Part 1: Matthew 25 Sermon Series, Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
Preached at Magnolia UMC on 8/1/10
Audio Clip: Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
Transcription of the audio (note that it is not a manuscript, so listening to the audio is recommended if possible):
Our scripture for this morning is from Matthew chapter 25, verses 1-13:
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘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. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 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.” 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. Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
When I was a freshman in college, I used to have really vivid dreams. I’ve always had vivid dreams, but this year in particular… I think I had a lot of anxiety because it was a new thing going off to college, being away from my family for the first time. I loved the independence, it was great. But I had a lot of losses. I missed my family, I missed my high school friends. I missed my dog. So it was kind of a hard time as well.
One of the common themes of these really vivid dreams I was having was some kind of natural disaster that was impending, that I knew was coming. So, I had warning that an earthqake was about to come, or a big tsunami was going to overcome the place where I was. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know when, it could be any minute.
So, I’d be in my house, and I’d be scrambling for those items that are so beloved, that we’d want to take with us into the next life. But my room was always a complete mess, so I couldn’t find anything. I was scrambling through my messy room, looking for cherished items, with knowledge that at any moment an earthquake would come and destroy my house, or a tsunami would come and crash over my house with me in it. In these dreams I always woke up before anything terrible happened.
I think what these dreams were about was that I was feeling anxiety about not being prepared for the changes that were taking place in my life. I wasn’t ready; my house wasn’t clean. I didn’t have those sacred objects ready to go, at a moment’s notice. I was scrambling to find those things I needed to have with me while I was going through this major change in my life, symbolized in the dreams by an earthquake or tsunami.
I think this kind of anxiety about feeling ready for the things that life brings us is not just experienced by college freshman. I think a lot of us have dreams like this or feelings in our waking lives. I know one of the most common dreams, for example, is to show up somewhere like work or school without our clothes on. We aren’t prepared, we have put on the clothing that we need to be ready to be where we’re supposed to be. Another common dream that especially folks in school have is being in a class, taking a test that they forgot to take a test for—again, a dream about not being prepared.
These kind of dreams are so common, and it is so common for us to have anxieties in our waking life about being prepared for changes that may come or things that may happen, and I think that this parable we read this morning really speaks to this anxiety we have about being ready. That’s what this parable is about—people who are ready, and people who aren’t.
We have ten bridesmaids. Now, I think a lot of times people think of this story as being about how the groom is coming and the groom is going to choose one of these gathered women to marry. But actually what’s happening is these are truly bridesmaids, not potential brides. The groom is coming with his bride.
If you think we make a big party out of weddings these days, you haven’t seen the parties that happen back in those days when it was time for weddings. It would be a week-long party at both households—the groom’s household and the bride’s household. The main moment, the big climax of the wedding, was when the groom would take his groomsmen, and they would go to the bride’s house, where the party with her family is going on, and pick her up to take her back to his house.
In these days, weddings and marriages were about the patriarchal family structure, where the oldest male of the household is the head. So the women, when they got married, rather than creating a new household the way we in American culture do it—creating a new household with in-laws on both sides—back then the woman was leaving her own family and joining the family and household of her husband’s family.
So the moment that he would go pick her up and bring her back to his house symbolized and literally was the moment she left her family and came to become a member of his.
The bridesmaids were women in his family welcoming her as a new sister, cousin, aunt, mother. We know that the bridesmaids were told to wait. The groomsmen’s role was to go with the groom to pick up the bride. The bridesmaids’ role was to wait and be the “welcome wagon” when they returned. To be there with light (in the darkness), open arms, and celebration to welcome the new bride, the new member of the family, and of course to welcome the groom back.
Then the bridesmaids would join the rest of the wedding party in entering the groom’s house and continuing the party. The bride and groom would go off and do what bride and grooms do, and then when they came back out the marriage would be officially consummated. The party then would continue for days.
So, in this particular story, the groom has left with his groomsmen to pick up the bride and he’s delayed. We don’t know why he’s delayed. Maybe the party at the bride’s house was particularly fun and they didn’t want to leave. Maybe she had a hard time saying goodbye to her family. We’re not sure why, but he’s delayed.
So the bridesmaids are waiting and waiting, thinking, “okay, he hasn’t shown off, and we’re kind of tired.” So they all start to doze off, until they hear someone announcing, “here he comes! Wake up! Get ready!” Five of the bridesmaids brought plenty of oil, so they’re ready to go. They’re ready to light their lamps and welcome the new member of the family with joy. The other five are not ready—they don’t have enough oil. They ask the others, “hey, give me some of your oil, I don’t have enough!” but the response they get is, “sorry, we don’t have enough to give you.”
So five go off to find oil somewhere, which is a little strange. The idea of there being a store of some kind open this late where they could buy oil seems a little strange—I couldn’t find anything in the study guides that I have that talked about this. So I don’t really know what’s going on there, but the point is they had to go away to get ready and then come back. But as we know, they weren’t ready on time, so when they get back they knock on the door and say, “okay, we’re ready now, let us into the party!” and the groom responds, “no, you weren’t here when I arrived, you’re not welcome in my house. You didn’t welcome me and my bride. You weren’t there.”
