November 8, 2020. Bridesmaids, Oil, and Staying Awake
Matthew 25: 1-13
Bridesmaids, Oil, and Staying Awake
This is a really difficult parable. But as I struggled with this parable throughout the week, it became more and more defined by waiting (maybe because the week became more and more defined by waiting). And the parable became even more difficult to wrestle with in my mind as I waited. Every time I searched for answers, what I came up with was more questions. But I do think that I have a lesson that is full of hope toward the end.
This parable would have been difficult for the people to understand even back then, but we in the 21st century don’t even know the wedding customs. We don’t have a base as a framework for the parable to really make any kind of sense. So as we read it now, we kind of read things into it. Which is pretty normal for parables. Specifically, we have a tendency to focus on Jesus as the bridegroom coming for his bride, the church. And he is late. To be fair, the people of Matthew’s time would have even had that idea that Jesus was late. I mean, it had been 30 years at least! Jesus was late. Come on Jesus. When are you gonna show up? But now, of course, it has been 2000 years. The bridegroom is late. What does this parable have to teach us in the here and now about what we should be doing and what we should be focusing on? What is the Gospel message, the good news in this parable for us and the 21st century?
Briefly, the story. We have a wedding that is happening, with this bride, bridegroom, and the 10 bridesmaids. And from my loose understanding, at some point during the wedding ceremony, the ceremony would end. And then they would go to the bride's house to finish the event. And the bridesmaids would be there to welcome the bridegroom to the home. And usually it didn’t take very long for him to show up. They would have lamps that would be filled with scented oil, they would probably look similar to this one. And you would fill it with oil, and it would burn. That probably would burn for a few hours. Then, when the bridegroom got to the house, he would be welcomed by this beautiful scent and be escorted into the house by the bridesmaids, and then he would go to be with his bride.
But the bridegroom is late. Hours are dragging on. And the 10 bridesmaids fall asleep. Then someone says the bridegroom is on his way! So they wake up. And what we find is that five of them only brought enough oil for what you would expect, and five of them brought extra oil. But the oil in all their lamps is gone. So now we have five of them that can light the lamp again, and five can’t because they don’t have any oil. So they ask the five that do have oil if they can borrow some, but they say “we don’t know that there will be enough for that. Go on into town to look at the storage facility (or their homes, or whatever they get the oil), and come back.” So they do. And while they are doing that, the bridegroom arrives. He walked into the house, and the five bridesmaids who had oil welcomed him. And then, he locked the door. The five which went to get more oil come back, and are left out in the cold, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This parable was in the middle of several that talk about the end times, and they talk about wheat and the chaff, and the goats and the sheep; and separating those to go to heaven from those who don’t. That’s the context for this whole story, and the reason why the church has continually read this as a story of the people who are inside and people who are outside; the good the bad, the wise and the foolish.
Of course one question would be: where are we? If Jesus is indeed the bridegroom, then who are we? And what is the parable telling us to be? And, as we place ourselves in the shoes of different people within the parable, it doesn’t really get much better. You have to remember that all of these 10 bridesmaids are likely friends of the bride. They likely come from the same community, a community that cares enough about each other that five of these women are able to go to town in the middle of the night and get oil. This really is not a case of us vs them; the five foolish (according to the parable) are friends of the bride, and probably friends with the five wise ones too.
If you place yourself in the position of the “wise” bridesmaids, you wind up inside with the bridegroom. But, how fun is the party? If you remember, these five bridesmaids who wind up inside are called wise, and typically we say this is who you should try to be; but they fell asleep too. And when they woke up, they needed to refill their lamps with oil too. And their friend’s came and asked for some oil, and they responded that there won’t be enough and to go into town and get some. And their friends did. And it was while they were gone that the bridegroom came, which means there probably was enough because the bridegroom was close enough, and then when they got back from being gone because these five sent them away to go get oil, the bridegroom locked them out. And these five played a part in that. They didn’t share their oil, they didn’t sacrifice themselves. They played a part in their friends being left outside. How fun is the party? So that’s not really where I want to put myself in this story.
Of course, another person you might identify with would be the bride. The church is often called the bride of Christ. And if Christ is the bridegroom here, and we are the church, then maybe we are the bride. But does that really make things any better? A normal situation would have the bridegroom coming very quickly, within an hour, from the ceremony. Yet she is waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Long into the night, to the point where her bridesmaids go to sleep! What’s going through her head in that moment? Where is the groom? Is he ever coming? Did he leave her? Was she not good enough?
