Sermon Lesson: Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)
Alternate New Testament Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 78:1-7 (NRSV) (or, in King James Version)
Referenced Bible Lesson: Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV)
Once again, with this particular parable, we step into the world of first century Palestine, the world of the historical Jesus. I want to stress before we begin that this is a scenario that easily could have happened in Jesus’s time in any Galilean (or, indeed, Palestinian) village.
Many modern readers think of it as a “fairytale” scenario, but this situation was very much the reality and there’s nothing remotely of the imaginary, the dreamlike, or unrealistic about it.
What Jesus describes here are local customs of what has been historically referred to as the “Near East,” a set of customs, in fact, that are still practiced in the region and around modern-day Israel and Palestine.
These, of course, were not the customs of our own cultural ancestors of and around (Western) Europe, nor are they the customs of modern New England culture, which is derived primarily from English customs roughly derived from around the reign of Queen Victoria (though, of course, not exclusively).
So, as always, we must take a step back and try to parse out the culture, the traditions, and the customs Jesus is describing. It is only then that we can derive the greater, universal meaning that applies to all Christians across country and across time.
The First Problem: Who Exactly are the Bridesmaids?
As a private Christian, I have a fondness for the King James Version of the Bible as it reminds me of my childhood and is more poetic.
As a minister, I generally reference the New Revised Standard Version as it is the generally universal translation used in Protestant churches in America. It also tends to be fairly accurate.
In this instance, though, the NRSV is not remotely accurate in regards to the bridesmaids.
Jesus begins his parables with ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, a strange picture to us in modern America. However, we know that the bridegroom is the young man who is about to get married. But to us, bridesmaids are women (not necessarily unmarried) who are close friends of the bride who have been chosen to represent her in a wedding ceremony.
This, though, is not precisely what is happening here.
Other translations speak of “virgins” or “maidens” in this passage, both of which are generally inaccurate, as well.
For myself (as a minister), I like to stay away from the word “virgin” if at all possible. It has a certain religious (and specifically Christian) connotation. One might imagine sexual and moral purity when one hears the word “virgin” – that’s what the Roman Catholic Church meant you to think when regards to the “Virgin Mary” and the virgin saints who come after her (and, if you actually look, Mary is never expressly called a virgin in the Bible, but that is a different can of worms for another day).
However, the term “virgin” is highly misleading.
I went back to the Greek, got turned around a bit because the word I was expecting to be there frankly wasn’t, and came away with a Greek term that is mistranslated when placed into the Latin.
For reference: this is significant because the original translations of the Bible into English were translated from the Latin. Why is this important? Well, because the more times you translate something from one language into another, the more room there is for potential error.
The word Jesus uses in this parable is roughly written in our alphabet as Parthenos, and it means a marriageable woman (more or less). A marriageable woman can be a virgin, but not necessarily. To put it simply, she’s any fertile woman who is free to marry (she can be an unmarried girl of fourteen, a widow of twenty-nine who still has good years ahead of her, or a wealthy woman who’s been despoiled but is still acceptable because of her money).
So, these marriageable women would make up the bride’s party… or more specifically her entourage … as well as married women who were invited to the wedding. Women would congregate in female areas of the new home such as the kitchen (described below) and men would be in the male areas such as the courtyard.
As such, any and all women attending the wedding would be part of the bride’s party. Any man would in the groom’s party, even if they were a friend of a distant relative and they’d enver before met. The marriageable women, therefore, weren’t singled out from the other guests and did not have any specific roles in the ceremony as a bridesmaid would today (such as carrying a long veil or holding the bride’s flowers when she arrives at the altar to take her vows).
Problem Two: the Wedding Invitation & the Idea of Waiting
I have discussed the idea of the Palestinian wedding before in Mini Sermon #23, but let’s give a short recap.
