In the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus gives us, not instructions on how to get into heaven, but an example of how not to.
Proper 27A | Matthew 25:1-13
read, listen, or read while you listen!
It was about this time 4 years ago when my friend Bruce died. He was a faithful and pious man. He had a real certainty about church teaching that I never did. Some of it we didn’t see eye-to-eye on, but I promised him that regardless of what happens in the church, he would enrich us with his presence.
That’s why I was so surprised by his fear in his last week of life. He was afraid that he wouldn’t get in. That Jesus wouldn’t let him in. That he had messed up too badly. And nothing I said, in the fever of his dying, would change that.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never worried about getting into heaven. I don’t have that fear of messing up with God. And maybe that’s why I always bring up that pious young man trying to inherit a place in the kin-dom: because it doesn’t seem to work that way.
Except that we have this parable of the bridesmaids in which “getting in” seems to be the whole point. It seems to be the whole point.
This parable tells a strange story of a strange encounter with a strange twist at the end and none of it sits right with me. This idea about being prepared seems right. Getting in seems to be the point.
But the people are all wrong, how they treat each other is all wrong, and even how the groom behaves is all wrong. It just doesn’t fit with Jesus. Not by itself.
Remember this is the end of Jesus’s ministry. These last few chapters in Matthew show the Pharisees and Temple leaders try to trick and trap Jesus. And still the crowds are with him.
He’s made the leaders look like fools and berates them for their hypocrisy and nasty view of God. But then, he starts warning the followers of the dark days ahead. He starts talking about preparing.
Keep awake and watch and wait!
And right before this parable, at the end of chapter 24, he speaks about two kinds of slaves. One slave is prepared for the master’s arrival and works the whole time. While the other is abusive and selfish. And there, the selfish one is the one cast out.
Jesus carries both of these themes into the parable: being prepared and not selfish.
This is what bugs me about the usual reading of this passage. He has just finished condemning selfishness and then we think he’s telling us to be selfish so that we can get in when the time comes. It doesn’t sound right. And it doesn’t sound right when we know Jesus.
If we heard this morning’s parable after following Jesus daily for three years, I think we’d get a really different understanding of it. We wouldn’t hear it as us getting into heaven at all. The literal, “plain” reading would be the alternative facts reading. Because this doesn’t look at all like heaven.
Not Getting In
I never liked this parable, because it seems pretty awful. The groom keeps the bridesmaids waiting forever and then punishes those who weren’t prepared to campout for the night.
I once officiated a wedding in which we all had to wait nearly an hour for the bride. But this whole story seems like God punishing us for not bringing dinner and some sleeping bags to an afternoon wedding. The setting of the story seems wrong if that’s the point.
And then, when half the bridesmaids lack supplies, the other half don’t help them. Lamp oil is for light, to see in the dark. This isn’t like trying to share the last crumbs of food after days of starving, this is light in the darkness.
At best the supposedly wise ones prepared for the long haul and stuck it out and the foolish ones didn’t. Maybe they’re foolish because they didn’t pack enough. Or maybe because they got scared, listened to the “wise” ones, and ran to the store to get more oil. So maybe they’re foolish for leaving.
But why didn’t they all just get closer? Why didn’t they circle around five lamps rather than sit out by themselves in the darkness alone? Why were they so selfish?
And then! With the incredible twist, the groom finally shows up, without the bride, mind you, and lets the selfish ones in! Then gives the cold shoulder to the ones trying to do the right thing!
This doesn’t sound anything like Jesus who leaves behind the 99 to go after the one. But there’s a reason for that. The groom’s not Jesus.
The groom can’t be Jesus and this wedding banquet, like the one where the king has his slaves grab strangers off the street, isn’t heaven. And we know this because Jesus isn’t ever alone. Even on the cross. Even then, he makes friends with a revolutionary hanging from the next cross over.
Shortly after this parable, in verse 31 he says:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
This groom came alone. If this were about heaven, at the very least, he’d be surrounded by angels.
And then at the end of the chapter, he says how we know what inheriting the kin-dom actually looks like:
- feeding the hungry
- sating the thirsty
- welcoming the stranger
- clothing the naked
- caring for the sick
- visiting the prisoner
because those people are Jesus among us.
Jesus isn’t alone, and we are never alone.
Again, this isn’t the kin-dom. That isn’t Jesus. Like many of the parables before it, this parable depicts the anti-kin-dom.
This is Us
About this strange parable, my friend David Henson writes:
The wise and the foolish, it seems, operate on the same premise of scarcity and fear. Neither trusts the love the bridegroom has for his friends. Neither trusts that the bridegroom will embrace all regardless of whether they walk in light or walk in darkness. Neither remembers the words of the Psalmist who reassures us that to God night and day are the same and the night is as bright as the noonday sun.
These poor bridesmaids told to run off and get oil, are left out when the groom finally shows up. Maybe he thinks they’ve abandoned their post. But they haven’t! They’re trying to please him! They’re also doing what they’re told! I have great pity and sympathy for the foolish ones.
This whole thing doesn’t read like a grand depiction of heaven or the hoped-for kin-dom. It’s a big miscommunication of judgement and individualism.
But if the bridesmaids aren’t the people and the groom isn’t Jesus, then who are they? Are they not all us? Aren’t we often the foolish ones who come to faith unprepared? Or aren’t we the wise ones, camping out for Jesus? When have we been the groom, finally showing up and then shutting out the ones waiting to get in?
This is us!
We are out in the darkness!
And all of us have lamps and some of us have remembered the oil. But why do we continue to insist on lighting our own lamps? Why aren’t we gathering the light to dispel the darkness?
It seems to me that neither set of bridesmaids were doing the work. They had the lamps to cast the light of Christ into the darkness. But instead, they were so worried about getting into the wedding, they forgot they weren’t only called to do the work, but do the work together!
We are living this story out, filtering ourselves into the haves and have-nots and our elites determine who gets in. They get to decide who has prepared and shown the right initiative! Even as Jesus tells us to love unconditionally and give with great generosity and hope with reckless abandon!
He tells us to be fools, to be children, and to give up everything!
He tells us not to hide our lights under a bushel basket, but shine it! So I say we shine on like crazy diamonds.
The point is the work God continues to give us to shine the light of Christ in the midst of darkness. That’s the work. Not arguing over oil or shutting out the ones we call fools.
We shine our lights
We shine our lights, not just as followers of Jesus, but as a team. Our light, gathered as one can make small, narrow candles into a mighty bonfire of witness. We share our resources so that light casts out the darkness.
Even if this time seems dark for you, we’re called to be the light together. If you’re worried about your job, your family, your spiritual home, your very relationship with Jesus we are the light together.
Maybe you’ve trimmed your wick too many times or you’re running low on oil don’t run away! We don’t tell you how to go find some for yourself. Good luck with that! No! We’re here saying We feel it too. Yeah, it’s dark. If I were alone, I might be scared right now. But I’m not. You’re with me. We can do this together.
You think this is dark? Nah, this isn’t dark. We don’t do dark here. We’ve got a light and we share it. We give. We give today so the lights will be on tomorrow. And we keep the lights on because there are others out there in the dark. Waiting, watching, and working. We want them to come home, too.
Here, we’re not worried about getting in or if you’re the right kind of person. We’re about keeping the lights on. Because, God-willing, the world isn’t ending tomorrow and we’re all going to need to see where we’re going. Because we have work to do.