Saturday, May 1, 2021
Sometimes what comes immediately before and what comes immediately after explains that something in between so much better. A frustrated reader can spend hours or even more trying to figure out what a section or particular passage means, but to no avail — none whatsoever. Sometimes the reader’s real problem is the immediacy of his focus, or rather, the narrow constraint thereof. And by reader I happen to mean me. And by a particular passage I happen to mean Matthew 25:1-13, a passage which is otherwise and more catchily known as the Parable of the Ten Virgins, or else, the Ten Exhausted Bridesmaids, or perhaps, the Ten Sleepy Lasses.
For a very, very long time, I could not figure out what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners in the Parable of the Ten Virgins. In my vigorous self-defense, I will point out that most other interpreters (at least those I have read) come across as equally clueless. This is a parable, after all. Parables can be problematic, an interpretive headache. Parables contain a variety of symbols that can be quite slimy and slippery. Still, you might think by now interpreters would have figured it out. You might think.
Jesus, always a masterful storyteller, here tells the story of ten young women — ten virgins — who “went out to meet the bridegroom.” The bridegroom would be Symbol Number One of the parable. Thankfully, Symbol Number One is easy enough to figure out. The Bridegroom is — drumroll — Jesus himself, upon his return, his second-coming, his parousia. We know this because the New Testament often symbolizes Jesus’ parousia as a wedding, with Jesus as the groom and the Church as the bride (for example, see 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7 and 21:9).
The story goes on: Five of them are wise lasses, while the other five are foolish lasses. But just who are these maidens, really? And is it anachronistic to think of them like the bridesmaids we see in weddings today? Who exactly is symbolized as these ten virgins? See? It is getting trickier and more slippery already here at Symbol Number Two.
The story goes on: In case they must wait for the Groom past dark, the five foolish virgins do happen to bring some lamps along, but somehow fail to bring enough oil for their lamps. The five wise virgins also bring their lamps, but have the foresight to bring some extra oil.
So here we have a few additional parable symbols: darkness, lamps, and oil.
To their disappointment, the Bridegroom’s anticipated arrival is delayed well into the night, and so all ten of the bridesmaids get drowsy and fall asleep. At midnight, the ten bridesmaids hear an urgent, awakening cry, “The bridegroom is here!” They all get up and grab their lamps. Though still groggy, the five wise bridesmaids are ready to meet him, with their lamps now lit and with adequate oil. But sadly, the five foolish lasses are caught unprepared and off guard. Their lamps sputter and start going out, because these five foolish bridesmaids did not prepare adequately by bringing enough oil.
Perhaps if this parable were updated for today, the bridesmaids’ situational crisis might be that the batteries for their mobile phones get weaker until they died. And no battery chargers were brought.
The five foolish lasses then turned nervously turn to the five wise bridesmaids and said, “Hey, we have a problem. We are in a bit of a fix here. We need some more oil. Please share some of yours with us; okay?” But the five wise bridesmaids respond by saying, “OMG! So sorry, but we really don’t have enough for both you and ourselves. Maybe you should hurry out to the store, and go buy some of your own.”
While the five foolish lasses were away to buy more oil, the Bridegroom and his party arrived. The wise bridesmaids who were ready and waiting found themselves totally caught up in the happy moment, and thus completely forgot about the foolish lasses. The entire bridal party then accompanied the bridegroom to the wedding reception, except, of course, for the absent foolish lasses. No one waited around for them to return. They were left behind.
Finally, the foolish lasses found their way to the banquet hall. But when they attempted to get inside the reception, the bridegroom himself went to the door and turned the irresponsible bridesmaids away, saying, “Sorry, you foolish, negligent bridal attendants, but I do not know you.”
And thus it ends, with Jesus warning his listeners to watch, for they are ignorant of the day and the hour (of his appearance). And so we are. And yet we must watch.
Watch for what, Jesus? How do we know if we are watching like we ought to watch? How do we know who the wise bridesmaids actually are and who the foolish bridesmaids are? In the end, how can we avoid being the un-admitted foolish bridal attendants? You want us to be wise and not foolish: That we do get. But what does this mean for us in practice, Lord?
If the parable is to be understood, the interpreter obviously needs to explain the symbolism.
For a long time, I got stuck in the oil, or on the meaning of the oil. I supposed that if I figured out what the oil symbolized, that would take me a long way towards a correct interpretation. But I had gotten ahead of myself, or ahead of the symbolism of the parable, since I had not actually figured out who the bridesmaids were. I had erroneously assumed that the ten bridesmaids were just ordinary Christians, some of whom were wise, and some of whom were foolish. But, as it happens, that ain’t right.
Eventually, it dawned on me: The parable is actually missing a key character, an all-important character. That character is the Bride. In this parable, the bridesmaids are not the Bride herself. They are instead attendants to the Bride. They are her designated servants. They are the bridesmaids.
Someone at this point may second-guess my interpretation. And I understand why that someone might second-guess my interpretation. Someone may think, “But the passage does not say that the ten virgins are bridesmaids. That’s just your contemporary understanding of it, based on your ethnocentric cultural experience of weddings nowadays. Your interpretation is both ethnocentric and anachronistic.”
And initially, I might be inclined to concede my erroneous interpretive ways. I might defer to that castigating someone, if not for the two passages that sandwich the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
In the passage immediately before, Jesus talks about two servants, one of whom diligently takes care of his underlings, and the other who abuses his underlings. This is easier to understand. Jesus is talking about leaders who are entrusted with the care of their Master’s populace. Some are good and faithful; others go bad and start abusing their Master’s people.
In the passage immediately after, Jesus talks about servants who are entrusted with their Master’s resources. Some make wise and diligent use of their Master’s resources and are subsequently rewarded. Others are less diligent, but receive a due reward. One, though, is entirely negligent, and receives a fearsome punishment rather than a reward.
Crucially, all three passages are speaking about the same thing: the faithfulness of appointed leaders in their respective roles. The bridesmaids are actually church leaders. Their assignment is to give light to the Bride of Christ, though she goes unmentioned in the parable. The foolish bridesmaids fail the Bride the worst the very moment she need them most. They let the fire go out before the Groom arrives. They give no light to the Bride. This particular interpretation might seem to be a stretch, if not for the passage that comes immediately before and the passage that comes immediately after. Jesus is speaking to just one topic, the rewards or the punishment that await his appointed servants based on their degree of faithfulness in serving him and his Bride, the Church.
An astute family member of mine pointed out that Jesus does something very similar in Luke 15: He uses three consecutive parables to illustrate his one point there, which is just how graciously and lavishly God responds to genuine repentance.
Back to this parable, then. The bridesmaids are church leaders entrusted with preparing and teaching the truth of God’s Word. The wise bridesmaids are diligent and faithful in preparing and teaching the truth. The flame of the Holy Spirit continues to shine where they serve because they persist and continue to present the pure truth of the Word, especially in the darkest hour. The foolish bridesmaids have also been entrusted with the solemn responsibility of presenting the truth of the Word, but they fail to do so adequately, and thus the flame of the Spirit is extinguished where they serve. Ultimately, because they have failed to do their part in keeping the flame of the Spirit lit, the foolish bridesmaids themselves are denied entrance into the Kingdom. They are left behind and shut out. Terrifying.
This is sobering stuff. Bridesmaids, beware: You are responsible to continually light the way for the people of God. Give me oil for my lamp; keep me burning. Give me oil for my lamp, I pray.