Lauren J. McFeaters
February 21, 2016
They’re known as bridesmaids, maidens, virgins, attendants, women religious. Wise and foolish. Foolish and wise.
Christian art historically paints the “foolish ones” as wanton, card-playing, and smarmy women who revel in every kind of debauchery. I’m not kidding. Google the passage and go to the images. Be prepared to be amazed.
The “wise ones” are illuminated as glorious waifs drifting in and out of prayer meetings; angelic Tinkerbelles who flit through forest glen lamps ablaze with honor and blessing; or tall solemnly pious warriors marching in the Light of God. I’m not kidding. Google the passage and go to the images. Be prepared to be amazed.
Neither portrayal is helpful. The Wise being saints and the Foolish being whores. The Wise being blessed and the Foolish being sinners. Not helpful at all. It’s like saying Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Really? Truly? Do you think of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute? Many do. That’s the church’s story, its tradition, but nowhere is it found in scripture.
We’ve all of us – each of us – been each of them: the foolish and the wise; the wise and the foolish. Each of us has been the extravagantly wise and the exceedingly foolish. Each of us takes our wise or foolish place on this parable stage; in this earthly story with heavenly meaning. Most scholars agree:
- The Wise Bridesmaids are Christians prepared to keep their faith and good works alive and burning.
- The Long Awaited Bridegroom is the Lord.
- The Bridegroom’s late night arrival is the Messiah coming at an unexpected time, like a thief in the night.
- The Flaming Lanterns are the believers who do not hide their light under a bushel, but shine for the world to see.
- The Wedding Banquet is the Kingdom of Heaven.
So much action. So many signs. So many puzzles to piece together.(2)
Many years ago when I was traveling in Ireland (3), and I visited an ancient church called Saint Fin Barre’s. It’s an Anglican Cathedral in the middle of Cork City and it sits on a site where Christian worship has been celebrated since the early-7th century.
If you stand at the western portico and gaze above, your eye gets lost in the multitude of carvings, reliefs, interlacing designs, and sculpture. But if you step back, certain images come into focus and it all starts to look familiar. In all its glory the parable of the Wise and Foolish comes into focus.
On one side are the wise. Their heads are covered as a display of purity. High aloft they hold their flaming lanterns. They stand on the right hand side of the bridegroom who faces them with joy. The wise are strong, virtuous, favored and standing on pedestals depicting the open doors to a heavenly wedding party.
And as you can imagine, in stark contrast, the foolish are bare-headed and cold. They are despondent, dejected, and ashamed. Their lamps hang withered and useless. Beneath their feet the closed doors of the feast are shut tightly. Our Lord looks away. And above them all is a massive depiction of the realm of angels lifting the wise into heaven and pushing the foolish into hell.(4)
One preacher puts it like this: This is one of those moments when we should be proclaiming, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, sweet Jesus, this is not the only parable about the Kingdom of Heaven.” Because if this is what happens when we’re unrehearsed and unprepared; when we forget our oil and are turned away by supposed friends, have sweet mercy upon us!
Thank goodness there’s a basket-full of others parables at hand. There’s hidden treasure, mustard seeds, pearls of great price, yeast, and coins. If we could scoop out just one other parable that does not hinge on asking for help or sharing what we have, we’d be all snug and warm.
Anna Carter Florence says it best that this text makes church people look bad. Is this really how we define a wise person, as someone who only takes care of herself without sharing? Didn’t they think about sharing their oil? They could have walked in pairs. Is this the kind of story we want people to identify with us? “Well, you know the church, they’re the ones who hoard all their oil. They preach the wisdom of stockpiling, because they believe that if people are in need, it’s their own darn fault.”
Anna continues, “Sometimes, when I’m working on a sermon, I try to imagine what it would be like to read other passages of scripture through the lens of the particular text I’m working on. For example, what would happen if we placed this text next to other portions of Matthew’s gospel, and read them together?” Well, I tried that, she says, starting with the Sermon on the Mount back in Matthew 6 and 7, but I didn’t get very far, because the wise and foolish bridesmaids were making mincemeat out of the Beatitudes. She came up with this:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven. (6:19ff)
Or: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else. (6:25ff)
Or: Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it. (7:7ff) What is Jesus thinking? In telling this parable he turns the Gospel on its head, and not in a good way. If being prepared with extra oil is the ticket into heaven then most of his teaching is debatable.(5)
Instead of rescuing his disciples from the boat in the storm, we would have the story of “The Men Who Died at Sea Having Failed Sailing 101.” Instead of “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” we’d have “The Ethical Dilemma of Futile Hospice & Palliative Care.”
And what is it about the oil? The Wise and the Foolish had oil. They all had lamps. They all traveled to meet the bridegroom. They were all ready for a wedding. They all slept. They all awoke.(6) What they weren’t all ready for was the delay.
Maybe, just maybe, this is not only a parable about the oil in our lamps. Maybe this is a parable about the oil we leave at home, that we keep hoarded and sheltered. Oil we don’t take out into the world. All the slippery stuff that weighs us down — the grief and sadness and anxiety, the endless tears, the voices in our heads. And, oh, that oil of fear, and pride, and shame, and stinginess. We leave that oil at home thinking we need to hide it from the world and, most especially, where else? Here.
But what if, every time we made our way to church we paused at the doorway and looked up and saw the Foolish Ones on one side and the Wise Ones on the other. The wise hold their flaming lanterns aloft. They are strong and resilient. And also the foolish, bare headed, cold, looking despondent and ashamed. Their lamps hanging withered and useless. But all of them are welcoming us, lighting our way, and saying, “This way.”
Sometimes wise. Sometimes foolish. Sometimes right in the middle. “Come because the Bridegroom is waiting,” they’re saying. “Don’t leave your baggage(7) at home, don’t leave it outside, bring it all in and shake it out. Because the Kingdom of God is here. Ready or not. Delayed or not. There’s a big, wide welcome waiting for the foolish and the wise. It’s an anointing from the God who fuels our spirits, from the One who keeps our lamps burning.
And perhaps it really is all about the oil — that viscous stuff that lubricates our souls and reminds of the promises our Lord offers over and over and over again:
- I was a refugee, and you welcomed me.
- I was hungry and you fed me.
- I was thirsty, and you gave me a bottle of water.
- I was stark naked and you gave me the coat off your back.
- I was in prison, and not only did you visit me, you’re also working to free me from my solitary confinement. (8)
Our Lord Jesus Christ, he doesn’t want us to leave it at home. He wants us to come and bring all of our dirt and find all of our joy – together.
1. Matthew 25:1-13 NRSV.
2. Thomas G. Long. Matthew. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know, 1997, 280.
3. Thanks to Melissa Martin Sells for jogging my memory.
4. Louise Nugent. Blog: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland, pilgrimagemedievalireland.com, August 5, 2008.
5. Anna Carter Florence. Sermon: Filling Stations, Matthew 25:1-13. Day1, a ministry of the Alliance for Christian Media Inc. Atlanta, GA. November 04, 2007.
6. Long, 280-281.
7. Thanks to Noel Werner for leading me to the “Baggage” conversation.
8. Long, 280-281.
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