Five bridesmaids bring oil; five bridesmaids do not.
It seems obvious what this parable is about. “Keep awake! Stay alert! Be prepared!”
It seems so obvious, that I’ve avoided preaching on this parable. What is there to say, other than the obvious?
I guess I could mention that some people believe that the parable refers to Jesus’s second coming...And I could even mention a Greek word - parousia - that refers to the second coming.
But then what?
“Keep awake! Stay alert! Be prepared!” There’s nothing else to say.
But then I read an article by a Presbyterian minister named John W. Wimberley, Jr. According to John W. Wimberley, Jr., this parable is not about staying awake, staying alert, or being prepared. According to John W. Wimberley, Jr., the five “wise” bridesmaids really aren’t all that wise. According to John W. Wimberley, Jr., what those so-called “wise” bridesmaids should have done is share their oil with the other five bridesmaids who didn’t have any oil. They should have shared.
That’s what the parable is about, according to John W. Wimberley, Jr….
Parousia isn’t the only fancy word I learned in seminary. I also learned about exegesis and eisegesis.
Exegesis is good. Exegesis is when you search and discover and pull out from the scripture the meaning contained within it.
Eisegesis is bad. Eisegesis is when you take your own meaning, your own idea, and force it onto the scripture, so that the scripture means whatever you want it to mean.
I was pretty sure that John W. Wimberley, Jr.’s interpretation was a classic case of eisegesis. It’s so obvious what this parable is about, right? It’s so obvious that the five bridesmaids who had the oil were the good examples in this story, the “wise” ones who were prepared for the groom’s arrival. Because they were ready and awake, they show us how we should act. How could anyone say that this was not the right interpretation? How could anyone say that the point of this parable is to share? The wise bridesmaids did no sharing, and they got to go into the party.
I thought about this for awhile. And as I did, some things came to mind.
One thing that came to mind is what I learned from Amy Jill-Levine, that the parables of Jesus always challenge those who hear them. If you’re not being challenged to see things in a new way, then you probably haven’t understood the parable. If the parable doesn’t cause you to rethink what you thought you knew, then you probably haven’t understood the parable.
Well, in my understanding of this parable, what’s the challenge? Be prepared? Stay awake? That’s good advice, but it doesn’t make me see the world in a new way...it doesn’t cause me to rethink what I thought I knew. If this is how we are to understand the parable, we can all mutter a little “amen” at the end and go quietly on our way, and nothing will have changed.
According to Amy Jill-Levine, if the only lesson in this parable is “Be prepared,” then Jesus has wasted his time. We don’t need a parable to tell us to be prepared. There is nothing new there, nothing surprising.
Yet Jesus’s parables are always surprising. They always turn things upside down.
In parables, the last become first. In parables, the weak become strong. In parables, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. In parables, the wise become foolish and the foolish become wise.
Parables always catch us by surprise. And our old understanding is replaced by a new understanding.
My ho-hum reaction to this parable is a hint that, maybe, the way I’ve always understood this parable isn’t right.
Another thing I realized is that it would be very out of character for Jesus to praise a person for not sharing.
On another occasion Jesus told a parable, about a man who had lots of wealth, mostly in the form of grain. This man didn’t know what to do with all his grain, he had so much; so he built bigger barns to store it all.
What this man did seems reasonable. We might even call him “wise.” He was simply ensuring he had enough resources on hand for whatever may come. Just like the wise bridesmaids, he was getting ready. He was getting prepared. I mean, who knows when a famine might occur; why shouldn’t he store his extra grain, and be prepared?
But Jesus calls him a fool! Why would Jesus call him a fool, and praise the bridesmaids who did, basically, the same thing?
According to John W. Wimberley, Jr., the five “wise” bridesmaids are actually foolish, because they had oil but did not share their oil. Just like the foolish man who built bigger barns for his grain instead of sharing.
But - ho ho! - what about that comment at the end of this parable: Jesus tells the parable, and then we have this comment: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Doesn’t that concluding comment tell us what the parable means? And doesn’t it flat out say that keeping awake and staying prepared is the point of the parable?
It does… but here’s the thing...
Scripture writers like Matthew and Luke liked to record the stories and parables Jesus told, but then they added their own comment of what the parable meant. And often, they got it wrong.
This is something else I learned from Amy Jill-Levine.
The reason they did this is because what Jesus said was just too radical for them, so they added an explanatory comment to tame and domesticate the parable. They had to! Parables were shocking! Sometimes revolutionary! And sometimes that was just too much!
So Matthew and Luke would include the parable in their gospel accounts, but then they would tell you in a concluding comment what they wanted you to believe it meant...even if it wasn’t what Jesus wanted it to mean.
So now, (my fellow scholars and interpreters of scripture), when you read a parable of Jesus and are trying to make sense of it, focus on the actual story, and set aside (for the time being) any explanatory comment that comes at the end or the beginning. Do that, and you will have a better chance of understanding the parable as Jesus would have understood it.
Which, in this case, leaves us with a story of five bridesmaids who - at least at the beginning of the story - are described as wise because they brought oil; and at the end of the story, they are welcomed into the party, and ignore the plight of those five others who are shut out in the cold.