When a couple gets engaged with the consent of their families, two wedding invitations are issued. The first is the invitation of intent, or a wedding announcement. All the guests are told the engagement has taken place and to be on the ready for the wedding feast. As soon as the feast is ready (it could be the next day, it could be next week after the groom’s father gets the quail he ordered from the local merchant), then the second invitation is sent.
This second invitation can be anything from a servant coming to your house and telling your or the groom coming in grand procession throughout the town, bringing all the guests with him in a wedding parade, of sorts.
If invited to a wedding with the first invitation, you would prepare your best clothes, clear your schedule as best you could, and you would wait for the second invitation to come … even into the night to make sure that you didn’t miss it!
This is precisely what the ten marriageable women are doing. They’re waiting for the groom to come in his procession so that they may join the parade and enter the wedding feast at the couple’s new home.
Problem Three: the Wedding Itself
In modern America, a wedding is a large affair and can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a few short hours of actual “content.” The bride generally wears a white gown and veil (Queen Victoria shocked England by choosing this color over yellow or something more “modest” and it’s been our tradition in the English-speaking world ever since). Of course, there’s a bit of a party (wedding tea? Wedding banquet? It depends on your tradition) and then the bride and groom go off for a honeymoon. I’m sure we all have stories of the bride throwing her bouquet as her a farewell to girlhood, and women rushing to catch it as – so our traditions go – whoever catches the bouquet will be the next to be married.
The entire wedding from the guests gathering to seeing off the happy couple takes less than 24 hours (and usually less than 10 unless the party continues after they leave).
This was not the case in the time of Jesus.
The second invitation would be issued, everyone would gather, and then there would be a party for a week behind closed doors where the new couple would “keep house” and “receive guests” (but only those invited and who got there on time) for the first week of their marriage.
These were celebrations of a home being created, of two families coming together to become stronger than they were before, and of a new life being forged within the community.
Once the wedding was over (which would be a week later), the couple would remain in their new home and continue living as they had been for the past week, now that they had been accepted into their community.
The Marriageable Women
We have ten marriageable women (listed in the NRSV as ‘bridesmaids’) waiting for the groom to arrive. He could come at any point and they must wait for him to come. You don’t arrive early to a wedding before a bride. Everyone would roughly come together at the same time. As such, the marriageable women cannot proceed to the wedding until the bridegroom comes, because his presence signals the second invitation.
Of course, all of the intended guests have some idea when the wedding will be. The marriageable women are actively waiting for the bridegroom. His coming is imminent.
Think of waiting for a flight to arrive at Logan International. You know the flight number, you know the landing time, but it could be early if there are good winds or the flight could be delayed for hours upon hours for numerous reasons. Most people get there a bit early and perhaps bring a book and wait in front of the large “Arrivals” and “Departures” sign with cell phone in hand, waiting and waiting for the orange text to flicker to an announcement that the plane has landed.
If you’re in that situation, hopefully you are prepared. You’re meeting someone. You want to get them home and get a good meal into them. You don’t nip out 20 minutes before the flight is due to land to go into Boston Proper for cell phone charger. If you did, the flight’s going to land, your guest won’t be able to call you because you cell phone is dead and you won’t be there to wave and smile and greet them.
So it is with five of the marriageable women. They have not planned accordingly and miss the flight all together and that sign isn’t even listing the flight anymore as so much time has elapsed.
In the parable, it comes down to oil for lamps instead of a charger.
If you run out of oil, you cannot make your way in the night to the party after all. This is a time before electricity and before streetlamps to guide you in the night to the wedding.
Those who planned will be ready when the bridegroom comes.
Those who haven’t planned properly might miss out on the party (and they do) but they’re also showing that they are unprepared for life at large—for the roles they would carry out if they were to find a husband. A Palestinian wife (at this time) we might imagine as a 1950s American housewife on T.V. She is clean and presentable, with dinner on the table when her husband gets home. Forgive the stereotype, but it holds true for the parable. These women aren’t prepared and they prove themselves unsuitable for their own future marriages… and they won’t get to go to the local gathering where they might meet eligible men. They are potentially, with their foolishness and unpreparedness, resigning themselves to spinsterhood.
