Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

6 November 2011 at St Giles

First Reading Wisdom of Solomon 6.12-16

12Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
13She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
14One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
15To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
16because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.

Gospel Matthew 25.1-13

Alleluia, alleluia.
Stay awake, praying at all times
for the strength to stand with confidence before the Son of man.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Whoever wants to be wise, says Solomon, should get up early in the morning. Wisdom is easily found by those who seek her. Wisdom seeks out those who look for her. She graciously appears to them. She meets them in every thought. Wisdom, notice, in Scripture is feminine.

The parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25 is part of what theologians call the eschatological discourse. It covers two chapters – 24 and 25. Eschatology literally means studying the end. The end of time. The return of Jesus. The last judgement. The coming in fullness of the Kingdom.

As usual, Jesus teaches in parables. His disciples find him alone, on the Mount of Olives. They have a question for him. “What will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” He replies with a long list of cosmological signs, and warnings about what will happen on earth. Scary stuff. But then Jesus tells three stories. First the bridesmaids (or 10 virgins); then the 8 bags of gold; and lastly the sheep and the goats.

Our story today is a very feminine one. The bridegroom makes a cameo appearance. All the other characters are young women. Wisdom is feminine – but only half the 10 bridesmaids are wise.

The story’s setting is significant. The prophet Zechariah says the Lord will return and will be recognised as King over all the earth, and will stand on Mount Olivet. Jesus starts with a familiar phrase: “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this…” So there’s no doubt what his teaching is all about. There’s a wedding feast, a banquet, a big celebration – all signs of the Kingdom throughout the gospels.

You can retell the story for children in terms they understand. Imagine the 10 young women are driving in their cars to a big family get-together. Half of them fill up with enough fuel to get them there. The look at Google Maps. They know the precise distance.

The other half fill their tanks. They allow for delays and hold-ups. They know how misleading a Tom Tom can be. So, when it turns out the destination is much further than the reckoned, half the drivers are running short of petrol. They need to fill up urgently. But they know if they divert to the nearest garage, they will be late and miss the beginning of the party. So they stop and ask the others to spare some of their fuel. But the ones who filled up know that if they share, all of them will run short, and none will make it in time. So they refuse to stop and the party gets under way.

The foolish bridesmaids, on the other hand, find fuel, fill up, but are very late. The doors are locked. The bridegroom refuses to let them in. Their invitations are not recognised. They are shut out in the cold. Tough.

The story is about endurance. Remaining faithful to the end. Many of the faithful will fall away, Jesus is saying. They will not endure. I pray that we will not be like the foolish bridesmaids, but will rise up early and seek wisdom.

The point is that in Jesus’ day it was almost certain the bridegroom would be delayed. Why? Because he had to go and fetch his bride from her home, and she, of course, was never ready. And even if she was, there was often last minute negotiations with the bride’s father about the gifts to be exchanged. The price paid for his daughter. Hours might pass, in Middle Eastern weddings, before all was ready. It was predictable.

The bridesmaids had to wait, but their job was to greet the bride and groom with a procession of light. So the oil lamps were an integral part of the marriage. They should have planned for a delay. It was virtually certain. That’s the whole point of the parable.

Nor is the choice of lamps incidental. Jesus is the light. Jesus comes into the world as the light, banishing all darkness. So it’s right and proper the end of time is signalled by a procession of light. Jesus himself, I think, is the bridegroom.

There’s a clear message, for us, at the end of the story in verse 13. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” Keep awake. Be vigilant, it means, because Jesus could return today, or tomorrow, or next week. Like the parable, his timing is uncertain but like the bridesmaids we must be awake, prepared for any eventuality, primed and ready to greet him with our lights trimmed and burning brightly.

Some of you may, in the past, have felt secretly sympathetic towards the foolish maidens. But maybe that’s a lesson in itself? The church, and many Christian people, behave as if there will be aeons of time. Do they, and does the church behave like the foolish bridesmaids, who are unprepared and are caught unawares? Have they fallen away? Are their lamps dimmed, or even running out altogether?

To live in vigilance means that we are to be busy doing those tasks we have been appointed to do in preparation for the Master’s coming. In Matthew's Gospel, those tasks include bearing witness to God’s kingdom by welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned (25:31-46), and making disciples in all the world (28:19-20).

Today’s Old Testament reading finished at verse 16, but goes on like this:

Wisdom of Solomon 6.17-20

17 The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
and concern for instruction is love of her,
18 and love of her is the keeping of her laws,
and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
19 and immortality brings one near to God;
20 so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

So let us choose Wisdom, for the desire for her leads to a Kingdom – the Kingdom of God. Amen

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