On Wisdom and Folly

Scripture can be found here...

When I was a little girl, I found out my (male) cousin (T.) was getting married. And the moment I found out, I told my mother: I wanted to be a bridesmaid.


It didn’t matter that I had never even met my cousin’s intended, the bride. It didn’t matter that I was a little on the young side for such a role. I don’t know where or how I had heard about bridesmaids, but I knew I wanted to be one. I wanted to wear one of those pretty dresses, and I wanted to carry a fragrant bouquet of flowers, and I wanted to stand in front of everybody in the church… (I know). And… truthfully, my mother was mystified by the strength of my longing to do this thing. She clearly did not think it was the be-all and end-all I was envisioning. She tried to talk me out of it.


Clearly, my mother knew something I did not.


Also, clearly, all my mother would have needed to do to cure me of my longing, was to read me this little story, in which the role of bridesmaid comes complete with the possibility of not getting to go to the wedding at all.


We are in the next-to-last week of spending time with the storyteller-Jesus, and Jesus is aheada couple of weeks ahead of us. By that I mean, by chapter 25, Matthew’s gospel is already deep into Holy Week. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and become embroiled in conflict with the religious establishment, who are already on record as wishing to have him arrested. As a consequence, he has been teaching through parables, many of which seemare responding to his opposition. Today’s story, another one with a wedding serving as the location of all the action, also seems to be speaking to that conflict.


The kingdom of heaven will be like this, Jesus tells us:. There are ten bridesmaids (the word in Greek is actually “virgins.” Our translation calls them “bridesmaids,” to clarify their role in the wedding proceedings). The young women take their lamps to greet the bridegroom. Five are foolish (the Greek word is “morai,” from which we get the word “moron”… another translation is “insipid”); they bring no oil for their lamps; five are wise (or “prudent”) and they do bring flasks of oil with them. For some unknown reason, the bridegroom is delayed and does not arrive, and everyone becomes drowsy and falls asleep while waiting for him. His midnight arrival is announced with a shout: “Look the bridegroom is coming!” As the young women prepare to receive him, the “foolish” ask the “wise ones” to share their oil; the wise ones refuse. The foolish ones decide to go in search of some oil (in the middle of the night). When they return, the doors to the wedding banquet are locked; even more devastating, when they bang on the door and ask to be admitted, the bridegroom declares: I do not know you.


It all seems kind of comical, until that last part. “I do not know you.” Suddenly, we are back in last week’s parable, where there is outer darkness, and those who are “in” and those who are “out.”


Have you ever heard two people telling vastly different accounts of the same story? I once attended a wedding in which someone did a cartwheel on the dance floor at the reception. If you talked to the bride and groom—well, they might have mentioned it, they might not. But the mother of the bride just couldn’t stop talking about the cartwheel, because it upset her. It made her angry and embarrassed. For her, it became the story of the wedding.


That’s a little like what’s happening in our parable.  Each gospel simultaneously tells Jesus’ story while revealing much about a gospel community that existed years later. The community of Matthew, who wrote these words down about 50 years after the events of the gospel took place, seems to be struggling with several issues simultaneously, and all their concerns are on display here. First, there is that family fight I mentioned last week, the one within the Jewish community; they are divided between those who see God’s revelation in Jesus and those who do not. The second concern is the delay of Jesus’ return. The early church was confident that Jesus would come in power and judgment to make everything right, and that he would do it soon, before his original disciples died off. But it seems that he didn’t. It might interest you to know that Jesus, earlier in this gospel, refers to himself explicitly as “the bridegroom.” The bridegroom was delayed. The final but probably most traumatic concern was the destruction of the temple, looted and demolished by the Roman military in the summer of the year 70 CE. These tragic losses and disappointments taken together tell us that Matthew’s community, the community where this gospel had its birth, was in pain. They were suffering.


(Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom explicitly in the discussion of fasting, Matthew 9:14-15).So, we have a parable that speaks of a wedding feast, and a bridegroom who has been delayed. And it speaks of members of the wedding party who are ready for the bridegroom when he comes, and members who, it seems, are not. And, most devastatingly, it has a bridegroom who says to some—to those who are not deemed faithful enough, ready enough, wise enough—I do not know you.


It’s like hearing the description of a wedding from someone who’s been through a traumatic divorce. Their pain, inevitably, comes through—even years later, even if they’re sure it was for the best. Pain demands to be felt.


Knowing that, understanding the context in which these words were written down, let’s look again, at the story Jesus tells.


There is a wedding. This is a consistent, powerful image Jesus used often, to tell us what the kingdom of God would be like. The kingdom of heaven—not that pie in the sky, in the bye and bye heaven, but heaven as it unfolds on earth when we start to live the gospel with every breath we take. The reign of God looks like a joyful feast, a feast celebrating love, and union, and unity.


And there are bridesmaids, people whose work has to do with the feast… in their case, to welcome the bridegroom. Everyone expects the bridegroom to come soon—everyone! Why would he be late for his own party? So, it might be that the bridesmaids who didn’t bring the extra oil might have looked like the wise ones, at the beginning of this story, and the ones who brought it might have looked foolish. Of course he’s coming… why worry?


But he is delayed, which no one expects. And… here’s where the story gets interesting. All are drowsy. All fall asleep. And the lamps of all are running out of oil when the bridegroom finally arrives. The bridesmaids without extra oil ask for some from those who do have it, and they refuse. They say they won’t have enough if they share.


This logic just doesn’t hold up. How many times in Matthew’s gospel alone does Jesus not only encourage sharing, but hold up those who give as being closer to the kingdom of God than anyone? How many moments in this gospel actually push against the stinginess of the wise bridesmaids? If someone wants your tunic, give them your coat as well. Let your light shine before all, so that they will give glory to God in heaven. Don’t store up treasures on earth. Ask and it will be given to you. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward. The feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. The widow, with her two coins.


I could go on, but I think you get the picture. When we are trying to understand scripture, one of the best places we can look for help is… scripture.[i] In this case, Jesus’ own words and actions in Matthew’s gospel push against Jesus’ words of judgment in this parable. And in a few more verses—in fact, next week—we will read a parable whose memorable words include, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” Why can’t we add… “I was in the dark, and you gave me your light?”


If half of the bridesmaids were “foolish,” I wonder if it has nothing to do with forgetting extra oil. I wonder if the thing that made the foolish was the fact that they left… they went away into the dark night to find—what? A Manley’s Mighty Mart? Not likely. If they had only stayed, they could have gone to the feast. And I wonder, too, whether the “wise” young women were, in fact, entirely foolish themselves, for neglecting to remember something pretty basic: even if they didn’t want to share their oil, they certainly could have shared their light. The cost to them would have been nothing. They would have lost nothing. And all would have gone, joyfully dancing, into the feast.


As for this bridegroom… I don’t know. He just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. Oh, he’s dressed up in Jesus’ clothes, being called “the bridegroom” and all. But he sounds like the pain-filled community of Matthew, kicked out of the synagogues, turning on those who have hurt them with identical words of rejection. “I don’t know you.”


We are still waiting for Jesus. We read it in the papers, we see it with our own eyes—there are those who build their lives around the expectation that Jesus is coming soon, and for all we know, they may be right. But… don’t you think Jesus would prefer to find us striving to include one another, rather than exclude? Serving one another rather than chastising those who don’t have enough? Trying to ease one another’s pain, rather than compounding it? Loving rather than judging one another?


And now look what’s happened. I’ve managed to make myself as anxious as a “wise” bridesmaid. You know what I really wonder? I wonder how much we miss in these parables by not having a clue how exactly Jesus told them. Was he dead serious? Did he have a twinkle in his eye?


I’m going to end, not with my own words, but with the words of Robert Farrar Capon.


“When all is said and done—when  we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith, and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs… God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding present china has been chipped. He is a funny old uncle, with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”[ii]


And to that, I say: Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 3-5. Thesis #3, “Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative…”

[ii] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans & Co, 2002), 501.