“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.