What are we to do with Jesus’ parable of the wise and the foolish bridesmaids? It’s not easy to be sympathetic with any of the characters in this parable. The bridegroom shows up hours late and then shuts the door on half the bridesmaids. The maidens who get shut out have been off trying to buy oil for their lamps in the middle of the night when the wedding celebration is about to begin. And the bridesmaids who did bring extra oil won’t share it. Tough luck if you weren’t prepared and ready!
The details of the parable reflect the wedding customs of Palestine in the time of Jesus. On the day appointed for the wedding, the groom would go with an assembly of friends to take the bride from her family home to their new home, usually at night. The return of the groom with his bride, a symbolic act of marriage, would begin a festive celebration that lasted for several days.
Young women of both families would attend the bride. Those of the groom’s family, including distant relatives, would wait in his house or with the neighbors until the wedding party’s arrival. There was no set time for the entourage to appear. Guests who didn’t arrive on time for the feast could not expect to be admitted. Even those who considered themselves insiders, members of the bridegroom’s family for instance, couldn’t assume that the door would be opened for them.
In today’s parable, the bridesmaids who counted on a quick arrival of the groom were the ones in trouble. The wise bridesmaids were being practical. At least they would be able to light the way for the bridegroom. But let’s be fair, all the bridesmaids were asleep when the bridegroom arrived!
Guessing the arrival time of the bridegroom is not the issue. How we behave in the meantime, the “in-between-time,” is what matters. It’s not the coming of the bridegroom that makes some wise and some foolish; it merely reveals who is wise or foolish.
At this point we may be asking ourselves, what do a delayed bridegroom on his wedding night and waiting bridesmaids have to tell us about the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The message of this parable is about “preparedness or readiness” for the coming of Christ and the arrival of God’s kingdom.
Jesus as the bridegroom is a frequent image in the New Testament. For Matthew’s post-resurrection community, the bridegroom is the Risen Christ, whose return is expected at any time. Jesus’ reminder to “keep awake” was a reminder to take seriously the reality of a sudden appearance of the kingdom of God. No one can know the day or the hour when God will act. In the parable, the bridegroom’s arrival is greeted with a shout to awaken those who are to attend the celebration. The Messiah will be expected to arrive unheralded, with everyone taken by surprise.
One of the predominant themes in Matthew’s Gospel is the anticipation of coming judgement. It’s important to him to emphasize to his community two things with regard to Jesus’ return. One, that they don’t know when it will come, so speculation is futile. Second, that it will come, so preparation is crucial.
In this parable, the bridegroom comes later than the foolish bridesmaids anticipated, and they had not gathered sufficient provisions to welcome him. These bridesmaids, the five foolish ones, weren’t prepared for the long haul. Their lamps are empty. Five of the bridesmaids, the wise ones, were prepared. They have all the oil needed to refill their lamps.
In a different situation, Jesus would have called for those who had oil to share with those who had none. But the Last Judgement pictured here offers no such option. This leaves the hapless bridesmaids seeking oil at the latest hour, and even if they should find oil, it would be too late. The bridegroom would have arrived, the door closed, and the feast begun.
For these early Christians, the “Second Coming” of Christ had been delayed, but without explanation. The Son of Man had not arrived “on clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” and many were anxious. What were people to do? Would they be like the wise and ready bridesmaids or the foolish, unprepared ones?
The kind of waiting that Matthew is encouraging in this parable is hard: waiting for something that is long overdue, waiting that involves active participation when you’re not sure what you should be preparing for. That kind of waiting is challenging and often accompanied by great anxiety. We are all acquainted with waiting. Whether what we are waiting for is good or bad hardly matters. The anxiety of the in-between time of waiting can be very difficult.
Jesus tells this parable in his own “in-between-time” of waiting. This parable is set between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his final trial and crucifixion. One thing Matthew and all the gospel writers agree is that Jesus knew what was coming. And here he is, teaching the crowds and his disciples even as he waits for the Cross. Jesus knows how difficult waiting can be, and he is with us in our waiting.
The questions for these early Christians are the same questions for us today: how do we live with the delay? What do we do while we wait for Christ’s return? Will we be ready? It seems we have a choice to make. We can give in to the stress, anxiety and fear of our times, and risk letting the oil in our lamps burn out. Or, we can ask God to prepare our hearts and minds to be ready in faith and loving service.
And what did this analogy of “oil” mean for Matthew and his community? What does it mean for us today?
No one is fully “awake” and no one is always running on “full” when it comes to the spiritual life. The reality of the spiritual life is that no one can run out and buy the “oil” for us. Spiritual “oil” is not for sale. Only we ourselves can respond to God’s invitation to reconciliation, renewal and wholeness. Our spiritual “oil” is renewed by our worship and prayer, by the life-giving Word that nourishes and sustains us, and by the fellowship of the Christian community that supports us.
In contrast with Matthew, Paul closes his letter to the Thessalonians, who decades earlier found their own waiting nearly intolerable, with these words, “Therefore, encourage one another.” That’s our role as the church. We are called to be those who wait with each other, wise and foolish alike. We are those who sit vigil for each other in times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who celebrate achievements, and console after disappointments. We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed and courage when others are afraid. We are those who help each other to wait, prepare and keep the faith. That’s what it means to be followers of Christ, then and now.
Let us pray,
“O God of hope, when Christ appears may he find us not asleep or idle, but awake, ready, and faithful in loving service.” Amen.
Resources: Synthesis, 2008, 2014, 2017; David Lose, 2014, 2017, 2020; William Barclay, 1975.