“Ten Bridesmaids Waited for the Time”Dr. R. Dale McAbee Matthew 25:1-13 Year A: Proper 27 (32) Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
25“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But 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.’ 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
C.H. Dodd tells us “at its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” \(C. H. Dodd’s The Parables of the Kingdom)
Well I certainly find this story from Matthew vivid. I can see the lamps, (the scholars tell us they’re more like tiki torches). I can see the ten bridesmaids. I can see them becoming drowsy and falling asleep. (And my mind immediately goes to those sleeping disciples in Gethsemane). I can hear the shout at midnight. I can feel the panic in the voices of the five who are out of oil and the desperation they feel when they ask their sisters to share. I can see them charging off to find oil. I see the bridegroom arrive and usher the five who had oil into the banquet. I hear the thud of the slammed door and the plea “Lord, open to us.” Then I hear perhaps the saddest words possible, “Truly I tell you; I do not know you.”
As I have read the story over, many times, I find myself easily experiencing Dodd’s, “leaving the mind in sufficient doubt” and “teasing it into active thought.” I am most in touch with a “mind in sufficient doubt.”
I always pull for the underdog in sports, so I guess my “active thought” leads me to align myself with the foolish bridesmaids and ask, “What is it they did that was so wrong?”
At the beginning the story says the “foolish took no oil with them,” which would be a very unwise thing to do. One doesn’t head out for vacation in a car with an empty tank. Then when all awaken at midnight, the foolish ones say to the wise bridesmaids, “give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out” which makes me wonder if they brought some oil, but just not enough oil. That seems a small matter to me, and certainly not enough to earn the label moron, which is Greek, and yes it means the same in Greek as it does in English.
The parable ends with “keep awake therefore” but all ten fell asleep, and all ten awoke at the bridegroom’s arrival, so getting drowsy and falling asleep is not the problem.
I suppose the one thing the five unwise are guilty of, is not anticipating the possibility of a delay and thus, being left unprepared at the key moment in the drama. This little play’s plot hinges on waiting and being ready for the most important action, which is meeting the bridegroom.
If I ask the normal question of Bible interpretation, “What did it mean to Jesus’ listeners?” it seems the message is clear that not all who set out to be faithful remain faithful. Ten bridesmaids show up, sleep together and wake up together to greet the bridegroom. But discovering their oil was running out, five chose to leave the bridegroom and go search for oil. And for reasons that I don’t fully understand, they made the wrong choice. Being ready and prepared are crucial if the disciples are to stay faithful. The door closes while they are gone. They return and beg to be allowed in, only to hear the harsh words of judgment and exclusion, “I do not know you.”
I think of the old gospel song, “Are Ye Able Said the Master?”
Are ye able said the Master, to be crucified with me?
Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered, to the death we follow Thee.
But they don’t follow him to the death. They are missing in action, betraying and denying with the words from another story that echo this story, a story at night around a fire, “You are mistaken, ‘I don’t know him.’”
The judgment that Jesus points to is real. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We sometimes aren’t faithful. In this story, the five foolish bridesmaids are left out.
If I ask, “What did it mean to Matthew’s listeners?” I think the story means to encourage Christians who had been praying “Come Lord Jesus” and were beginning to wonder if God would ever answer their prayer. We see in the earliest New Testament writing, 1 Thessalonians a need for Paul to reassure the Christians not to lose heart. We can trust, as Paul says in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, that “we will be with the Lord forever” (4:17b). Paul said that around 60 CE. How much more so in 90 CE do Matthew’s listeners need encouraging?
What does it mean for us today? Parables are always tricky when it comes to application to modern life. The parables of the kingdom especially so. Do we really need reassurance that Christ will return? In the celebration of the Eucharist the church says, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” And for me those words connect the Jesus story with history. His death and resurrection create the possibility of a new experience of existence and his coming again is anytime we are prepared to greet him and see him so that he can say to us “I know you.” Those moments come to us all the time but we don’t always recognize them. Frederich Buechner said,
“Listen to your life. All moments are key moments. I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas.. . If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (originally published in Now and Then and Listening to Your Life.)
I think Christ comes again when we stay awake and are prepared to greet the bridegroom in his many disguises in the key moments of our lives.
Have you ever been unprepared for a key moment? Over the years I have a recurring dream. I am back at college and I wake up late for an exam and I rush to the classroom only to realize that I have to take a test for a class I’ve never attended. That’s being unprepared for a key moment.
Kenneth Baily has an intriguing comment about the importance of having sufficient light for one’s lamp. He is a biblical scholar who lived among Palestinians for most of his life. He says
“The torches were not to light the path for others but for people to be able to see these girls’ faces. He says that it is common for women in rural areas in the Middle East to carry a lantern if they have to go out at night so that no rumors erupt as to what so-and-so was doing out in the dark.” (Poet and Peasant)
I find this function of the lamps intriguing because it opens up the possibility of a philosophical and existential meaning within the drama around a face to face encounter between the bridegroom and the bridesmaids.
