I think it is important to read Scripture in light of Scripture. Too often we Christians, even progressive ones, read passages of Scripture in isolation from other Scripture and come up with very mistaken interpretations as a result. I believe it is much more helpful to follow the lead of our Jewish forebears, including Jesus, and use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Especially as our Scriptures are snapshots from many different people of their experiences of the divine.
When we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, traditional interpretations of our Gospel passage for today don’t make much sense. Traditionally this passage has been seen as an allegory. The bridegroom is Jesus. The bridesmaids are those waiting for the return of Jesus. Five of the bridesmaids brought oil for their lamps and five did not. All of them fell asleep while waiting for the very tardy bridegroom, but only the five who brought oil make it to the wedding banquet or the kingdom of heaven, because they were prepared. The five who did not bring oil did not stay vigilant and prepared and so they do not get to enter the kingdom of heaven.
When we see this parable as an allegory, we usually identify with the five wise bridesmaids. We follow Christ, we are prepared, we will make it into heaven. It becomes an issue of salvation. Or sometimes we see it as an issue of good works, and we become neurotic. We will work even harder to be good people so that we will make into heaven. And then this parable is used against those who don’t follow Christ or don’t do good works. They are the bad ones. Heaven is not for them. In this way the parable makes us feel safe and secure. We are the insiders who know the way to stay on the inside and those who are not like us are left on the outside.
The problem is that parables aren’t meant to make us feel safe and secure. Parables are not meant to secure our place as insiders and others as outsiders. Parables are meant to shake up our thinking. Parables are meant to turn our world on its head. If our reading of a particular parable simply serves to reinforce our view of ourselves as insiders, we probably aren’t reading the parable deeply enough. And for me, the traditional understanding of this parable just doesn’t fit with what I understand about Jesus from the rest of Scripture.
So, to go deeper, I decided to first place myself in the shoes of the characters in the story that I don’t normally identify with—the five foolish bridesmaids who brought no oil. What exactly was the mistake that these foolish bridesmaids made? What made them so foolish? It wasn’t that they fell asleep, because even the wise bridesmaids fell asleep, and they are still called wise. They weren’t shut out for being late. It was the bridegroom, not the bridal party who broke social protocol and arrived exceptionally late for his own banquet.
I wondered if the lit lamps in this parable could be a symbol for faith. When I looked at the lamps this way, I began to remember a time in my life when the light of my faith went out for a period of time. It was during the several years in which I was trying in various ways to become a mother. I could no more force my faith back to life than the foolish bridesmaids could create oil from nothing in the middle of the night. I watched desperately as the light of my faith flickered and went out. It was a personally painful time, and it was vocationally painful as well. I wondered if I should continue as a priest. How could I lead others in faith, when my own faith was so absent? I was tempted to walk away from it all in a desperate attempt to regain the light I had lost. But I didn’t walk away. I stayed. The light returned. And God was with me through it all.
What would have happened if the bridesmaids had continued to wait rather than leaving to find oil? Perhaps when we are in the midst of a dark night of the soul when our lamps go out, we are called not to search frantically for a way to relight our lamps. Perhaps we are called to simply be present right where we are, trusting that when the light of the bridegroom arrives, the bridegroom’s light will give us all the light we need.
And what about those five wise bridesmaids? If I put myself in their shoes, I feel pretty selfish. I can’t think of anywhere else in Scripture where selfish people are called wise. I feel like the wise bridesmaids were just as distrustful as the foolish ones. They too don’t trust that the light of the bridegroom will be enough for all. As a result, they break up the party sending the foolish ones out into the darkness. When anyone is absent there is a loss for all. I found myself reflecting on the many times when I didn’t share my abundance because I was afraid, I would not have enough.
And finally, there is the bridegroom. When Jesus gets to the end of his kingdom of heaven series, of which this parable is a part, he teaches his listeners about who was the truly foolish and who was the truly wise in each of his parables. He explains that the kingdom of heaven is for those who live from a place of abundance. Those who give away what they have. Those who feed the poor, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, those who let everyone in.
What if the bridegroom is just a bridegroom and we are to learn from this parable not to shut the door? This is not really a stretch. If we look at the context in which Matthew’s Gospel was written, it makes perfect sense. Matthew was written not long after the destruction of Jerusalem. It was understandably a time when the leaders of Jewish institutions were regrouping and trying to re-form their identity. The Temple, which had been the locus of their identity for so many years, was gone. In the process of asking “who are we?” they naturally began weeding out strains of Judaism that didn’t fit their emerging understanding of themselves, including, of course, the Jesus movement. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out. In other words, this is a parable about life as the followers of Matthew knew it. They were literally being shut out of their synagogues by the religious leaders. When have I shut the door and left others in darkness? When have I created loss for all, by not letting everyone in?
When we put ourselves in the place of each of the characters in the parable, we find that we have at various times in our lives been each one of them. We have been the foolish people who failed to bring oil. We have been the bridegroom who refused to let people in. We have been the wise bridesmaids who feared sharing and losing what we have. We are all of these characters warts and all. And we can learn from them.
When in darkness, don’t run from it. Wait. It is a holy place. God will meet you right where you are. When you are living in abundance, share, even if it scares you. God will provide. If you find yourself on the inside with others on the outside, open the doors wide and invite those on the outside in, for we all lose when anyone loses.
Wherever we are God is there. Amen.