And then, when he arrives, he tells her friends, people that she has hung out with presumably for her whole life, that he doesn’t know them and locks them out of the house. And if we place ourselves as a bride, and the party is heaven, that would suggest that those we know might be left outside in a way that is surprising. Maybe even people in this room would potentially wind up outside, if they don’t have enough oil.
And lest you think that’s a gigantic stretch, that’s kind of what it said in the next passage, with the sheep and the goats. That’s really not very comfortable. I have called Matthew 25 the most troubling Scripture in the entire Bible, because it specifically says that people who think they’re OK, who called “Lord, Lord” all the time, that Jesus will turn to them and say “I never knew you.” That people who think of the church is outdated and completely useless, who have never uttered the word “Lord” in the face of Jesus, will be brought into Heaven. It baffles our mindset. The main point of these parables in this area is that we don’t know who is in and who is out. This parable is asking us to wrestle with that as well.
So, I’m still not comfortable. Well, maybe let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the bridesmaids who would be called fools. This is the hardest one for me personally. There’s a feeling like these women are being treated unfairly. These women started with a lamp that was filled with oil, enough oil to last 95% of the time until the bridegroom showed up. And then the bridegroom was late. They weren’t late; they were there on time. They had what they were supposed to have for the day. They didn’t have extra, but they also weren’t weighed down with more than you normally need. Plus, they could clearly get more. It was the bridegroom that was late! And because the groom was late, they had to go get more stuff. Are they really going to be punished because the groom was late? That doesn’t seem fair at all.
And when you try and bring the rest of the Gospel into this, you recognize that the “wise” women who had extra oil, by the rest of the Gospel, should have given their oil to the ones without. The Gospel is full of messages like “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “if someone asks for your coat, give them your cloak as well.” The Bible is all about sacrificial giving and caring about your neighbor. So not only should they not be at fault because the bridegroom is late here, but the other five, per the rest of the Gospel, should’ve given them oil anyway! They’re being punished for someone else’s wrongdoing. And if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us recognize that we often, trying to be pragmatic or economical, trying to do the most with the least, we have to recognize that we might actually be the ones who would have just enough oil to get through 99% of the time. Many of us would be these “foolish” bridesmaids.
So that didn’t provide any good news either. At this point I was wondering where the good news was; wondering what kind of message I might be able to bring to you. Until I decided to put myself in the shoes of the bridegroom. Now I recognize that in my mind the bridegroom is representing Jesus, but let’s take a look at this from Jesus’ perspective. Let’s take a look at the bridegroom’s actions with everything we know about Jesus, not only from the Scripture, but also from tradition. In particular, salvation, because this is a story that we're saying might well be about getting into Heaven.
Jesus is actually relatively clear here about his lesson at the end of the passage. Jesus says, in verse 13, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” When we talk about this passage, we often are talking about how you need to have oil, you need to have lots of oil in order to keep patiently waiting to welcome the bridegroom when he comes (whenever that is). You need to make sure you’re not one of the “foolish” ones, so get more oil, and the oil is faith or good works. But the reality is that when Jesus goes to teach the lesson, he never mentions the oil. He says to keep awake.
And I begin to wonder what would’ve happened if the five women who ran out of oil had just stayed. We know what happened when they went to go get more oil for sure, but what would’ve happened if even one of them had said “no, I’m going to stay here and beg forgiveness for not having done my job. But I’ll be here, and I’m going to smile and welcome the bridegroom, even if I don’t have the smelly oil.”
Jesus is a God who forgives. Jesus is a God who is merciful. I fundamentally believe that if there had been 10 bridesmaids waiting at the door when the bridegroom arrived, five of which had oil and five of which didn’t; there would’ve been 10 bridesmaids in the room. Because it’s not about oil. It’s not about what you’ve done or not done, it’s about staying awake. Believe in the goodness and mercy of the groom when he arrives. And the good news I have for you this week is a fundamental believe in my heart that if you are standing there, out of oil at this moment, if you don’t think you have much to show right now, maybe you don’t think you have much faith right now; my fundamental belief in my heart is as long as you’re there, the groom will let you in.
And that doesn’t mean that if you have extra oil to spare you shouldn’t give your oil to those who don’t. You should. It doesn’t mean that if you are doing well it’s not time to go uplift your friends who aren’t. You should absolutely share your faith. And it doesn’t mean that if you don’t have much oil right now that you should not be trying to engage in the spiritual disciplines to try and get more. You absolutely should be praying and studying Scripture. It means don’t leave trust in the delivery mechanism; trust in the bridegroom. Trust in Jesus to make it through and you’ll be okay in the end. Amen.