Author and Novelist Sue Monk Kidd in her essay “Availability” shares about a train ride in an ice storm and a deep but troubling face to face encounter with a suffering soul. The airport had shut down and her flight was rescheduled so she is forced to delay her trip home and has to return by train to her brother-in-law’s house to spend the night. Disappointed and irritated, she is absorbed in her own thoughts when she notices that the middle-aged woman sitting across from her is crying. She writes,
As she wipes tears away with the back of her hand, her gaze lingers on my face. A look full of ache and searching. She’s asking for my attention. She wants me to fling open my heart and take her in. I feel sad for her, but what can I do? She’s carrying her own troubles and I can’t fix them. My inhibitions rise sharply, then blend into tiredness, anxieties about the storm, disappointment at not getting home. I look away from her, retreating into the murmur of the train. Quietly, uncomfortably unavailable. (Firstlight p. 48)
The remainder of the essay is Sue’s reflection on the power of that encounter, “the face of the other,” as Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would describe, and the soul work that emerged from her awareness that she had turned away from the face of that “other.”
The woman returns to Sue in her dreams and becomes an archetypal companion for her spiritual hungers. “She’s like the song on the radio that gets stuck in your head,” she writes. In the dream Sue and the stranger are both in a boat and the woman’s tears begin to fill the boat so fully that Sue begins to bail the boat but to no avail. She says,
Finally, I stop and stare into those irrepressible eyes. When I do, the tears start to dry up, but if I look away they start again. In the worst way I want to live the train ride over. The divine wisdom in the dream pointed out that it wasn’t necessary for me to try and fix the woman’s pain, but simply to be available and present with my heart. What was required was that I peer into her eyes, the ancient windows of the soul, and truly see her. I realize that I can be with someone, but on a deeper level, I’m not available to them at all. I have attention deficit disorder of the soul. (ibid., p. 49)
At some deep level, Sue was converted.
Lévinas said “the only thing that really converts people is “the face of the other.”
Johann Cruger wrote a beautiful text about being ready to meet the divine face to face. We normally sing these words to “O Sacred Head Now Wounded:”
How shall I fitly meet Thee, and give Thee welcome due”
The nations long to greet Thee and I would greet Thee too.
O Fount of light shine brightly upon my darkened heart
That I may serve Thee rightly and know Thee as Thou art.
O God this is our prayer.
To be awake and ready to greet you in the faces of all we meet.
About the writer:
For twenty-six years the Reverend Dr. R. Dale McAbee worked with Rehabilitation and Psychiatric patients at Baptist Health Louisville as well as those in treatment for Substance Use Disorder. He taught classes on the Spirituality of the 12 Steps and the Spiritual Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer.
In March of 2018 he became the chaplain for Oncology and Palliative Care and in 2020 Neurology. He is a Pastoral Counselor certified by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. For the last ten years he has been Choirmaster at Concordia Lutheran Church.
A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dr. McAbee earned a BA in Music from Furman University, a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 and summers of 2017 and 2020, he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music:
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Ten Bridesmaids Waited for the Time – FOREST GREEN 22.214.171.124 D (“All Beautiful the March of Days”)
Ten bridesmaids waited for the time the party would begin,
They took their lamps to meet the groom, for they expected him.
The wise ones went outside to wait, with oil and some to spare,
They found the groom had been delayed while he was traveling there.
The foolish bridesmaids waited, too, with lamps that lost their light.
For, unprepared, they’d left their fuel back at the house that night.
The bridegroom came with festive shout; the party soon began.
The fools had lamps that soon went out; the wise had lights at hand.
O Lord, remind us that your Day will come with great surprise.
So may we faithfully obey as people who are wise.
For deeds of justice, words of prayer and acts of kindness, too,
Are ways we daily can prepare as we wait here for you.
(Text: Copyright © 2014 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Used with permission 10/16/2020.)
Behold the Bridegroom Draweth Nigh
Wake Awake for Night is Flying
Rejoice, Rejoice Believers
Sleepers, Wake! A Voice Astounds Us
Crown Him with Many Crowns
Be Still My Soul
My Faith Looks Up to Thee
The God of Abraham Praise
Near to the Heart of God
When We All Get to Heaven
Rejoice, the Lord Is King
The Lord Bless You and Keep You (Lutkin or Rutter)
My Lord, What a Morning
Steal Away to Jesus
Seek First the Kingdom (McDonald)
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning (Andre Thomas)
Father Lead Me Day by Day (David Stanley York)
Surely the Presence of the Lord