And first century Palestine was not kind to spinsters.
When the foolish women go to get more oil, the bridegroom comes, and they are left behind. Even when they entreat the “lord” to let them into the wedding, they are not only denied entry but the host of the wedding disavows even knowing them.
It may seem harsh, but remember Jesus isn’t just talking about a wedding in a village somewhere in Israel, he’s talking about something else simultaneously…
A Hint of the Maccabees
Before I continue with the larger meaning, I want to take a quick moment to talk about lamps, oils, and the Maccabees.
Our Protestant Bible contains the Old Testament (or “the Hebrew Bible”) and the canonical New Testament (4 gospels, the Book of Acts, 21 Epistles, and the Book of Revelation). However, there are books in Hebrew canon and in the Catholic Old Testament that are not included in our Protestant Old Testament.
Two of those books are the 1 and 2 Maccabees (there are even two more in the Eastern Orthodox canon). These books tell the story of a revolt starting in 173 BC against the Greek Seuclid Empire and includes the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil, which is now celebrated every year at Hannukah.
When Jesus invokes the lamp oil, he reminds his Jewish audience that God once allowed the lamp light to last through the night in an act that saved their entire culture and religion at a time of occupation … and these marriageable women are not only foolish enough to not plan when they had oil available to them earlier in the day but somehow thought that they would be granted a reprieve when it was their duty to stand and watch and wait.
The Hidden Message
But, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about marriageable women and he’s not talking about bridegrooms—not completely.
The marriageable women are Israel who have been told that the Messiah is coming (see Mini Sermon #25 for more on the Messiah). They know it is to happen and they received their first invitation from God with the Covenant all the way back in Genesis. The signs are in the heavens, and everything points to the time being near. They are at the edge of their seats, but half of Israel (or a large portion) does not plan appropriately. They are foolish and incredibly short sighted.
In the end when the bridegroom (or the Messiah) comes, they are busy refilling their lamps and are not there to greet them.
Those who planned, though who have light to see in the dark, get to go to the wedding. They are invited to Kingdom of Heaven.
The other marriageable women? They are left in the cold (or, the dark). They are banging on the door and the kurios (or Lord) refuses to know them.
They had the invitation.
They had the signs.
They were too foolish to be at the ready, so it were, and so they do not get to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Is this Harsh?
That, of course, if for only God to know and for us to ponder. But there have been so many signs, so many messages, and yet people have missed them for thousands of thousands of years. More than that, people turn from God and deny him–why would he not perhaps deny them in turn?
But think of it this way, without oil for their lamps, the children of Israel who knew to look and to watch and to wait would be willfully blind. If you cannot recognize Jesus then you cannot be enter Heaven. You cannot receive Jesus’s true message if you’re not there to listen to it.
And what’s his message? Quite simple: his message is love – love of God, love of Christ, love of your neighbor, and love of your enemy.
But while Jesus was only here on earth for a short time, his message continues, it grows, it passes from person to person by word of mouth and through the Bible.
A Little Twist
We, as Christians, are also like those marriageable women. We have seen Jesus, gotten that first invitation, but we’re waiting for him to come again.
More may join us, a few may leave because they don’t have the proper insight to see what is right in front of their noses in the dark, but we as Christians remain.
The second invitation is imminent. We just need to stay on point and remember – God is love. Love will sustain us as we wait in the darkness and in general ignorance here on earth.
In the coming weeks, I urge you to feel generosity and understanding of your neighbors even if you may disagree with the politics occurring in this country. Remember that we are all God’s children, that Jesus loves each and every one of us, even the people who you may not care for or believe are misguided.
Jesus told us that there were two laws—and only two. The first is to love God. The second is to love our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity, not just the ones we always agree with.
The answer is never anger.
The answer is never sorrow.
The answer will always be L-O-V-E.