Matthew 25:1–13 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
There is something special about weddings. Yesterday I had the privilege to attend a wedding of a good friend and his now wife. It was a traditional wedding, nothing super special about it except for a couple of things. First it was a good friend’s wedding and I got to help with the celebration. Second the minister did something that was pretty profound, he asked those that gathered who is the most important people at the wedding. There were several answers, the funniest was when someone said Jesus and the pastor said that is a good answer but not right. I was sitting there wondering where he was going with this question and he turned to the crowd and started naming off names of the children and asked each child, including Albert to come up to the front. As the children gathered he said these children are the most important people at this wedding because it is these children that will look at the love story being played out before them and if the couple loves deeply and correctly it is the children in that room that will benefit the most.
I was amazed by that short little part of the ceremony. That is one of the most profound and correct things about marriage that I have ever heard. It is not only about the couple, but it is about the community. Encouraging and strengthening the community as a whole through the love that each family shares with each other. I spent the rest of the evening just thinking about that, that one statement changed everything I thought I was going to say today. We join together in marriage for the children of the community not out of love, not out of the potential for more children, but to strengthen the understanding and to become examples of the love God has for each person to those already in the room.
As I considered that statement, I reexamined this parable of the ten virgins through a different perspective. Often I read this passage and get stuck focusing on the wise women and the foolish women, but I think those women are just illustrations for something much deeper, something that goes down to the very heart of humanity as a whole. Often we get caught up in a narrow view of marriage, we get too focused on the family and fail to see how our commitment to a spouse strengthens families and communities in areas we may never know. I think I have missed this before because I look at this story through the lenses of our culture, and fail to understand what marriage meant to a Middle Eastern culture two-thousand years ago.
The first thing we need to understand is why there are ten virgins heading out to meet a bridegroom. I am almost embarrassed to say that most of my life I assumed that the bride groom was choosing his bride from these ten women, but that is not at all what is going on. In the ancient customs of marriage the community was very involved in every aspect of the ceremony. Negotiations were made between the families, prices were set, and debating going on between the parents of those to be wed. When all of the negotiations were settled, the bridegroom would be able to take his wife into his home. For many of us we see this as a terrible situation because it seems to treat women like property and not equals, but we are looking at things through cultural lenses instead of reality. The negotiations were made not only for the transfer of wealth but as a sort of insurance policy. Although the wealth was transferred into the man’s house the woman had the final say in how that portion of their combined wealth could be used. In many cases, the women would carry this wealth on their head coverings, hanging coins from their veils for all to see. If the woman’s wealth was used it was often scandalous, because this wealth was similar to what we know as life insurance, it was to be used in emergencies or if the husband died.
But that does not tell us why the ten women were out there getting the bridegroom. These women are what we would now call bridesmaids, their job in the ceremony was to go to the bridegroom’s house to escort him and his family to the bride’s house where the wedding feasts would begin. So these bridesmaids are told that the negotiations have been settled and the feast can begin, so they gather their lamps and go to the man’s house to bring him to collect his bride. So these ten virgins are not the bride, they are only representatives sent by the bride.
As always the characters in the stories that Jesus tells have important things to say to us. The bride is the church, the bridesmaids are those who minister in and through the church. I bring this up because often we see our personal relationship with God as being the most important thing about the Christian life, but that is not exactly the case, it is the church that is the bride not us. We are the bridesmaids. We are the representatives sent out by the bride to escort the bridegroom and his family to her. Yes our personal relationship with God is import but that is not the whole story.
Jesus goes on to say that there are different types of women in this group the wise and the foolish. The wise virgins grab their lamps as well as a flask of oil, where the foolish only grab their lamps. The lamp is an important illustration. In the days before street lights nights were very different. Only the moon and the stars provided light to illuminate the darkness unless you had a lamp to cast light. In the ancient cultures women would tend the lamps, and they would keep them burning all night often waking throughout the night to add oil so that the flame would continue to burn.
