Wedding Plans Go Awry - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23A (Matthew 25)
Lectionary reflection originally posted on November 4, 2014.
Matthew 25:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.
Parables are culturally embedded, which can make for an interesting read. We know weddings. I’ve been through one of my own and officiated at a fair number of them. Some have been large affairs and some very small and intimate. Each wedding has its own flavor – even if the service itself is pretty standard, the personalities involved define the event. By nature, weddings are supposed to be joyous affairs, but when things go awry, all bets are off. A bad wedding can be a bad omen for the future of the marriage. You better get it together soon, or else this thing isn’t going to last.
Of course, this parable isn’t really about weddings or marriage. I’m writing a bible study guide dealing with marriage, but this isn’t one of the texts I’m bringing into the conversation. No, this is a parable about preparedness for the coming of the realm of God.
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this . . . .” Most parables are about the kingdom. For Matthew, the word “heaven” designates “God.” Thus, Kingdom of Heaven equals Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom can be found on earth as in heaven. This particular parable stands in the middle of an extended teaching about the coming end of the age. It is an eschatological picture, one that involves preparedness and judgment. While for some of us who have universalistic proclivities, these parables challenge our inclusive tendencies. Some are left outside, and even more troubling those who have the opportunity to go inside don’t see too keen on helping the unprepared folk make it in. Just one more reminder that while Jesus is a preacher of love, he’s not always “nice.” Sometimes he puts the hammer of justice down on us, even if we would rather he not!
The word bridesmaid appears in the New Revised Standard Version, but the Greek parthenos might be better translated as virgin or maiden. The use of the word bridesmaid may conjure too many modern images. In any case, these maidens have a responsibility. They are supposed to go out and greet the bridegroom when he comes to get the bride. So, who is the bridegroom? In context, it is the Son of Man (Matthew24:29-31). These maidens go out to meet the Son of Man who is coming to gather the church together. The question then is whether we are prepared.
Who then are these maidens? The use of the word parthenos is interesting. Matthew also uses this word in reference to Mary bearing a son, whose name is Jesus (Matthew 1:21-23). The word itself comes in Matthew’s use of the Septuagint version of Isaiah7:14. The word could denote purity and even holiness, but could it also refer to receptiveness to being used by God to bring in the realm of God? Ten maidens were assigned the task, but five of them were not up to the task. They didn’t bring extra oil in case of a delay. So, what is going on here? What is Jesus saying to us? Why does Jesus shut the door?
As we think about these questions it is important that we also identify the meaning of the wedding banquet. The Wedding Feast/Banquet serves in Scripture as an image of the realm of God coming into its fullness. This parable, as is true of the ones that surround it, envisions the culmination of the age, when God will reign over all. The Table is set, the meal is served, are we ready?
To understand what happens with the ten maidens, one needs to keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel appears some fifty years after Jesus has been executed, buried, and raised. As we can see in the earlier Pauline letters there was a strong sense that the church was living at the end of the age. They were waiting for the kingdom to come in its fullness soon and very soon. But the coming of the Bridegroom has been delayed. Delays can cause problems. If you’re a Cubs fan, you can always say “there’s always next year.” For some Cubs fans, there is a constant hope that next year will be the year. The coming of Joe Maddon is like the coming of the bridegroom is it not? But there are others who will accede to the hope, but not expect it to come anytime soon. Joe Maddon is no different from Lou Piniella. [Note: the Cubs won the World Series in the intervening years].
All ten fall asleep. You can’t keep hyper-vigilant all the time. But five of them were wise enough to take extra oil with them just in case things got delayed. Apparently, it was common for bridegrooms to be delayed. This group of maidens exhibits a sense of spiritual calmness. They don’t get anxious. They rest, but they're ready when the time comes. The other group had expected the end to come much quicker and so they didn’t bring extra oil. They also fell asleep, but they weren’t prepared when the bridegroom arrived.
For many Christians of the Mainline Protestant tradition, we don’t get caught up in apocalyptic schemes. Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye don’t stir our interest (I’ve been there and done that). We’re so used to the delay that we don’t even think about a second coming. Yes, we observe Advent every year, but that’s focused on getting ready for Christmas. Ours is a realized eschatology – the kingdom is here for us to build. But is it that simple? Could we be missing something? Could we have forgotten to take extra oil for our lamps? That is, have we gotten so used to things the way they are that we are no longer prepared for the kingdom to be more than what we’re experiencing now?
Is it possible that the door could close on us because we’re not prepared for the coming of God’s realm? Have we gotten too comfortable with the status quo? Have we fallen asleep at the wheel? Is there no real sense of urgency? After all, most Cub fans have never seen a World Series played at Wrigley Field. Perhaps they never will. So why not just enjoy being lovable losers? But I know there are the true believers, who are prepared for the day in which the Cubs will break the streak. The same is true for the Wedding Banquet. The Bridegroom is coming – are we ready? Are we among those who are receptive to the coming of the Realm of God in all its fullness?
|Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Foolish Virgins, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57765 [retrieved October 13, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Foolish_Virgins_(Les_vierges_folles)_-_James_Tissot_(cropped).jpg.|