I’m gonna be honest here: I really dislike the five “wise” bridesmaids, maidens, virgins – however you want to translate the from Greek word used to designate them. Point is, I just don’t like the five wise what-evers. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a bunch of anal-retentive snots. Look, each of them brings with her an extra can of oil for her lamp. That makes five extra cans!! What? Don’t they trust that the bridegroom’s gonna show up on time or what? OK, so the bridegroom isn’t on time after all – so all ten of these young women have kept their lights shining longer than expected. And so everyone’s lamp is empty by the time the tardy groom does show up. The five snots have enough fuel to refill their lanterns, but will they share their oil with the five who don’t come over-prepared with extra oil? Nooooo! “We’ve got ours,” they say. “Tough luck for the rest of you girls. Why don’t you just toddle along and go to the dealers for some more oil for yourselves?” What a snotty answer – these five know that there aren’t any all-night 7-11s open. Whatever happened to the virtue of sharing?? And why didn’t the five snotty maidens just say to the bridegroom – “Hey, they’re with us. And since YOU weren’t on time their lamps have gone out. Let them in to the party – they’re not party-crashers, they’re your invited guests.” But of course these nasty, cliquish teen-agers aren’t about to go out on a limb for the other five – the five normal adolescent bridesmaids.
And while I’m trashing the five snotty maidens, I’d like to know what’s with the bridegroom. What? He can’t show up on time. It’s ultimately his fault that five of the girls ran out of oil in the first place. And when the these oil-bereft five somehow do find lamp fuel in the middle of the night and come back to the party – the bridegroom slams the door in their faces. I mean, what kind of a host is he?? Is he so myopic that he can’t recognize his own guests?? Come on! He’s as cliquish as the five snotty bridesmaids. What a bunch. Any way, who would really want to be at a party filled with this bunch of buzz-kills, anyway? Not me!
If you haven’t yet caught on, I’m not liking this parable of the five wise maidens and the five foolish maidens. If this is what heaven is supposed to be like . . . . well, this parable, left on its own is surely less than the Gospel. The Gospel is supposed to be about good news and this parable is most surely NOT good news – especially since I at least have a whole lot more in common with the five so-called foolish bridesmaids. Not only would I have run out of oil, but also I probably would have drunk more than my fill of vodka tonics long before the arrival of the bridal party – especially if this was an open-bar event. Thankfully, however, this morning’s reading does not stand alone in scripture.
So hear it once again, what I am ordered to say to you on behalf of Christ Jesus whose servant I am, hear it please: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Let me explain. This morning’s parable comes from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew – the book and its story is near its end. In the very next chapters, we are hit with the narrative of Our Lord’s Passion and death. Now in St . Matthew’s telling of those events, we first hear of a woman of dubious quality who foolishly squanders a full jar of costly ointment anointing Jesus while he’s a dinner in Bethany (with a leper no less) and then the Lord commends this foolishness. What’s up with that? Then the next day comes, and after the story of the Last Supper, we hear that Jesus goes with his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane – and He asks his disciples to keep watch with him while he goes to pray. But of course when Jesus comes back from his agonized prayer, he finds the whole bunch of his disciples fast asleep. And this happens not just once, not just twice, but three times. Who’s looking foolish here? If you go only by this morning’s parable, the disciples are in the same company as the foolish bridesmaids – left out in the dark with all the rest of the people in Jesus’ parables who couldn’t quite get their acts together. While Jesus concludes this morning’s foolish bridesmaid parable by saying, “Keep awake,” Jesus’ very own disciples cannot follow his command!!
And then we have Peter. In this morning’s parable the bridegroom says to the five dim-wicked bridesmaids – “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” And now, on the night before Jesus is crucified, while Jesus is at the house of the high priest being interrogated, Peter – chief among the disciples – says of Jesus not once, not twice, but three times “I do not know the man.” The bridegroom says to those outside in the darkness, “I do not know you,” and one chapter later Peter, standing outside in the darkness says of Jesus who is inside a lighted house, “I do not know him.” If we go by today’s parable, those closest to Jesus all stand condemned. And don’t we all! Which is precisely the point of this parable we hear today.
The parable of the five wise and the five not-so-smart bridesmaids stands as something meant to accuse – it is not Gospel, rather it is Law – and the Law always accuses us. And we need to hear the Law – for it tells us, everyone of us, that in relation to God none of us have our acts together – all of us stand condemned. We’re unprepared, we cannot keep awake, we do not watch and we deny Jesus constantly, consciously and unconsciously by the way we live-out our everyday lives. But thanks and glory be to Jesus, in our relationship with God, the Law does not get the last word. In Jesus’ crucifixion, God from God, light from light, true God from true God does not lift a finger in retaliation – even as the outer darkness descends upon him. And as this crucified God dies, the curtain in the Temple, the curtain that closes us off from God and the heavenly banquet is torn in two, never to be mended again. And the God whom we deny, in His rising from the dead – this God does not speak condemnation to those who could not stay awake and watch, to denying Peter, or to those who are foolish and whose lamps burn only dimly if at all – instead of condemnation, this God says, “Greetings, shalom, peace.” And then this — God’s final word in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The last, final, best word is sheer, pure Gospel, sheer good news. So hear it once again, what I am ordered to say to you on behalf of Christ Jesus whose servant I am, hear it please: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And that promise, that blessed assurance you cannot ever make go away – not by any denials, not by your lamps not burning, awake or sleeping, the Promise, “I am with you always,” and that promise is yours to hold on to until your last breath and your new birth into the heaven of God. Now come to the foretaste of the feast to come and receive the Promise into your very own bodies that you come truly to believe it.