That’s the whole story. Now ask yourself: how would Jesus want you to respond to a story in which some are welcomed into the party, where there’s food and warmth and life, and some are left out in the cold, hungry, without food? If we consider just the story, and ignore the one-verse epilogue that was added on, doesn’t it seem at least probable that Jesus would want us to look upon the poor, left-out bridesmaids with some compassion? I mean, where else in scripture does Jesus tell us to not show compassion? Nowhere!
Jesus’s teachings are pretty clear: feed the hungry. Help the poor. Not once does he say we should question why they are poor or hungry. Was it their own fault that they are poor? Was it their own foolishness that led to their hunger? Jesus never tells us to ask those questions, or make those judgments. When Jesus fed the 5,000 in the wilderness, he didn't say, “You fools! You should have been prepared!” He didn't say that. He just fed them. He just gave them what they needed.
And when Jesus told the parable about the prodigal son, who left home, lived recklessly, wasted all his money… he didn’t end the story with this prodigal son paying the price for his foolishness, being shut out of his father’s house. Quite the opposite!
The father ran out to meet him, embraced him, welcomed him home, and even threw a huge party to celebrate his homecoming. So why wouldn’t Jesus want the bridesmaids who forgot to bring their oil to be allowed in to the party? What they did isn’t nearly as bad as what the prodigal son did, yet he got to go in to the party. The party was for him! It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would want us to leave these five bridesmaids out in the cold just because they forgot their oil...
I don’t know about you, but by this point, I’m starting to think that maybe John W. Wimberley, Jr., is on to something…
Oh, and even though many Christians do interpret this story as being about Jesus’s second coming - the parousia - nowhere in the parable does it say that. Many people believe that the point of the parable is to be ready for the second coming of Christ. But many Christians are so obsessed with the second coming of Christ, that they think almost anything is about the parousia, even when it isn’t.
Jesus’s teachings are almost always about how to live today, in the present world, and not about the world to come. Often, those who focus on the world to come do so because they don’t want to do what Jesus told them to do in this life. They don’t want to feed the hungry or care for the poor. They don’t want to share.
And what a great way to get out of doing those things: just insist that Jesus isn’t really talking about how to behave in this life; he’s talking about how to prepare for the life to come… Focus on the life to come, and you don’t have to worry about things like injustice and poverty. It’s such a convenient way to get out of doing what Jesus tells us to do.
And think about this: When the five bridesmaids who had oil went into the party, how could they enjoy it, knowing that five others were shut out?
The only way they could enjoy the party is if they ignored the suffering of those who were left out in the cold.
The only way they could enjoy the party is if they, like Cain, insisted that they were not their sister’s keeper.
The only way they could enjoy the party is if they denied having any connection to those who were shut outside.
That is so contrary to everything our study of scripture teaches us!
Everything we’ve learned about faith and religion teaches us to recognize the connection we have with each other.
We are all connected.
Which means that, instead of there being five bridesmaids who have oil and five bridesmaids who have no oil, what we really have are ten bridesmaids who have half as much oil as they need.
That’s how John W. Wimberley Jr. redefines the problem…
Not five who have nothing, but ten who have half.
Do you see how profound it is to re-define the problem like that? It makes us rethink what we thought we knew… as any good parable should.
Redefining the problem like this makes us recognize the connection that exists between all children of God. We redefine the problem this way, because we understand that what affects one person directly affects all people indirectly. Right? That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
If we believe that and live by that, then there is no way that we can follow the example of the five “wise” bridesmaids. In fact, instead of calling them wise, we should call them the five selfish bridesmaids. Or the five bridesmaids who mistakenly think they are disconnected from everyone else.
This way of understanding the parable speaks directly to the situation our world is in today.
So many in our country, when deciding who to vote for, what issues are important to them, etc., they want a leader and a national policy that will help us keep what we believe is ours. They ask: Why should we share? They ask: Why should we help others? They ask: Why should we allow immigrants and refugees into our country?
And they say that those immigrants and refugees should have been better prepared, they should have (I don’t know) been smart enough to have been born somewhere else. Just let them go back home and figure out their own problems…Just shut the doors, keep them out of the party…
This parable presents a very clear challenge to that way of thinking. In a world of incredible inequality, a world where a few have way more than they need while so many have barely anything, this parable is most definitely a challenge to us. It calls us to rethink how our society and our world is structured. It calls on us to recognize that we are our brother’s keeper, that we are our sister’s keeper, that anytime there is anyone left without - for whatever reason - we must do our part to ensure that they have what they need. We must provide shelter. We must provide food. We must provide hospitality. THIS is the way of Christ. This is the way we are called to follow.
I know. I’m sorry. You were comfortable with this parable, but now you’re not. It was tame, but now it’s not. Like me, you used to hear this parable, nod your head, mutter a little “amen,” and go quietly on your way.
But that is no longer an option. Now, we have to rethink what we thought we knew. Now, this parable compels us to do something. It calls us to change our behavior, change our lives, and change our world.