Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. –Matthew 25:1-13
*The two parables in the 24th chapter speak to this theme as well, but are not included here.
One of the interesting things about our time in isolation is the constant concern of trying to be ready for all possible situations (e.g. food, water, home and auto repairs, doctor or dental appointments, haircuts, etc.). The goal is to be vigilant and prepared. In thinking about that, I’m reminded of a legendary Baylor history professor by the name of Guy B. Harrison. By all accounts he was a most eccentric man and teacher. One of his peculiarities was his announcement to his classes on the first class day of each semester. He said, “As to the test schedule, the first test will be given on the day I come into class through the window. Be ready.” The parable(s) for today (…and I say “parables” because the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew have several parables that emphasize the same theme.) come near the end of Jesus’ life. If one were reading in a chronological manner, the tension was building. Jesus’ followers were anxious about what was transpiring and what lay ahead. Sensing that some kind of end was near, they’ve asked him how it will be at the end of the age: What can they expect?How will they know?What can they do to prepare? In this Temple discourse, Jesus answers these concerns with teachings and parables that have become known by some scholars as “the Little Apocalypse.”
The beloved Fred Craddock wrote that there are two kinds of parables. In the first, a “surprise of grace” comes at the end of the story. A party is given for the Prodigal Son instead of recrimination; the workers who work for an hour are paid the same as those who toiled in the hot sun all day; the tax collectors and harlots get into the Kingdom while the elite are left out in the cold. In the second type, however, a predictable cause and effect pattern is clear. Harvest follows planting; a tiny seed grows into the tallest of shrubs; a net flung into the water gathers an abundance of fish. No surprise gifts or parties, no unexpected happy endings. He calls these stories “life on life’s terms.” The parable that we focus on today, “the ten bridesmaids,” falls into this second category.
Let me first note some of the rituals and traditions of a first-century Palestinian wedding. Most villages were small towns. For instance, biblical archaeologist James Strange says that estimates of Nazareth’s population at the time of Christ range from roughly 480 to 2,000 people, with a general agreement that it was probably closer to the lower number. Most towns in first-century Palestine were small, and when a wedding took place, it was a major event. The groom would come to pick up the bride and her wedding party, and then they would travel by the most circuitous route to their new home. As they did, people in the village would join in the processional parade. The long route was an effort to include everyone.
One of the curious customs was that of the bridegroom attempting to surprise the bridal party. In William Barclay’s book on the parables, he relates his discovery of how this tradition was truly an integral part of Palestinian life. He tells of Dr. J. Alexander Findlay, an English author and professor, who was approaching the gates of a Galilean town. His driver had to slow down, because there were ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument as they danced along the road. When Findlay asked about the women, his driver told him that they were keeping the bride company until her bridegroom arrived. Findlay went on to ask if there was any chance of seeing the wedding; the driver shook his head no. “It might be tonight or tomorrow night or in a fortnight; nobody ever knows for certain.” He went on to tell Dr. Findlay that one of the fun things to do at a middle-class wedding in Palestine was to catch the bridal party napping. So bridegrooms would come unexpectedly, sometimes in the middle of the night. The driver also noted that no one in the village is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp. What’s more, he said that once the wedding has begun, the door is shut and latecomers are not admitted in. Barclay pointed out that people were still doing weddings in 20th-century Palestine in much the same way as they did in Jesus’ time.
Over the years there have been numerous conjectures about the meanings of this parable, but if we pay attention to the overarching theme of this story and the two in the 24th chapter, it seems obvious that the point is to be ready for the coming of Christ. One would think that would be a priority for Christians, especially after 2,000 years,
The gifted novelist, Reynolds Price, once wrote a book outside of his normal genre. In his book, A Whole New Life, he tells of a stunning vision of meeting Jesus, who was baptizing in the Jordan, a vision that Reynolds was given one night during the depth of his illness with cancer. He reports the vision in the book with calm certitude, and many, having read the book, wrote to Price telling him of similar experiences when they vividly knew the real presence of Christ. He received thousands of those kinds of letters. Price told a fellow Duke professor that when he was being interviewed about the book, the most frequently asked questions were about the vision: Did it really happen? Did it happen just the way he described it? Was he sure that it was really a vision of Christ or just something of his imagination? When one interviewer on a New York television program pressed him at length on this, Reynolds finally said, “Look, I’m from North Carolina. Maybe that explains it. When you grow up in that part of the world, you just naturally get the impression that Jesus cares about you and that one day he will get to you. So, when that vision happened, I just thought to myself, ‘Well, here it is.’ I was ready for it, you see, being from North Carolina.”
Well, most of us are not from North Carolina, but can we believe the same thing, that some day Jesus will get to all of us, or paraphrased another way, “Will we be ready to meet him?” Jesus tells us this story as a reminder and a warning that there are certain things which cannot be obtained at the last minute. When Mary of Orange was dying, her chaplain sought to tell her of the way of salvation. Her answer was: “I have not left this matter to this hour.”
During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives. One day in 1789, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand. Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.”
The parable(s) today are reality checks, or should I say, ultimate reality checks. How much thought and preparation have we given to that which matters most? Asking that, I think of Dr. Harrison again. His coming through the window would have been quite a surprise (and this actually did occur, as attested to by my father-in-law, who was enrolled in the class). Unexpected tests can be tragic if you’re not ready, but they can be absolutely bliss, if you are. “Pleasantly surprised” is the phrase for it. It is the phrase that God desperately wants for you and me today.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
In Annie Dillard’s book, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, she writes, “I set up and staged hundreds of ends-of-the-world and watched, enthralled, as they played themselves out.” How much do you think about the end of time as we know it, and how does that affect your faith?
Augustine, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church, wrote, “If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” Consider how and why you’ve arranged the priorities of your life. From whose perspective have they been created?
What is the delicate connection of justice and grace of which this parable is a thought-provoking illustration?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: “This World is not Conclusion” by Emily Dickinson
This World is not Conclusion. A Species stands beyond – Invisible, as Music – But positive, as Sound – It beckons, and it baffles – Philosophy, don’t know – And through a Riddle, at the last – Sagacity, must go – To guess it, puzzles scholars – To gain it, Men have borne Contempt of Generations And Crucifixion, shown – Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies – Blushes, if any see – Plucks at a twig of Evidence – And asks a Vane, the way – Much Gesture, from the Pulpit – Strong Hallelujahs roll – Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul –