When our son, Nate, was three, he seemed eager for the world beyond our apartment, and so we signed him up for preschool at a Presbyterian church several miles from where we lived. I was pleased by what I saw in the classroom. I was drawn to the kind and energetic teachers. I was sure he would thrive in this place, so I happily anticipated the start of his school-year—at least I did until I went through the registration forms that I had brought home to complete.
We were living in a region of California known to be at risk for earthquakes, and so the school asked that parents prepare an earthquake kit for each child. They requested that we plan for a separation that might last for three days. In addition to clothes, a blanket, and his favorite non-perishable foods, we were asked to include a photograph of our family, and a letter that might be read to Nate in our absence.
I can still see the photograph, taken at Disneyland: the four of us smiling in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Nate proudly displaying a favorite toy, his baby sister alert in my arms. But I wrote the letter through my tears; never have words felt so inadequate. I struggled to imagine such a catastrophic future, and then, to address it in a letter to this gregarious little boy who always was willing to let me go because he was so confident that I would return when expected. How could I anticipate the fears and questions of a three-year old? What explanation could I offer for a world suddenly turned dangerous and unpredictable? And how could words-on-a-page possibly comfort him without the sound of my voice, the warmth of my body, the fragrance and textures of home?
The challenge of writing that letter often comes back to me when I wrestle with gospel accounts describing the end of Jesus’ life and teachings. Did it weigh like a burden on Jesus’ heart, this need to prepare his followers for the confusion, the violence, the separation that waited for them in Jerusalem? What word might they remember? What images could he leave that would sustain them through all that lay ahead?
Jesus did not offer any pictures from Disneyland.
In each gospel there is an urgency to Jesus’s words as his time with the disciples draws to a close, but Matthew’s account, in particular, is laced with conflict and the threat of violence. Parables, in Matthew’s hand, often take a dark turn.
It should not surprise us that each of the gospel writers has his own way of framing the life and teachings of Jesus. All story-tellers shape their narratives to fit the context in which they live and to reflect their particular concerns. By the time Matthew writes his gospel, the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed. The temple is no more. Vast multitudes have been slaughtered. Everywhere is devastation.
It is into that context that Matthew shares the parable of the bridesmaids. Perhaps half a century after Jesus’ death, with most eyewitnesses likely dead, Matthew tells the story in the hope of preparing his community for the challenges they may yet face. Here’s the way Matthew frames it: alone on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, Jesus speaks at length about the end of the age—wars and persecutions, sacrilege and false messiahs, the heavens and the earth shaken, the Son of Man coming in glory. Only when he has exhausted that apocalyptic description does Jesus challenge the inner circle of his followers to imagine how they will live in the meantime. He does so by telling four stories. Today we consider the second of those four.
It is a very uncomfortable story about preparations for a wedding party.
Scholars don’t know a lot about the bridal customs of Jesus’ day. They do know that the bride moved from her father’s house to her husband’s.
The groom would have signed the marriage contract with her father and then brought his bride to his home, where the marriage would be consummated and the feast would take place. This parable seems to describe the arrival of the couple at the groom’s home; though the bride, strangely, is not mentioned.
In the parable, ten young women attached to the wedding party take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom.
- All of them carry lamps.
- All of them go to sleep when the bridegroom is delayed.
- All of them wake at midnight when they hear the shout announcing that the groom is on the horizon.
- All of them trim their lamps.
The only difference between the five who are labeled foolish and the five who are labeled wise is that the wise have thought to bring extra oil. The only difference is that these five are prepared to keep vigil even if the groom is long in coming. Clearly, Jesus and Matthew want us to prepare our hearts to persevere when the wait is long.
But the parable doesn’t end there, and it becomes more uncomfortable as it proceeds. When the foolish ask the wise to share their oil, they are told that there is not enough. The ones labeled “wise” dismiss the ones labeled “foolish” to go and buy their own. And, in a final act of exclusion, when these so-called foolish ones return with their oil, the door is shut and they are denied admission. Though they call “Lord, Lord, open to us,” the master replies “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
Parables are slippery things. There was a time when seminaries taught that parables had a single meaning—the task of the student was to uncover it.
In our own day, parables are recognized to be much more subversive. We acknowledge that by the power of the Holy Spirit, parables have the power to address a variety of circumstances. Arresting in their imagery, they get under our skin, exposing our assumptions and complacencies. They invite us to argue it out, and to draw closer to God’s heart in the process.
The fascinating Jewish scholar, Amy Jill Levine, says simply that parables do not resolve into platitudes. “We might be better off thinking less about what they ‘mean’ and more about what they can ‘do’: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb….”
Later, she writes: “Jesus told parables because they serve…as keys that can unlock the mysteries we face by helping us ask the right questions: how to live in community; how to determine what ultimately matters; how to live the life that God wants us to live. They are Jesus’ way of teaching, and they are remembered to this day not simply because they are in the Christian canon, but because they continue to provoke, challenge, and inspire.
Jesus knew that the best teaching concerning how to live, and live abundantly, comes not from spoon-fed data or an answer sheet.
Instead, it comes from narratives that remind us of what we already know, but are resistant to recall. It comes from stories that prompt us to draw our own conclusions and at the same time force us to realize that our answers may well be contingent, or leaps of faith, or traps. It comes from stories that community members can share with each other, with each of us assessing the conclusions others draw, and so reassessing our own.
The parables if we take them seriously not as answers but as invitations, can continue to inform our lives, even as our lives continue to open up the parables to new readings.”
And so this week I have tried to receive this parable as invitation. I let it pull me deeper into Matthew’s gospel, and as I did, here’s what I noticed. This parable lives in explicit tension with what Jesus teaches elsewhere in Matthew’s account.
It lives in such tension that I cannot help wondering if our offense, as listeners, acts to increase our resolve to live not just as the bridesmaids live, but as Jesus taught us. Let me give you three examples of where I see tension between the parable and the larger sweep of Matthew’s gospel:
- In the parable, Jesus characterizes the bridesmaids as wise and foolish, but back in chapter five, Jesus told this same audience of disciples that if they were to label anyone a fool, they would be liable to the fires of hell. So, in this parable is Jesus really just making a call about foolishness? Or, at some level, is he also calling our judgment of each other into question?
- The “wise” bridesmaids say that they do not have enough oil to share. And so they send the “foolish” bridesmaids away to search for a place to buy the oil they need—but back in chapter fourteen, when the disciples proposed a very similar plan to Jesus, asking that he send the crowds away so that they can go and buy food for themselves, Jesus rejects that plan, saying: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And when the disciples protest that they don’t have enough—only five loaves and two fish…well you know how that ends.
Is there, then, in this parable an implicit indictment of the wisdom that leads the bridesmaids to withhold what God can multiply?
- And finally, can it be that the one whose final words to his friends will be “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”—can it be that this same one would invite his followers to imagine that they might hear from their Lord, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you”?
I walk away from this parable still living in its tension, without easy resolution, but more convinced of the power of community, more convinced of our need for solidarity as we wait, more convinced of the imperative to share what we have, more intent upon keeping our hearts primed for celebration—all of which makes me wonder if the parable hasn’t been doing its work all along.
Matthew wrote to a community facing challenges we can only begin to imagine, but, friends, none of us knows when our own worlds may threaten to fall apart. And when such days come, the light that burns within us, the company that surrounds us, and the hope toward which we move, will be what sustains us.
Yesterday afternoon an email came with word of such an apocalypse.
It came to me from Nancy, but it was a copy of Facebook post written by Ben Johnston-Krase, one of the pastors behind Farm Church, who helped to lead our congregational retreat last month.
Ben posted yesterday on Facebook that he has just been diagnosed with cancer, with masses in both his lungs and thyroid. Many questions remain, but Ben wanted to share this early news with his communities of support.
He said, in part, “I have always known that while life is a wonderful gift, it is not fair. Its unfairness is the thing that causes some to shrink back, to love reservedly, to trust less… But that same unfairness pushes us to live well, too – to trust, risk, dream, act, sing out… So in light of this very particular unfairness, I have a profound sense of gratitude that I am in a place where I can say that I am living well. In a myriad of amazing ways, so many of you have been a part of that, and I cannot say how grateful I am….
I believe now that the Sacred Source of the Universe, God, whom I have come to name and respond to in Jesus Christ – this Source is sad, mad, and broken with me, but also courageous, hopeful, healing, and still calling. So on I go. Stuck in a free-fall right now, but still dreaming, still striving to live in light of that Presence. Thank you for your prayers and for sharing this load with me and my family in your own ways. I am grateful for you and grateful to be journeying with you now.
Much, much love, with admiration and wonder,
Friends, when the way ahead seems dark, we can choose to pull back, to decide that there isn’t enough hope, love, trust, money, time—you name it—to go around. Or we can choose to wait together, to remember what God can do with two fish and five loaves, to trust that no matter how hard the path, God is working to make all things new.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short stories by Jesus, the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi. New York: Harper Collins, 2014, p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 297.
 Matthew 5:22, NRSV
 Matthew 14:11-21, NRSV
 Matthew 28:20, NRSV