A Parable Revisited
Text: Matthew 25: 1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But 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.’ 10 And 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
As we begin to look at yet another parable, this one from the Gospel of Matthew, there are a couple of things you need to know about this parable that I think are important. Of course, what is important to me, may not be important to you, and as I am accustomed to saying; these ideas and beliefs are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your beliefs. I do ask that you think about it, but if we disagree after a diligent thought process, that’s OK too.
Matthew presents this parable in his gospel as one that Jesus taught. Many Bible scholars doubt this is a parable that Jesus actually used. It lacks many of the structural characteristics of an actual Jesus parable and because of these shortcomings, scholars tend to think that this parable had a different source. Perhaps it is entirely a fabrication from the imagination of Matthew, we obviously cannot be certain of any of this. Another clue, however, is that this particular parable is only found in Matthew.
The three gospels which we call the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are very similar in content and structure and are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar. It would be unusual for Jesus to have used a parable for teaching and have it appear in only one of the gospels. Not impossible, but unlikely. So the current scholarship around this parable is that it probably was not from Jesus. This is confirmed in the book, “The Five Gospels” which is the work of about 75 Bible scholars, all well above my security clearance, and they conclude that this parable is not from Jesus.
That being said, just because the parable did not originate from Jesus, doesn’t mean that it is without value. I think there are some interesting points in this parable, items that can be interpreted that help us to take a positive lesson from a parable that otherwise struggles a bit, in my opinion, on its own merit.
So let’s take a look at this parable, first from the perspective of Matthew and what it was he was trying to accomplish. Most of the commentaries and scholarship around this parable do agree that it is about the second coming of Jesus. This is sometimes called the Parousia, but second coming works just as well. It is also referred to as the eschaton, which is another $100 word that essentially means end times. Just in case you check up on me and do some of your own research and run across either of these two words that is what they mean.
What is fairly obvious in a quick reading of this parable is that Matthew is comfortable with the idea of using fear to motivate people to do the right thing. He clearly identifies the ten bridesmaids as 5 that are wise and 5 that are foolish. The foolish ones do not bring any extra oil with them, so when the groom is delayed, which I read isn’t all that uncommon, the five foolish ones are left out in the cold. Even when they return with oil, they are locked out of the banquet. The parable ends with the warning, you had better be prepared at all times, because Jesus is coming again real soon, and if you are not prepared, you will be locked out forever.
I think it is good for us to understand some of the historical timing of Matthew’s gospel, so we can see some things from that point of view. I think this will help us understand why the parable reads the way that it does. To understand Matthew, we need to first have some understanding of the Gospel of Mark.
Chronologically, Mark was the first Gospel that was written. It is estimated that Mark was probably written around the year 50. It was a very common belief in the years that immediately followed the execution of Jesus that he would return very soon. By the time Mark was written enough years had gone by that expectations were very high that the return of Jesus could happen any day. It was so imminent that you thought twice about how many eggs to buy because no sense in wasting them, right? Many believers expected Jesus within days or weeks of his execution and after it had been 20 or so years, when Mark finished his gospel, expectations were even that much higher.
Another 30 years passed before the authors of Matthew and Luke finished their respective gospels. They were written at about the same time, but in two very different settings and to very different audiences, but are still both quite similar to Mark. Similar to Mark, with one notable exception, and that exception is the immediacy of the return of Jesus. Now that it had been 50 years or so since the execution of Jesus, the idea of Jesus returning any day was no longer as accepted as it was earlier. For Matthew, this set the stage for a parable about the bridegroom being delayed and some of those who were foolish and not prepared get surprised by the return of Jesus.
Just to complete our understanding of the Gospels, by the time the Gospel of John came on the scene, the expectation of a physical return of Jesus had diminished considerably. John was probably written about another 20 years after Matthew and Luke and John comes to a very different conclusion in his Gospel, at least that’s what I think. I believe that John’s gospel takes the position that Jesus has already returned, the kingdom of God has arrived and these events are evidenced in the presence of the Holy Spirit. But that is another sermon. Back to the parable.
So it would be quite easy for us to consider this parable not part of the actual teachings of Jesus and also consider it historically obsolete and to conclude that it has little or no value for us today in the 21st century. I would disagree with that assumption. We can still draw quite a lesson from this parable, if we are willing to keep digging.
