the banquet?
So here’s the crux of the parable. It serves as a reminder to us about our faithfulness. Yes, we can invite them in, yes we can share our oil, but if their faithfulness is dependent only on our actions, and not on their commitment to Jesus, then it is insufficient. As Thomas Stegman, professor of New Testament studies at Boston College explains, “The wedding banquet is reserved for those who do God’s will, for those who have the oil of [discipleship]...being a Christian in name only is insufficient”.
Wow. That’s a pretty cut and dry explanation of the parable. It calls all of us to task...are we disciples in word and deed, or are we disciples in name only?
So what does it mean to have the oil of discipleship? To follow the metaphor, this oil, the oil that we can’t give away, is made up of our faith, good works, and spiritual practices. We can share the light produced by the oil, we can share our love of God with others and continue working for the Kingdom of God at all times and in all places, but the oil itself can’t be given away because it is deep within us; it is our faith and hope in God that resides within us.
And like the prepared bridesmaids, we can take moments of rest while we’re waiting, but we’re always prepared. So within the parable there is also a sense that time is of the essence. We come prepared to serve and love the Lord. The bumper sticker that reads “Look busy, Jesus is coming” becomes our call to action...get busy, be prepared, be ready. As theologian Lindsay Armstrong explains, “ The kingdom of heaven summons us to new life, improved commitment, casting away of false idols, active waiting in hope, and renewed vigor in faith. Jesus taught [the disciples]...that faithful action done now prepares us to weather the unexpected timing of God….[Like the groom, the] Messiah comes ‘at the right time’---which is altogether better than coming at the convenient time or on our time”.
Are you feeling better about this parable yet? I know I am. So here are my “take-aways” the “so what’s” if you will…
I’m glad that we have this lesson in our lectionary for the weeks preceeding Advent. Advent is also the great time of waiting, watching and expectation. So now we have been reminded to get busy and prepared to wait. Now is the time; not tomorrow or the day after, because we don’t know when or how Jesus is going to come again. Unlike the old saying, it’s best not to put off what you can do today, so make sure your oil lamps are full, be reconciled with your loved ones and neighbors, and be prepared to watch and wait.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.