Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went out 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. (Matthew 25.1-4)
Too Many Variables
Regardless what scenario their creators dream up, apocalyptic movies always include a scene that beefs up the pathos. It usually ends what film teachers call “the second act.” The characters are established. Chaos has laid waste to most of the landscape and extras. The hero’s crew has gathered everything they need to survive. Uncertain when the crisis will end, they use resources sparingly. They find a safe hideaway and hunker down, awaiting the climactic confrontation that—sure enough—explodes in Act Three. For now, they’re grateful for calm before the storm. Then someone shows up, begging them to share their shelter and supplies.
As is our nature, compassion comes quicker for strangers. When they’re former friends and neighbors, shared history complicates the issue. After ignoring early signs of looming disaster, they hear the answer they dread: “There’s not enough to share. Sorry, you’re on your own.” But simply saying that triggers a change of heart and hero relents. We enter the final act, our restored faith in humanity promising a happy ending—even though we don’t believe it for a second. There are too many variables in play to risk survival on heedless latecomers. In the real world, the hero’s “you-made-your-bed-sleep-in-it” reflex would kick in. Of course, since reality rarely intrudes on apocalyptic movie logic, we let it slide and gear up for the big finale. Not so in the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25.1-13 (Sunday’s Gospel). Realism flows through His bridesmaids’ tale like an icy stream rushing toward tragedy—which is precisely where half the wedding party lands.
A Horror Story
Artificial light spoils our ability to react to the story in the same manner of those who actually hear it. The darkest night we’ll ever know would look like dusk to ancient eyes. In Jesus’s time, darkness is deadly. After nightfall, you don’t venture beyond your village walls unless you’ve got a reliable lamp to light your way. That’s why so many of Jesus’s parables in Matthew end with a terrifying shocker: the careless character(s) is thrown into “outer darkness”—i.e., run out of town in the middle of the night—“where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It’s also why anyone expecting night travelers stands ready to go out to them the instant their lamps are sighted.
The ancients put great stock in hospitality and protocols because keeping them keeps danger at bay. In fact, many of our customs—leaving a porch light on, for instance, or wedding and funeral processions—evolve from a pre-modern compulsion to ensure safe travel for one’s friends and family. No matter how close they are when watchmen first spot them, it’s never so close to shrug one’s duty to meet them. Should their light fail and darkness swallow them, death and harm are merely a step away. The host, attendant, or servant unprepared to bring them light justifiably earns the traveler’s contempt, often at a great price. And all of this—fear of the dark, personal risk, inhospitality, thoughtless irresponsibility, and tragic consequences—figure into Jesus’s tale, which sounds to His listeners more like a Stephen King novel than a fable.
A bridegroom assembles a party of 10 maidens to usher him into town when he arrives. Five of them understand what’s required of them, while the other five apparently don’t. Jesus calls the prepared maidens “wise,” and the unprepared ones “foolish.” A new wrinkle spotlights their idiocy. On hearing the groom is delayed, they don’t use the extra time to fix things. Instead, they nap with the wise maidens. At midnight, the watchmen wake them. The groom is coming. The wise maids fire up their lamps. The foolish ones beg them for oil. Sadly, they haven’t any to spare. “Find a dealer to sell you some,” they say. And while the foolish maids run around town, the wise ones go into the night to meet the groom. Without asking about the missing maidens, he takes them into the wedding banquet and shuts the door. When the foolish maids show up, he disowns them. “I don’t know you,” he insists. Jesus closes with an ominous moral: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (v13)
Ours to Keep
That’s it? No gruesome violence, no big “Boo!” to scare us out of our socks? How is this a horror story? What makes it tragic? So what if they didn’t get into the banquet? There’ll be others. We might think so, but Jesus’s listeners don’t have to be told there will not be other parties. The foolish maidens prove themselves unworthy of so much as a welcome. Selfishness, carelessness, laziness—call it what you will; all of them fit—renders them invisible. They’ve no right to ask anyone for anything. Worst of all, there will be no one to venture into the night and guarantee their safe travel. They are no longer known. Jesus doesn’t describe their panicked screams when reality jumps out at them. His listeners can already hear them, and they’re chilled to the bone.
Like all the parables, this one gets interpreted every conceivable way. Some think the oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and take it to mean believers who ignore the Spirit’s guidance invite foolish risks. Some read it as a warning to stay ready for death or the Second Coming. Some take it as another of Jesus’s lessons urging His followers to own responsibility for the flock after He’s gone. Yet in all of these, one truth cannot be ignored. We possess light. And with that comes the privilege of bringing it to night travelers. It makes no difference whether they travel with their own lamps, or how close they may be. Duty compels us to go out, meet them, and bring them safely home. Napping when we should be getting our act together is foolish—and faithless. In the end, we pay for our indifference. It’s a fate we can avoid by protecting our light at all costs. Once it’s ours, it’s ours to keep—and ours to bring. Be wise. Protect your light.
Open our hearts to our neighbors’ needs, O God, and make us ready to meet them. Amen.
We possess light. It’s ours to keep, and ours to bring.