Matthew 25: 1-13
“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.
Weddings are a time for celebration. In the ancient world, the bringing together of families meant many things. It meant that heirs would be born, that business could be conducted. It meant that a feast would be held and that the community could eat and that distant relatives could gather to share news. The festivities would have involved the entire village, sometimes an entire tribe. Marriage, then as it is now, was not a small matter.
No wonder that scripture, especially the New Testament but many of the prophets, used the language of marriage to describe how things were in the world. God was often described as the husband of the faithful. Israel, Judah, the Church – all are variously described as God’s wife. The covenant of marriage, after all, is perhaps one of the closest parallels a person can have to their relationship with God. Marriage, though not a sacrament in the Methodist Church, teaches us as much about God as the Eucharist or Baptism.
The image that our scripture for today gives us stands out, because whereas most of the marriage imagery in scripture puts God in the position of husband, and the Church in the position of bride, this parable puts forward that God is indeed the groom of a wedding, but that the expectant Church is best described as bridesmaids. A strange shift to be sure! How can the beloved of God, those Covenant partners bound to God throughout eternity, how can they now be relegated to the position of bridesmaids?
We cannot approach this scripture and assume that Jesus was using the image of a groom in the same way he does elsewhere. To do so would be to miss the exact reason why Jesus is shifting the language away from the Church as bride to the church as Bridesmaid. We must accept that Jesus has changed the terms and discern why such a change might occur.
The role of bridesmaids in the ancient world differed depending on the culture they inhabited. We all have heard stories of how, in ancient Europe, bridesmaids dressed identically to the bride, ensuring that if anyone tried to kidnap the bride before the wedding, they were less likely to succeed. Some others put forward that the original purpose of these members of the wedding party was to do exactly as their name suggests. That their duty was to be a, “maid,” to the bride and serve her the day of the wedding and beyond.
Yet, in the first century the role of bridesmaid appeared to be mostly ceremonial. Though we do not have huge amounts of information directing us to the exact role of these women in Jesus’ era we do know that there were several universal features of Jewish weddings in the ancient world. among these were vows made under a canopy, the exchange of rings, singing and dancing, and a procession of light.
Depending on where a person lived, this procession might take different forms. Sometimes the poor would lead the groom to the ceremony in exchange for money, sometimes a single person carrying a lamp on a pole, but in Judea the custom was for a group of women to carry torches or lamps. These women served as the escort for the husband to the bride and they carried their light proudly. They were unmarried women seemingly representing the life that the bride was leaving behind and bringing with them the catalyst to begin her new life, namely her husband. The procession carried these torches and lamps, and sometimes even danced with them.
The role that these women served, the light to guide the groom to the bride, was completely ceremonial in many respects. The groom knew where the bride was. Even if it was dark, it would not be unreasonable for him to bring his own lamp or bring someone along to carry one for him. No, the point of the lamp bearers was not to illumine the path of the groom, but to walk alongside him. They were signs of his authenticity, heralds to his coming. They walked alongside, and ahead of the groom, so everyone knew that a feast was about to begin.
The image we are given in our scripture of attendants waiting for the groom to arrive was evidently common among Jewish weddings of Jesus’ time. The “Bride Price,” a financial display by the husband to demonstrate his seriousness about the marriage he was entering, was haggled over before the wedding took place. The idea was that the longer the discussions went on, the more invested the two parties involved must have been. Because of this, it benefited a man to drag out discussions as long as possible, to show how serious he really was.
The attendants should not have been blindsided by his tardiness, several of them were prepared for it in fact, bringing oil to light the lamp – not just for the time they would be walking to the feast – but also for the time they would be waiting. Others were not so prepared, they carried only enough oil to walk down the proverbial aisle. When they woke up from their nap, they found that they had burnt it all up waiting for the groom to arrive. They were forced to go off and try and buy more. When they returned, they found that the feast had begun, and they had missed out on their chance to participate. A sad end to a complicated little story, but one that tells us a great deal about our own life in the faith.