One of the things which has always bothered me about this parable is the idea that the five bridesmaids that had extra oil were not willing to share. In a New Testament that over and over again reminds us to love our neighbor, to turn the other cheek, to give our shirts as well as our jackets if someone asks for them, to do all of these things and yet not share oil strikes me as being odd. The five bridesmaids with the extra oil use the excuse that if they share then everyone might run out, but they don’t know that for sure. It is just an excuse. It seems to me to be kind of a “gotcha” moment, if you know what I mean. There could have been other solutions; why not combine all the oil among 9 bridesmaids and just send one to find extra oil? At least that includes as many people as possible. So that part of the parable has never made a lot of sense to me.
Then as I was playing around with the parable in my own thinking I was trying to identify metaphorically what each character or item in the story was to stand for. One answer that intrigued me was that the oil in the parable was representative of preparation. Matthew suggests in the parable that five were wise and were prepared for the delay, and five were foolish and were not prepared for the delay. So perhaps the oil stands for preparation.
This made me think back to when I was in college and preparing for a test. Many of you know that my undergraduate degree is in photography. What you may not know is that there are two different approaches to the degrees available in photography. One degree is a Bachelor of Science degree in photography and speaking in broad general terms, these degrees tend to emphasize the mechanics and manipulation of photography. They deal with the science end of things more critically. The other degree path is a Bachelor of Arts degree. These degree programs lean toward the aesthetic properties of photography, include studies of composition, design, color theory and that sort of thing.
My degree is the BA – the Bachelor of Arts, and as a result, my degree was part of the art department at the university where I was studying. As part of the art department requirements, every student had a core curriculum of art classes that were mandatory; this included art history. AAaarrgh.
Actually, as it turned out, the art history was pretty good and I learned something; but I don’t think I would have ever taken it on my own. The other thing is that the tests were brutal. In order to pass the class I had to devise some way to prepare for those tests. So I found a study buddy. Together we would prepare for the tests and ask each other questions and find creative ways to remember things. From that experience, I find myself still doing that today.
For example when we first moved to the LC Valley, I couldn’t keep avenues and streets straight in my head in Lewiston. The thought of something being on the corner of 17th and 17th just made zero sense to me, so I had to make up something to help me. What I came up with was that avenue ended in an “E” and East begins with an “E” and so avenues run East and West. If I somehow forgot that connection, I came up with another, and that is that street begins with an “S” and so does South and streets run north and south. After that, my navigation skills improved.
So it was in our art history study sessions. I would find ways to remember an artist or a date or something relevant about a work of art that would help us when it came test time.
So here is the point of all this. You can help someone prepare. You can work together in preparation of a coming event; like a test. But when the day of the test arrives, you cannot share your preparation. It would be impossible for me to somehow telepathically share my preparation with my study buddy while we were actually taking the test.
This helps ease my mind a bit around the idea of the bridesmaids refusing to share their oil. Perhaps they didn’t share not because they were unwilling to share, but perhaps they did not share because they were unable to share. The oil represents preparation and you cannot share preparation once test time has arrived.
This parable also reminds me that a lamp is used to bring light and illumination to a situation. I think ultimately we can look at this parable that once was intended to metaphorically stand for something that may no longer be relevant; but it still has value as a metaphor for something far more contemporary.
As I read the parable now, I understand why the bridesmaids cannot share. I can also understand that we never know the time or the place where we will be called upon to have our light shine. If we are unprepared to meet that opportunity we miss out on the blessing that comes from being in service to others and allowing our light to shine so others may see. I believe this parable can now become one of value as we speak of preparing our own lives for the calling that lies before us. Preparing our lives to let our lights shine by example and deed so those around us may see.
Preparation can take many forms. It may be a spiritual discipline. It might be a Bible Study. It may include coming to church and wrestling with new ideas. It may be reading a new book or attending a seminar or lecture. There are many forms of preparation that we can be engaged in. The important lesson from this parable today is that we should always be preparing ourselves for the opportunity to let our lights shine. For without preparation, there is no light, just as without oil, there is no light.
Go in peace and let your lights shine.