Bridesmaids wanted. Immediate start
In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus has moved away from the Temple and from arguments with the authorities, but the rather dark tone of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), has a sense of urgency, and points to the need to make a decisive response to Jesus. He seems to be quite clear in saying that you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’, and there doesn’t seem to be any grey area. The starting point of our discussion was
Q1 When does entry or refusal into the Kingdom of Heaven happen?
The initial understanding of some in the group was that Jesus was talking about our judgement when we die and we find out whether we are going to heaven or otherwise. In chapters 24 and 25, though, Jesus is preparing his followers for the troubled times ahead, which will lead to the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Life after death is not Jesus’ concern at this point: he is aware of his role as Messiah in establishing God’s rule on earth. This parable, then, is not about when we die but how we live, (although the two are, of course, connected.)
For Matthew’s first readers, the delay in the bridegroom arriving had particular significance. The expectation had been that the ‘Second Coming’ (and with it, Judgement and the reign of God) would have happened soon after his Ascension, yet here they were around 40 years later, not only still waiting, but living in dangerous and confusing times: the Temple had been destroyed, they were suffering harsh persecution and still no sign of Jesus. They would surely be thinking ‘What’s keeping him?’ (It is well worth reading chapter 24 to see Jesus’ description of the times ahead, and v12 sets the scene very well for this parable: “with the increase in lawlessness, love in most people will grow cold; but anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.”)
These difficult times and the unexpectedly long wait for Jesus’ return helped us realise that the weariness of the bridesmaids and their falling asleep was more than just fatigue. The problem wasn’t that they fell asleep, but how they were able to rouse themselves when they were needed to welcome the bridegroom and to guide him to the wedding hall: if there were no lights shining, it would be pitch black and the groom would not know where to go.
One key point of the parable, then, that his followers must have a light burning – a community which is still living in his ways – or Jesus’ coming will be in vain. Not for the first time in the Gospel, we see God taking the initiative (as the bridegroom coming to us), but depending on us to respond. This ability or otherwise to respond brought us on to the oil in the lamps.
Q2 Is Jesus praising selfishness?
The wise bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil with their foolish friends seemed to be decidedly and unnecessarily mean. (Now we would say they aren’t being very Christian). The way the parable ends suggests that Jesus is saying people have to take responsibility for themselves and can’t expect others to ‘bail them out’. This uncharacteristically hard-line attitude of Jesus was troubling. What had happened to kissing lepers, stopping for widows and generally reaching out to those who find themselves on the outside or who can’t keep up?
Whether Jesus is acting out of character or not depends on what the oil represents. As it is the fuel which keeps the light burning, our conclusion was that the oil represents what we draw upon to keep our faith alive, or thinking of the early Christians, more specifically – faith in Jesus. For them to be able to keep the faith alive in their circumstances would mean to keep living by his teachings, even when ‘love in most people had grown cold’ and they were suffering persecution, they must have taken the teachings of Jesus to heart. That is where the oil for the lamp is stored.
As it is internal, and achieved through a process of growth in understanding and in becoming more open to God, this oil can’t be passed on. To expect this would be like me asking a leading actor or musician, for instance, not only to pass on tips and advice but also to ask them to pass on being a top actor or musician. Each person has to make their own journey in faith as in other areas of growth.
Jesus’ main concern is not to teach individuals how to get to heaven, but to prepare a community of believers to continue his work. If they had split their oil, then all the lamps would have burned out too quickly and there would be darkness to greet the groom. Considering the turbulent and confusing times Matthew’s readers were living in, the message here seemed to be that the community must focus on ‘keeping the light burning’, which would, at times, mean deciding whether they allow their lives and their focus to be diverted by people who are not as committed.
Although we were comfortable with this, we still needed to clear up the ridiculous-sounding advice to ‘go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves.’ Given the hour when the groom arrived, (midnight) nobody would be selling oil at that time. Perhaps Jesus, as a master story teller, was being deliberately ridiculous. Quite apart from them not being open, if the oil does represent true faith, then it isn’t a commodity which can be bought and sold. Perhaps the question should be, who thinks they can sell it? The answer would be the Scribes and Pharisees who regard themselves as keepers and interpreters of the Law. The point about the foolish bridesmaids having no oil was that they hadn’t taken Jesus’ new teachings to heart, so they were still essentially living by the old ways; therefore, they should go back to their source to ‘top up’.
The point about it being midnight and therefore too late is Jesus saying that the old way, the old Covenant, is over and the new one established. You cannot come to the banquet with old attitudes, which leave you unprepared to respond to the coming of the bridegroom, (a point Jesus had also made with the parable of the fig tree and in the Parable of the Wedding Feast when the guest who wasn’t dressed in wedding attire was thrown out).
The decisive nature of Jesus coming and establishing God’s reign is emphasised by the groom saying he doesn’t know the foolish ones when they finally arrive with their oil. This is not about people being turned away at the gates of heaven and sent to hell with a ‘you should have thought about that when you were alive,’ but about how we respond to Jesus today, in our daily lives.
Q3 Pilot light or full flame?
As we believe that the risen Jesus is present, having sent the Holy Spirit amongst us, the answer seemed obvious: we need to respond to him as the Spirit prompts us in daily life.
The words of our Baptism are significant here. As the Baptismal candle, lit from the Paschal candle, was handed to us we heard the words ‘receive the light of Christ’ with the instructions to keep it burning. To do so, we need to keep the reserves of oil constantly topped up, which in turn means having a supply near at hand.
It was easy enough to say where the supply comes from – prayer, scripture and the sacraments, and through our relationships and our ‘good works’ –but we also had to admit that, living in our world, it isn’t always easy to keep the flame burning when all around are neglecting theirs, or are even blowing the flames out. The reading from the Book of Wisdom (6:12-16) was a great help here as this was written for Jews living in and around Alexandria. Their faith was being severely tested by the sophisticated philosophical theories, the scientific advances, the strong and convincing influence of astrologers and the many popular cults. They were,in other words, a rather confused minority who would struggle to speak up for their beliefs when faced with people who seemed to have all the latest knowledge and thinking to disprove, and possibly ridicule, their own beliefs and customs. The author of Wisdom assures them that Wisdom is not only very close, she is readily available to anyone who desires her, (it’s that simple: no qualifications or advanced knowledge needed!) – Wisdom eagerly seeks out those who want her.
One problem we have to be aware of is that ‘wisdom’ in our times is often used to mean ‘very knowledgeable’, or ‘vastly experienced’. In other words, wisdom is associated with knowing a lot. The Wisdom in the context of this passage, though is nothing less than God’s Wisdom. There is a powerful and beautiful description of Wisdom in chapter 7, vs 25-29: ‘She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty …untarnished mirror of God’s active power, and image of his goodness …passing into holy souls, she makes them into God’s friends and prophets.’
We don’t claim to be theologians, so may be wrong in this, but Wisdom sounds very like the Holy Spirit – often represented as a flame – who is close and fully available to anyone who is open to him.
The opening lines of the reading for this Sunday are interesting: ‘Wisdom is brilliant, she never fades. By those who love her, she is readily seen.’ which, of course, means that there are people who don’t see her for all her brilliance. The key to having lamps lit and the flames burning, ready to respond to Jesus as he comes to us, then, is to love him, as recognised by Pope Francis when he urges ‘all Christians, everywhere, to a new personal encounter with Jesus Christ’.
As a conclusion, we recognised that two ‘religious’ people can go about very similar days, engaged in similar tasks; but the one whose religion is founded on a personal relationship will see God in every circumstance and in every person, whereas one who has a rule-based religion will fail to see the brilliance of Wisdom.
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