THE PARABLE OF THE STINGY BRIDESMAIDS…Another Wedding Banquet
Matthew 25:1-13 tells the story of ten bridesmaids, or, as older translations have it, the “foolish virgins”. The wise bridesmaids carried an extra supply of oil for their lamps, but the foolish ones did not. When the groom was late, they all fell asleep, and when he finally showed up they all “got up and trimmed their lamps.” Guess what: the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps had burned out, and when they asked their wise counterparts to share with them, they would not. When the foolish bridesmaids returned from having replenished their supply at the lamp oil store, the wedding banquet was already underway, and the groom would not let them join the Feast, though they entreated him piteously. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you,” he said.
Before I can make any sense out of this parable I must first disabuse myself of any notion that it represents a New Testament version of “The Three Little Pigs.” It is not, cannot be, a cautionary tale about the virtues of thrift and holding on to scarce assets. If there is to be any Good News in this parable, it will have to fit somewhere on the spectrum with the crowd of Prodigal Sons and Good Samaritans and widows who put their life savings into the collection plate. “Do not be anxious,” says Jesus in Matthew 6:25, “about what you will eat, or what you will wear.” Or, one might add, “how much oil is in your lamp.” To hear Good News in this parable it is nec essary to imagine the world as a wedding where the arrival of a major participant has been inexplicably delayed.
The Gospel of Matthew was composed at a time when many Christians were discouraged that the Second Coming of Jesus had not occurred. If they were disappointed that Jesus had not called down armies of angels to overthrow Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion, they were even more disappointed when the glorified and exalted Jesus did not come down from the sky to save them from persecution and extinction at the hands of the Romans.
It is to addre3ss these fears that the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, in 24:13, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
I have my own experience with weddings and the absent grooms, and brides as well. Our daughter Caitlin married a wonderful Scotsman, Michael Lester, in July of 2007. For the wedding, we joined family members who traveled from as far as Trinidad and Australia in anticipation of a great gala wedding in the village of Duns, located in the Scottish Borders southwest of Edinburgh. On Wednesday before the wedding, however, I received a call from our daughter saying that the immigration authorities would not permit Michael to return if he left the United States without a certain document, for which he had applied many months before but which still had not been issued. “We can’t come to our own wedding, Dad”, Caitlin told me, “you will have to have it without us.”
She was devastated, of course, and so was I. I was also mad, mad at the INS, and mad at God. This was not a big issue of theodicy, as when a child dies or there is a horrible natural disaster of some kind. I could not construe the missing of a wedding party as a tragedy, but I could see it as petty harassment, as a trivializing example of divine spitefulness. We can struggle against the image of God as an oppressive tyrant, but “God as a party-pooper” doesn’t seem worthy of any effort at all.
So I was mad, but I made my peace with God, and set about composing a sermon to give at the “wedding for an absent bride and groom.” In the sermon I said that it was OK to mad at God, that God expects us to get mad and forgives us for it. After all, Jesus had commanded us to have this universal kingdom of heaven party and then left us to figure out all the details on our own while he parties with the Father and the Holy Spirit “up” in heaven, or whatever direction it is.
So God expects us to get mad. God also expects us to grow up and stop whining. If you are married, you know that marriage is not just about parties and receptions, it about loving and cherishing each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” And people are treated harshly by immigration authorities all the time- why should we expect to be an exception?
Anyone who wants to come to God’s wedding party will, sooner or later, find themselves walking in the shoes of every immigrant, legal or otherwise, because Jesus himself was an illegal immigrant, smuggled into the world under King Herod’s radar. Anyone who wants to come to God’s wedding party will find themselves having to learn how to love their neighbor no matter what, whether the economy is up or down, whether your government is the Roman Empire or the USA, whether the Groom is up at the altar or up on the cross.
That’s not exactly what I put into my “Wedding Sermon in the Absence of a Bride and Groom”, but it’s close, and I never had occasion to preach it after all. At the last possible minute the INS relented and issued the necessary permit, so Caitlin and Michael flew over to Scotland and we had the wedding and the greatest party ever held in the history of the world. The sermon I did give at the Scottish Episcopal Church in Duns said, basically, “this wedding is the closest to the kingdom of heaven as we ever get in this world.”
Actually, I say something pretty close to that at every Eucharist, because every Eucharist is a kind of rehearsal for God’s Wedding Banquet where the Guest of Honor is absent, having ascended into heaven 2000 years ago. We still get mad about the inconvenience of it, or at least I do, but Jesus loves us anyway. Loves and forgives us, but also calls us to grow up and get on with our discipleship. There is a place for everyone at this Wedding Banquet- no one is excluded for lack of enough good deeds on their resume, or enough oil in their lamps, or enough anything. If you are with Jesus, it is always enough.
If anyone succeeds in excluding themselves it will be because they cannot stand God’s way of doing parties. It will be because they can’t stand a party where everyone gets the same thing at communion regardless of how much they give to the church. It will be because they can’t stand weddings where the Groom keeps the guests waiting for 2000+ years. There are ways to exclude ourselves, but not because God is stingy. It is a tough love that God bestows upon us, but also a love that is lavish, abundant, prodigal, and persistent.
If you can’t stand a love like that, stay home. Otherwise, come to the party: it’s the greatest party in the history of the world.