Complementary Text – Psalm 45:6-7
Preaching Text – Matthew 25:1-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
If you’re anything like me, brothers and sisters, then today’s reading is the kind of parable that cuts straight to your heart. The final words from the bridegroom are harsh and unforgiving. The refusal of the wise bridesmaids to share their oil with the others strikes me as being totally out of character for people who are supposed to live their lives with the values of Heaven’s Reign – especially when we consider Jesus’ insistence that we are called to place the interests of others above our own. To be honest, I don’t like this parable, at least not the way that it has so often been interpreted by the church. In the “standard” reading of this parable of Jesus, the characters and objects in the parable are very easily identified: Jesus is the bridegroom, the bridesmaids are disciples of Jesus, the light from the lamps or torches represents the good works of the disciple, and the wedding feast is the heavenly banquet that will be enjoyed by those who inherit Heaven’s Reign. With this framework in mind, the parable’s supposed point is easy to see: The wise bridesmaids were prepared for the bridegroom’s arrival because of their good works, while the foolish bridesmaids found themselves on the outside looking in because they didn’t have those works, which meant that they weren’t ready for the feast or welcome to join in it.
Now, on the one hand, this interpretation makes some sense. After all, Matthew seems more concerned with the ethical demands of discipleship than any of the other gospels. And those chilling words at the end in response to the foolish bridesmaids cries do echo another passage earlier in the gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter Heaven’s Reign, but only the one who does the will of my Father. … but I will declare to [many of] them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me…’” (Matthew 7:21,23, NRSV) But even if we agree that good works are important – which I think we all should – it still seems to me that there’s something wrong with that traditional interpretation. I’ll admit, it could be my Lutheran bias, and the centrality of our understanding that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but I just can’t go along with the idea that the reason the bridesmaids ended up on the wrong side of that door was that they weren’t good enough.
So what’s the issue? I’d like to suggest that the traditional interpretation has exactly the wrong focus. It reinforces the idea that the relationship we have with God is, in the end, dependent on the quality or quantity of our works, an idea that many other passages of Scripture seem to reject. What, then, are we to glean from this astonishing and challenging parable? Let’s take a look back at the parable again and see if we can find an alternative to this pervasive reading of the story.
Ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom. Their role in welcoming the bridegroom isn’t specified. Nothing is said about their being needed to light the way back to the banquet hall. All we know is that they are called to be present to meet the bridegroom when he returns to the village for the wedding feast. Five of these bridesmaids bring extra oil with them and five of them don’t, and when the bridegroom’s return is delayed, all ten of them get sleepy and doze off. When the call goes up at midnight, signaling the imminent arrival of the bridegroom, all ten wake up with a start. The five wise bridesmaids ready their torches to be lit, while the five foolish ones panic and ask for some oil to use for their torches. The five “wise” bridesmaids refuse to lend them any, and the foolish ones respond by leaving to buy some oil. It’s while they’re gone to get their torches ready that the bridegroom shows up, and when they return to the feast they find that the door has been closed to them and they hear those chilling words: “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Here’s my question: was the problem really with their lack of oil? Or was the problem that they had failed to do the one thing that they had been tasked with doing, that they were not present to welcome the bridegroom upon his return? If we read the parable this way, then the issue was not that they weren’t “good enough” to receive the bridegroom rightly, but that they didn’t trust the bridegroom enough to stick around and admit that they hadn’t been as well prepared as their fellow bridesmaids. Rather than focusing on what was really important – the joy of the wedding and the arrival of the bridegroom – they turned that focus squarely on themselves and their lack of preparation, and so missed out on the bridegroom’s entrance and the party that followed. If this is a fair reading, then the bridegroom’s rebuke becomes less an indictment of their character and more an indictment of their lack of trust and their misunderstanding of the bridegroom’s gracious character.
This interpretation leaves some questions, of course. What about those other bridesmaids? Why didn’t they share with the foolish bridesmaids after all? And what are we to make of the final command to “Keep awake” when in the parable all ten of the bridesmaids fail to stay awake until the bridegroom’s coming? Parables are meant to stir conversation, and this one is no exception. I’ll admit that there are problems with this interpretation – just as there are with any other. One point is clear – whichever way you read this story, it’s better to be one of the wise bridesmaids and end up inside the wedding feast than to be stuck on the outside looking in. Whether we’re talking about faith or about works, Jesus is teaching his disciples (and us) that the uncertainty of his arrival is a cause for greater vigilance, not for relaxation.
What does that mean for us this Lent? I’d like to suggest that the interpretation I’ve proposed has the benefit of correcting an all-too common problem with Lent: that our spiritual practices and disciplines become an end in themselves. During this season, we are called to renew our relationship with Christ, and part of that renewal is gaining a greater appreciation for the character of the one who has claimed us in baptism and called us to discipleship. If this season is in some way about storing up oil for our lamps, then we need to be careful that we’re doing it for the right reason. We are called to have that oil ready, not for our own sakes, but so that we might always be ready to receive Christ. Perhaps more importantly, perhaps we are called to live in such a way that when our oil runs low we will not be turned away because we trust in the grace and love of the one whose coming is the ground of our hope. This week, brothers and sisters, let us fix our eyes on the bridegroom whose name is Jesus, and let us trust in his grace and love, so that we might share in the joy of his coming today and in the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.