breaking of the bridesmaids: a parable for patience, justice and Occupy protests

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

— Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. —

Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

— In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” —

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.

— a smoldering wick he will not snuff out — 

” ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ ”

— Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” —

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.

— In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light. —

The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.

— But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. —

And the door was shut.

— “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. –

“Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

— If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. 

I begin this way only because our understanding of this text has become so ingrained that it is difficult to think of the story in any way other than a cautionary, apocalyptic tale about the return of Jesus.

For most of my life, I have identified with the five wise bridesmaids, always seeking to have enough of the good stuff in my lamp – good works and faith – to persevere in a dark, sinful world. I was wise, holding onto my lamp in the dead of night.

But my sympathies changed when I spiraled into deep doubt. I exchanged my glasses of plenty for those of lack. My faith and good works became a fragile ember, glowing only faintly. I saw myself as a foolish bridesmaid, watching as my lamp’s light evaporated into a thin tendril of smoke, quite jealous of those whose faith still burned brightly. I was foolish, begging my lamp not to die.

As a result, I began to seek other ways of understanding this parable, for I could no longer hold onto my original understanding of this story any more than the foolish bridesmaids could have conjured up the needed oil in the dead of night.

So, I began by asking questions that the story couldn’t answer. I put myself in the shoes of the bridesmaids, these close friends who waited and waited for the overdue groom to arrive. What made me so foolish? Even the wise fell asleep. Surely I cannot be faulted for not being watchful enough. I wonder what would have happened had I simply continued to wait, with my smoldering lamp disintegrating into ash. What would have happened if I had waited, in the darkness of my own lack?

This is what made the bridesmaids so foolish. They left, when they should have stayed. The bridal couple surely would have welcomed me into the light, happy just to see me. What faith it would have taken, though, to wait in frailty, in honesty.

Truly, when the foolish return to the in-progress party, the groom is honest when he says he does not know the bridesmaids. They are wearing masks. They have sought to appear to be something they are not. They are hypocrites.

So, no matter how thin our light, we wait. For the kingdom of heaven is near.

But wait. What about those wise ones who couldn’t spare an ounce of oil, those wise ones who chose their needs over the needs of others? What are we to do with them?

Truly, I can think of nowhere else in the Bible that we have afforded such selfish behavior such an exalted place. No, they say, we cannot share with you because we might not have enough for ourselves. We’re not sure, but just to be safe, we’re not sharing what we have. Against the backdrop of the Occupy movement around the world and massive corporations stockpiling cash, we might easily see today’s superrich as the so-called wise bridesmaids, reminding us that indeed the wisdom of world is foolishness — or worse — to God.

So the wise break up the bridal party and send the foolish away to beg and bang on doors of friends and relatives in search for oil.

By the time they get back, they are ostracized, left out the cold and dark of night. Surely, the groom thought them to be derelict, poor friends who couldn’t wait up with him just a few more hours. Perhaps he thought they had simply given up and gone home during the long delay.

But nothing could have been further for the truth. They have done nothing wrong. They bear no great sin. They wanted to please the groom so much they have gone to amazing lengths to scrounge up oil while the rest of the town slept and the wedding party feasted.

Yet, traditional takes on this passage continue to praise behavior that runs counter to the central message of Jesus: the gospel of radical inclusivity and compassion.

Yet, we lionize the wise ones, the haves who refuse the share with the have nots.

Yet, we celebrate the wise ones who are responsible for the cold hell the foolish must endure.

But wait. What are we to do with this bridegroom, this Christ-figure who acts so uncharitably, who tells the industrious foolish bridesmaids to go away? Is this the same Jesus, the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the lost one, the woman who leaves no stone unturned in search of a lost coin?

In a word. No.

Translators have yet to take their lens off when approaching this text. During the time of Jesus, the groom would have returned for the celebration with the bride, not as the translated text seems to imply, to get the bride. The bridesmaids would have been her friends and would be awaiting her return. Indeed, most scholars agree that the original parable included the bride and the bridegroom in the late return. Yet every English translation leaves this out. It contradicts the traditional understanding of the story.

If Christ has already been united with his bride, then how can this be interpreted as the return of Christ for his bride? It can’t.

Here it is instructive to remember that Matthew was a book written shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem at a time when the Pharisees – the Jewish institutional leaders – were licking their wounds and retrenching. They were clamping down on rebel and heretical strands of Judaism, including, of course, the Jesus movement. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out.

This is a story about real life, about the Pharisees, who Jesus often criticized as cold, holier-than-thou lawgivers. This story is about the Pharisees who literally shut the doors of the synagogue to the Jesus movement. They are the wise bridesmaids who refuse to show compassion, and the readers of Matthew – the only gospel in which this tale appears – would have understood this, particularly in light of Jesus concluding explanation in Matthew 26.

When he gets to the end of his three kingdom of heaven parables, Jesus informs his listeners who were the truly foolish and who were the truly wise in each of his parables. Jesus is the original O. Henry. Except, this surprise ending punches us – and perhaps the original listeners – in the gut, if we will only have the ears to hear it.

In the end, Jesus says, those on their way to heaven will be decided by what they gave away, whether they fed the poor, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. Whether they shared what they had. Whether they shared their oil.

