The parable of the Ten Bridesmaids! Oh, I did not like that story! Not one bit! It disturbed, it confused, it made me cry. Cry for the five who were outside the door, pleading to come in. I knew how it felt to be outside the select “in group,” especially as birthday invitations were distributed, with great flourish and excitement, to some, but not all, in the class. I knew how it felt to be amongst the last chosen when the teacher assigned two leaders to take turns choosing their teams for a team game. And I knew girls who flaunted their more than enough school and craft resources, but not willing to share.
With each telling or reading of the story, the emphasis seemed always to be on the foolish bridesmaids who were not prepared. But the story did not make sense; the ones who were called foolish were ready and waiting, as were the five who were called wise. The bridegroom was late! How were the bridesmaids to know this!? It was not their fault that the groom was late! Why did Jesus not understand that? And why didn’t the bridesmaids, who Jesus said were wise, share their oil?
I felt the anxiety of the five as they rushed to the store to buy new oil and run back to the wedding celebration; and the image of these five at the window breathless and with tear-stained faces pleading to come in haunted me. I was confused, Jesus tells us to forgive again and again and again!
Years later, as a young mother, I heard our neighbour’s child, who had been given time out and shut out of the family room for misbehaving, pounding on the door. Between heart-wrenching sobs she cried out, “I’m sorry, please let me out/in! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!” The years stripped away and I was that young child again feeling for the five locked out of the wedding feast.
Every three years when this story comes around again in the lectionary cycle, I hear curriculum writers tell similar stories. Many find it difficult, if not impossible, to write on this passage.
However, it was at a writer’s event where an editor gave an image that was based on rural life, which did not have the benefit of electricity. She described the importance of the need to trim the lamps, adjusting the wicks, for maximum light and minimal smoke. The discussion on what oil represented in Bible times, and a focus on what it means to tend to the light of God’s presence, the light of God’s reign, the light of God’s way so that it shines, even in hard times, was helpful.
Tom Long in his commentary on Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion) reminds us that while both groups were waiting and prepared for the bridegroom’s coming only one group was prepared for the delay.
>> How might we live in this “here now, but not yet” reign of God?
The story in Spirit Sightings this week gives some food for thought on this. While a more just and humane treatment of asylum seekers in Australia is delayed, the Uniting Church in Australia, together with the Anglican Diocese of Perth have undertaken to send a chaplain to the Christmas Island detention centre to provide pastoral support for detainees and staff — to be agents of God’s love and compassion as we wait for things to be different.
Both the biblical backgrounds and the focus for worship, learning and serving this week comment that while the reading might suggest we are to be busier and more involved — to keep our light burning with more activity — the question is more in terms of what oil enables God’s love, mercy and compassion to shine forth.
>> What Christian practices sustain your faith and hope? What is needed so there might be maximum light and minimal smoke?
I hope no child or young person will hear the story with a focus on being shut out, but rather be empowered to imagine a pathway of lamps shining in the depth of night. The celebration has already begun!
>> What have you planned for worship, learning and serving this week?