Having looked at the story, let us peel back the images it gives us and do some interpretation. If we know that the groom is Jesus, then we know that we have been waiting for a long time. Two thousand years, the church has anticipated the return of Christ to set the world right. Across the New Testament we see figures like Paul begin to understand the wait they would have to endure – changing from speaking of Christ’s return as an immediate reality to something a little ways off. We as the Church have been waiting and we have fallen asleep from time to time in the process, maybe even let our torches run out of oil.
By fall asleep, I mean that we have become complacent in our view of the world around us. We become content to sit and not seek out anything challenging or different. We sit and we wait, and doze off, and the world turn around us. However, inevitably something goes wrong. The world shutters to a stop and we are thrown from our cushy place into danger. That sudden change from comfort to discomfort, from normalcy to challenge, that defines our faith.
To build from our parable, the oil that we keep is our preparedness for God to arrive in our life. Jesus does not condemn the women for sleeping, because even those who enter into the feast fell asleep. Jesus does condemn them for not being prepared for the groom’s arrival. When God shows up in our life, we have to be ready. This is not just an eschatological vision for the end of time, but a present concern. When someone knocks on our door who needs food or gas money, Christ has shown up. When our loved one is hurting or sick, Christ has shown up. Anytime a need is made known to us, Christ has arrived. Even if that need is within our own heart, even if it takes the form of our own pain.
When we are jolted awake in those moments, we need to be ready to do something about the situation we find ourselves in. We must have developed skills through our time of peace to let us face the hardship before us. Sometimes those skills are practical, the ability to discern how and when and where to give or how to get resources that we need. Other times it is interpersonal, how to listen and encourage and build up. Still other times it is a spiritual skill, to pray, to hope, to intercede, even just to have faith.
We are not always at the top of our game. That is just a reality of life, but even a person who has fallen asleep can run from a fire when they hear the alarm. In our life, moments will spring upon us where we must act, and when they do, it is good to be prepared for them. We must anticipate the times in our life when we are lost or hurting, or meet someone who is, and we need to know how to act in that moment.
Many criticize the maids who did have oil for refusing to share with those who did not have any. If this was not a parable, I would be inclined to agree. However, you cannot share preparedness, not the sort that comes from within us. We can share material goods, money, even time – but we cannot share a mindset. We cannot care on behalf of other people. We cannot be people who think that something could never happen, we must be people who earnestly prepare ourselves to meet God wherever God appears.
Perhaps though, something could have been done to let the ill prepared women join in the feast as well.a If they had not lit their lamps quite so soon, knowing that they were tired and had some time to wait. If they had sat by their fellow maidens, and simply let their light shine on them for a moment, would the story have been different? When we find ourselves unprepared for a sudden rush of trouble, or the appearance of someone in need, we cannot loan one another an ounce of precaution. But I wonder, if we know we are not yet prepared, if we are still growing into our responsibilities as people of the faith, could we at least share the light?
Perhaps, even as we talk about our inability to share preparedness, we can talk about our need to look out for one another. To see when our friend does not have enough within them in a moment to do all that they would like to or need to. Perhaps we can shelter them, even just a little bit. And perhaps, those of us who are in need, who are sitting in the dark because we just don’t have it all together, maybe we could let them help us.
Because, if the maids, all gathered there, had stayed awake, then they might have seen they did not have enough fuel. If they were aware of themselves and one another, maybe they could have shared the lamplight until the groom came, and the procession began. Sometimes we may doze off as members of the Church, but perhaps we should stay more alert, we should stay awake. If we really care for one another, if we really want to see us all make it to the wedding feast at the end of history, then we have to look out for one another. Because sometimes Christ appears as the beggar at the door or in the sick person in a bed, but I believe sometimes Christ appears to us in a tired believer, just looking for a light to see them through the night.
Stay awake, dear siblings, share the light of God with one another, and gird yourself so that you never find yourself unprepared when Christ arrives unexpectedly. – Amen.
 Cyrus Adler & M. Grunwald. “Marriage Ceremonies,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia Available at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10434-marriage-ceremonies
 Ben Witherington III. “The Final Discourse – Apocalypse Then.” In Matthew (Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys. 2006) 459