The Ten Bridesmaids
“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.”
Weddings are wonderful. In every age of the world, in every country and every culture, weddings are celebrated as one of life’s most important moments. Because they are important they are celebrated according to the long standing wedding traditions of that culture.
In our culture some of the unusual customs include such practices such as:
– The bride and groom are not to see each other the day of the wedding until the bride walks down the aisle.
– The mothers are to be the last persons to be seated,
– Fathers give away daughter, \
– Rings are exchanged as well as vows and a kiss.
Every culture has its etiquette for the day.
The Wedding celebration in that ancient Israel
It was no different in Jesus’ day. There were certain things about weddings in that ancient world, that though they may not have been strictly necessary, as far as etiquette was concerned, they were essential. So what did take place in a typical wedding in ancient Palestine? This is how historians have pieced together the evidence.
- It all began with the Matchmakerworking with two sets of parents, while the children were quite young, to come to a satisfactory arrangement. (See the musical Fiddler on the Roof for its near equivalence.)
- Then there was The Betrothal. When the young people had reached the age for marriage, there was a need for confirmation that the agreement was still on. The families and two the young people assert they are still OK with their earlier intent. The betrothal now becomes a binding agreement.
- Then comes the great day, the WeddingDay, when the two are married to each other.
Before the day of the wedding, the bride lived with her family at their home. The groom lived with his parents. On the day of the wedding, the groom would leave his home with his groomsmen in company, and would head for the home of the bride, where the wedding would take place followed by the wedding dinner.
Weddings took place after sundown, when the work of the day was done. After work that day, the wedding participants would dress for the occasion and head for the bride’s home. The bridesmaids would make their way from their separate homes, through the darkening day, to the place of the wedding. They would carry torches, which were sticks with a lamp fixed on top, with their wick made of rags. These would be lit upon leaving home, so they could light their way. The plan was to get to the bride’s home early in the evening. They were to wait at the place of the wedding until a messenger came from the direction of the groom’s home with the news, “The bridegroom is coming, hurry to meet him.” Then the bridesmaids would go dancing, with their flaming torches swirling patterns in the air, down the road towards the approaching groom. Their activity was saying to the groom, “the bride welcomes you, and has sent us out to greet you.” And then these dancing torch bearers would lead the festive processional to the place of the marriage. Upon the groom entering the home, the wedding would begin.
Part of the protocol of that day was that guests must precede the groom and his entourage to the wedding, or, they are not allowed to get in. It may have been why the groom in that day was “fashionably late” to allow all the other guests to gather first. But once the door was shut, to be late, is to be too late.
The re-telling of the story by Jesus was familiar to the audience of that day. They had seen this story lived out many times. But Jesus drops into this glad story a sad element.
The groom, who may have put off his own arrival to allow the wedding guests to gather after their work, is later than expected. The bridesmaids have already put in a day’s work. They are tired. They nod off to sleep due to the passage of time and their inaction. Meanwhile the torches that they had lit when they left home are consuming the oil in the lamps. Some go out. Some are burning very feebly.
Then they hear the messenger announcing the coming of the groom. All ten spring to their feet. The moment they have waited for has arrived. Then they notice their dying torches. Not to worry. Some of the girls had brought extra containers of oil to fill up their small lamps to refuel the dying flame.
But not all the girls. Only five had come prepared with the extra container. Five had not had that much forethought. They plead, “let us have some of your oil.” But those who had prepared are not sure there is enough for them to do their work of the evening, to give part of their oil away. “You will have to get your own” they cry as the run off to meet the approaching groom. The foolish-five now must run back to their homes to try to get some extra oil for their torches. But they are gone too long, and when they return the door is closed. The wedding is underway. They are left outside in the cold.
The Coming of the Kingdom of God.
Then Jesus looking at his audience says, the Kingdom of God is just like a wedding and some will be prepared for its coming. Others will not be prepared, and that will be sad.