If they hoarded what they had, they, of course, already enjoyed their reward. It was comforting though temporary to be wrapped in a cocoon of self-righteousness and status. The wise on earth had their wedding feast on earth. But that is not how it is in heaven.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. May this not only be our prayer but our passion, our vocation, our very occupation.

9 thoughts on “breaking of the bridesmaids: a parable for patience, justice and Occupy protests

  1. I’m having a very time following your argument here.  So Matthew puts a speech on Jesus’ lips that appears to praise the “wise” maidens, but in actuality (a) the wise maidens are actually a metaphor for the Pharisees, and (b) the wise maidens are actually the villains of the story?  I dunno.  Jesus seemed to have no problem openly rebuking the Pharisees (cf Ch 23!), and to overtly commend charity and selflessness, so it’s surprising that He would do these in such a veiled way in this passage.

  2. Sorry, that was confusing. That shouldn’t have read, chapter 36, but verse 36. To be clear, I think the three tales of the kingdom fit together, just not in the usual way. In the Parable of the Talents, I’d argue it was the one who buried the talent is the hero. If you use the conclusion of the kingdom tales as a hermeneutic key, then we must reexamine these parables’ long-standing understandings in light of the imperative of generosity to “the least of these” not in lionizing those who didn’t share (the five wise virgins) or those who exploited others for financial gain (the two good slaves). I don’t think it’s really all that veiled, to be honest. I just think our long discourse surrounding these parables and our bias for success and exclusion tend to make it seem veiled. 

    I stand by the argument that this parable, in part, represents the fledgling Jesus’ movement’s exclusion from the Temple by those who would shut the door to God.

  3. I agree with David R. Henson, his interpation to me seems reasonable because if we take those locked out of the kingdom as the parables heroes along with the man who buried the talent, then the prophecy of the goats and sheeps makes much more sense. It gives all three stories a unifying theme that at the end of the age, money won’t be a big factor, love will. 
    But I wonder how we are to make sense of Matthew’s redactional activity to me it would seem that he is in agreement with the standard interpretation of the Parousian parables. I understand that sometimes parables, as Kenneth Bailey has shown,  could be open ended and thus subject to reinterpretation but is it really probable that this happened that quick to its original composition, assuming it is pre-Matthean?
    Other than a few difficulities, I appreciate your exegesis, it makes a lot of sense and as I have noted earlier it gives the whole olivet discourse a unifying theme from front to finish. Plus it sounds very Christ like, something the standard intepretation does not [at least not completely or as much as I would it too.]

  4. “I just think our long discourse surrounding these parables and our bias for success and exclusion tend to make it seem veiled.”

    I would say it’s rather that the text fairly overtly declares its subject, but to sustain your reading, we have to infer that its true subject is something else entirely.  It’s not a text about sharing, it’s a text about preparedness, and you can’t share preparedness — at least not preparedness of the sort Christ is talking about.  You’re asking Him to be guilty of mixing his metaphors in a way that belies His capacity for effective communication.  I mean, Christ may not have been a B. Obama, but He was no rhetorical hack, either.

    Rather than argue that your reading is wrong, which I will never convince you of, I will simply say that you have not done an adequate job convincing me that it’s tenable.  And I think a good starting point would be to demonstrate that it stands up without adding embellishing details to the text as you have.  There’s no mention of the faithful servants “exploiting others for financial gain”, there’s no mention of the industriousness of the foolish virgins as they generously sought to enrich the local economy with their late-night oil procurement, no implication that those benevolent consumers engaged in their economic activity because of their deep love for the groom and their selfless desire to please him, etc.  Not to mention, I would be very interested to hear about how the wicked servant who beats his fellow servants and carouses with drunkards during his master’s absence is actually a model for virtuous conduct!

    I say again:  you want the story to be praising the wicked servant, the foolish maidens, the servant who buried his talent.  Sticking /strictly to the text/, what have any of these done to earn your adulation?  

  5. Jeff,

    Read some James C. Scott, some William Herzog, and get a better sense for the kinds of dynamics that lie just underneath the surface of texts and public narrative performances produced in contexts of asymmetrical domination. My suggestion to you. That’s all I’m good for.

  6. I would think that domination by its very nature is inherently asymmetrical.

    Anyway, again, what I find strange is that Jesus, in a very public setting, openly excoriates the Pharisees with vituperative language (Ch 23).  Then, in a private meeting with the Disciples, he doubly encodes His message “underneath the surface” into a speech that gives every appearance to be about an entirely different subject.  It seems like the opposite of what you’d expect from someone who is apparently being subversive.

  7. Again, I think when you say doubly encodes you are speaking from an assumption that I do not share. I think, to Jesus’ hearers, it might be our modern interpretation that would seem doubly encoded or nonsensical. The problem is that we automatically assume that the bridegroom is Jesus come to unite with the Bride of Christ. The bridal analogy, as I outline, in this parable doesn’t fit with the context of 1st century wedding conventions. In 1st century Palestine, the bridegroom would have arrived to the house with the bride, and the parable likely reflected this in its original form. However, it was left out with the dominant interpretation came to assume this was a parable about Christ coming to reunite with the Bride of Christ. The textual issues as well as the strikingly re-arranged bridal metaphor demand a closer look at this parable. 

    I don’t think either that it necessarily follows that simply because Jesus excoriates the Pharisees in public that he wouldn’t tell a parable to the same effect with a similar message. 

    If your interested, I could send you the bibliography that went with the homily. 

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