Well these women were waiting on the bridegroom to come, because he was delayed, they grew tired and fell asleep. I want us to reflect on this for a bit. They were holding their lamps but they fell asleep allowing the light to diminish, they stopped tending their lamps as they should and were caught off guard for the announcement. This is where our personal relationship with God becomes very important.
There are several interpretations of what the lamp and the oil mean throughout the history of the church. But through each of those interpretations there is a common theme. Salvation means something more. If the bride is the church, and we are the brides maids our job is to be light bearers we are to carry the lamps filled with oil to escort Jesus, and the community to the bride. We are to bear the light. There is something very profound in that, to bear light means that there is work that has to be done. We must tend the lamps, keeping the wicks trimmed so that smoke does not overcome the light, and we must keep the oil filled. Throughout Christian history they have said that this is a balance between works and faith. The oil is our faith and the filling of the oil is our personal relationship with God, because it is God’s spirit that is the oil and it is the oil that burns creating the light. The Lamp that we carry is the ministry and the works that we do to carry the light of Christ within us out into the community.
Jesus makes mention of half of the virgins as being wise and half foolish. Both the wise and the foolish carry lamps. But some neglected to bring oil with them. All people can do good works, all people can minister to other and shine light, but eventually their stocks of oil will run out and the light will fade away. Those without oil will cry out to the others but they will not have enough to go around so they will have to run to find it. Those that have oil will tend to their lamps and will escort the community to the feast.
This is interesting, because both groups of women were tired and asleep, and suddenly brought back to awareness. We never know when we will be called into action, but are we prepared to carry the light? God will use those that are prepared. Often we get caught up in carrying lamps of service only to find ourselves burning out, or we are focused on stockpiling oil but never carrying the lamp. Both cases we are not in a position to be bearers of light, at least for long. This is where discernment is very important, and the only way to have this sort of discernment is if we participate in the holy rhythm of life that Jesus taught us. Making it our custom to worship together, withdrawing to isolated places to pray, and going out into the community to minister and serve. The worship together ignites our passions and sets our heart ablaze. It is during worship where our wicks get trimmed and together we can encourage one another to continue on. These gatherings may not always look the same, passions that ignite our hearts can come in many different forms, we can be ignited to burn for the environmental movement, or for tax reform, or any other ministry that promotes our communities, but if there is not an adequate supply of oil the lamp will burn down and eventually fade. That is where a disciplined life of pray comes in. it is in those times of prayer, study, and mediation where we are filled and gain reserves of the oil of the spirit.
You might argue with that statement and say but we are filled with passion during worship, but what happens if you miss a day or several meeting for worship? If we are not personally engaged in a life of prayer eventually our reserves will diminish. When we do not actively engage a life of prayer when tough times hit us we cannot bear light because we cannot see because the oil is gone and we are burning a dry wick. Worship gets us excited to serve, Pray gives us discernment on where and when we are called to serve, but we are not bearers of light if we do not get out of ourselves to carry the light to those around us. Just like that minister said in the wedding that my family attended last evening, the bride and groom bear the light of love to the community so should we be bearing that light, the light of God’s love to our community.
If we neglect this holy rhythm, we will one day be called to minister and we will have nothing to offer like the foolish virgins without the oil. We will be forced to run out to find the oil we need but in the process we will lose the chance to become bearers of the light, we lose the opportunity to celebrate in the joys of the wedding feast. All because we were too focused on other things, we had our lamps but they were empty.
This parable struck me hard this week. It speaks of priorities and passions, it speaks of discipleship and discernment, and it speaks of the joys of service. It has caused me to look at what I have been doing and made me wonder if maybe I am not as wise as I would like to think. But then I saw little children gathered around a couple dressed in white, looking them in the eyes, hoping for a chance to see love played out before them. I began to ask myself, what are we as a community really showing the world around us? Are we bearers of light, or just another smoldering smoky wick?