Alfred Lord Tennyson has let us into the sense of that sadness as the five foolish bridesmaids lament and plead outside the closed door.
Late, late, so late! and dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! But we can enter still.
Too late, too late! You cannot enter now.
No light had we; for this we do repent;\
And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late, too late! You cannot enter now.
No light; so late! and dark and chill the night!
O let us in that we may find the light!
Too late, too late! You cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, though late, and kiss his feet!
No, no, too late! You cannot enter now.
So with considerable urgency Jesus says to his audience, a wedding banquet is prepared, the groom is almost here. It would be sad, so sad, to miss out on the good news. But there is some diversity in the audience that hears these words. There are two different audiences. The first audience is the nation of Israel.
The Urgency of Entering the Kingdom
Jesus has just come in the nick of time. Israel has been waiting, wondering if the Kingdom of God would ever come. And then John the Baptist has come announcing the good news. John was the messenger running ahead of the groomsmen. John called out, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. The one we have been waiting for is arriving.” And some had come out to hear the message. When they asked John what they must do to get ready, he had said, “Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and then bear fruit worthy of repentance. Whoever has two coats, must share with anyone who has none. Whoever has food must do likewise. Collect no more than is owing to you… do violence to no one” and with other such words he urged everyone to turn from their sinning.
Others were not ready to prepare for his coming, they had not taken repentance or right behaviour or anything that John had said, very seriously. Here they were standing before Jesus, in danger of missing out. Jesus says to them in this parable of warning, “there is still time. Make provisions now and make them quickly. Become part of the Kingdom of God, – before the kingdom of Rome and its armies passes its own terrifying judgment on you.”
Jesus is saying to his Hebrew audience, “seize the moment, before it is too late. If you have not made provision, hurry and make them,” for Jesus knew, as did Shakespeare that
There is a tide in the affairs of men
which taken at the flood leads on to fortune,
omitted, all the voyage of their life
is bound in shallows and in miseries.
He has come to Israel at the strategic moment, to say, “This is the moment. Are you ready? If not hurry, hurry, hurry! before it is too late.”
There are strategic moments in life, when if we fail to make the right decision we may live with the consequences in a life of regret. This parable is one of urgency. Today is the day to make provision for the future.
The Long Distance run
But there is a second audience. St. Matthew records these words a decade after the Fall of Jerusalem. Israel had not taken warning and so the catastrophe of Roman judgment had not been averted. Matthew is not writing to his Jewish kinsmen now; he is writing to the members of the Christian Church. Some of them are giving up on faith. Some of them are getting careless about their lifestyles. They had expected the second coming of Christ in the weeks and months that followed the resurrection. That did not happen. They had waited for 50 years now. Still it had not taken place. They were saying to themselves, “where is the promise of his coming?” and they had grown a bit cynical with the passing of time.
Some were weary with waiting. The Christian life was too hard. It was attended by persecution and pressure. Some of them had done quite well at the beginning. After all, if we are running a hundred-yard dash, we know the pain will be over soon and then we can rest. But Matthew tells this story to say to his friends, you misunderstand. The race that we have entered is not a hundred-yard dash that is begun and gotten over with, in seconds. This is a marathon we have entered. The coming of the King is delayed. We may be here for the long duration. For we are not only converts, we are disciples.
This is a long race that will require, not the mere rush of adrenaline, not just the surge of initial excitement, but the deep commitment of long distance runners. Marathon runners have to dig down deep into themselves, past the pain, past the weariness, to find their second wind, and to find those extra reserves for the longer run. We are running a marathon.
But this race is different than just a marathon. This race is a run whose length is unknown. No one knows when the race will end. Only God knows that. No one knows when the long race of global history will close. No one knows when our personal leg of the run will end. The race for any of us, or for all of us, may conclude today. It may not conclude for many a year. But God calls us, as Eugene Peterson says, to “a long obedience in the same direction”. God wants to hear us say, “whatever it takes, I’m in for the long haul.”