The parable ends with Jesus saying, “keep awake,” because we don’t know the hour or the dya. We don’t know when the groom will come and we will be asked to be ready.
There are a couple ways we can interpret this story to have meaning for our lives today. One of the ways is to put ourselves into the shoes of the hearers of this message—the people Jesus was literally talking to that day. These folks—the disciples and other folks who might have been listening to this—were under the impression that the apocalypse, the end of days, the return of Christ, would happen in their lifetime. They didn’t think this was some far-off possibility. This could literally happen any minute, and will probably come “before I die.” That was their understanding. So, they heard this story as a literal admonition to be prepared because truly, at any moment in your life, Christ will return, and you will face the trials that come with this apocalypse, or Armageddon.
Now we’re hearing this story 2,000 years later, so we know that that didn’t actually happen. However, we could still think of it in those terms—that there could still be an apocalypse in our lifetime, an end of days, return of Jesus, Armageddon. So we could hear this still today as they did, as an exhortation to be ready for that.
Another way to look at this is that all of us die at some point. All of us cross over from life on earth to whatever comes next, that great mystery. We’re not really sure what we’re going to encounter, but we may have some sense that there will be an accounting for our lives. A moment when we come face to face with God and discuss with God what we lived our life like. We may think of this as an exhortation to be ready for that—be ready for the moment you pass on and are held accountable for the way you lived your life.
A third way I can think of how we might think of this is a more general preparedness for what could come at any moment, in terms of movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Most of us have a sense that God is with us, the Holy Spirit is here in our midst, whether we feel it or not, but we don’t necessarily feel like God is literally telling us every little thing to do. I didn’t necessarily feel like God was telling me what I should eat for breakfast this morning or what type of shampoo I should buy at the grocery store yesterday.
So we don’t really feel like every aspect of our lives is controlled or led by God. But, there are times where the Holy Spirit moves into our lives and calls us to something. Sometimes when we use the word “call” we are thinking only of a call to ordained ministry. And I do know there are people in this room who are sitting with that potential call. But, there are tons of other ways that God calls us. We may be called to a particular vocation, called to a particular career. We may be called to reconcile a relationship. We may be called to go to a certain place or do a certain thing. There are many ways that God’s call may come in our lives.
Are we prepared for that? Are we ready? Do we have clean rooms, metaphorically and literally, where we would be ready at the drop of a hat to follow a call that God places on our lives? Have we let go of physical things, relationships, idols that we have created that may come between us and our ability to follow God?
That can be a challenge, to think about, what things in my life am I holding onto so tightly, that if God were to call me to move, to go, to do something, and I had to let something go to do that, would I be able to? Could I let go of my home? Could I let go of Facebook? Could I let go of… you name it. You know what’s on your heart that you’re holding onto really tightly.
So, these are three different ways we could potentially interpret this scripture. And I think all three are valid. All three of them are ways we may really truly be being called to be prepared. And maybe there’s others, maybe there’s a fourth way to interpret this that I haven’t thought of. I’m not here to tell you what to think of this scripture, I’m only here to relay what it says.
This scripture is a parable that comes in a long line of parables that Matthew writes, that Jesus shared with his disciples. The parables are put together in an order. In the next two weeks we’re going to be looking at the two parables that come after this, and talk about how they inform each other. But this morning, I just want to focus on the crux of this parable, which is how are we prepared, how are we getting prepared, and how are we being prepared?
Finally, at the end of this story it says, “keep awake.” I find this kind of an interesting thing to say, since all 10 of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Even the five that were prepared, they dozed off too, and when the call came, “here comes the groom, get ready!” they were fine. So, the problem is not literally that the bridesmaids fell asleep, the problem was not that they rested.
If we go back to the original Greek here, what’s been translated as “keep awake” can also be translated as “keep watch.” This, again, means to be prepared, be ready. So, the cool thing there is that we don’t have to spend our lives anxious, wondering, “am I ready? Is this shampoo that I’m buying going to make me ready for the Holy Spirit to come into my life?” No! There are certain sort of large-scale things that we might need to do to get ready—buying oil was what those bridesmaids needed to do—but beyond that, when you are ready, when you get things sorted out, you can rest. It’s okay. You can go to sleep. You don’t have to sit there anxious, all the time, “am I ready? Am I going to be let in?” Yeah, you’re going to be let in! And you know, sometimes you might get ready and then six months go by and you start to slip on some things and may need to get ready again. So, it’s a process, but the point is you don’t have to be anxious about this all the time. You don’t have to say awake all the time. You can sleep; you can rest. We can trust that if we have opened ourselves up to be ready to hear the call of God, that if we’re engaging in some kind of discipline to keep ourselves prepared, that we can rest in that knowledge that when the groom comes, we will get to enjoy that party. We don’t know what the party will look like, but it’s going to be a good time. Amen.