In the parable of the bridesmaids, the church does not fulfill its identity as “salt and light.” The foolish bridesmaids miss their chance to be the church in the world.
We don’t like limits. We don’t like feeling rushed. We want to do things in our time. We don’t want to hear the words, “too late.”
In the 70s, Harry Chapin wrote a haunting song about a father who stayed busy. In “Cat’s in the Cradle” the father misses his son’s first steps and first words. His work kept him from playing ball with his boy during his tween years. The decades slip by without the father realizing what is happening right before his eyes. After the son goes off to college, the father finally understands that he wants a relationship with his son. By then the son has become the one too busy, too distracted to carve out time with his dad. When the son grows up and has children of his own, the father confronts the unyielding reality that his son has learned from him. His chance to share life with his son has passed. The “too late” curtain has fallen.
A consistent thread of “too late” runs through the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount calls us to deeper righteousness all the way down to our thoughts. Near the end of the sermon appear words that should send a shiver down our spines. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”1 After those seeking entrance into the kingdom of God list their accomplishments, the risen Christ delivers the gulp-inducing words, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”2 Just as the father in the song never built a relationship with his child, so the one seeking entrance into heaven never built a relationship with Christ. Jesus doesn’t recognize the person. Would Jesus say to someone, “I never knew you?”
Chapter 13 contains another chilling phrase in more than one verse. Jesus tells a parable about weeds growing within wheat.3 At harvest, the workers remove the weeds and burn them the interpretation of the parable4 identifies the weeds as “children of the evil one.” The workers toss the weeds into a furnace. Then the phrase appears, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase pops up again a few verses later. Those who work in the ancient fishing industry separate good fish from bad fish caught in a net. They throw out the bad fish. That process compares to the casting of bad people into a furnace of fire, where again “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”5
How do we respond when we hear the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Certainly, those actions represent regret. We cry or gnash our teeth when something has happened that causes us great anguish. Often, we gnash our teeth out of anger. Likely, the people described in chapter 13 gnash their teeth because they realize they can’t change their circumstances. The “too late” curtain has fallen again. We may not like the ominous sound of the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
If we do not like the idea of the “too late” curtain falling, we will have to wrestle with the parable in today’s reading. It has many elements of allegory to it, in which each part stands for something else. All 10 of the bridesmaids represent the church. The bridesmaids already have a relationship to the groom, who represents Jesus. The wedding banquet represents the time and place when the ministry unveiled in Jesus’ earthly life comes to full fruition. The wedding banquet will happen when God heals all the hurts of creation, reconciles all divisions and establishes full justice. Despite what some TV preachers try to tell us, only God knows when and how this act will happen.
The parable seems originally to have spoken to the fervent belief among the early church that the redemption of all creation would happen soon. The parable told the early church that this time would not appear just over the next horizon.
The delay took so long that the bridesmaids fell asleep. All the bridesmaids dozed off, not just the foolish ones. When they woke up, only the wise bridesmaids had prepared for the delay. They had brought enough oil for the interval. The parable conveys the message that the church should expect to continue its ministry over the long haul. The oil represents the ministry of the church.
We can all name ways that the church runs out of oil. When the church turns in on itself and fails to reach out, it runs out of oil. When the church loses energy to do mission work, it runs out of oil. When the church snuggles up too closely to a political party, it runs out of oil. When the church shuts people out because of skin color, or status, it runs out of oil. When the church neglects children and youth, seeking less noise, it runs out of oil.
In the parable, when the foolish bridesmaids wake up full of regret for not bringing sufficient oil, they go off to buy some. When they return, they find the door shut. The parable says nothing about weeping or gnashing of teeth, but the “too late” curtain has clearly fallen. Even after buying oil, the bridesmaids cannot enter the room. They finally have oil, just not at the right time.
If the bridesmaids represent the church and the oil represents the ministry of the church, how do we understand the shut door? We might think that the shut door represents not getting into the kingdom of heaven at all. The other passages in Matthew that talk of weeping and gnashing of teeth and that present Jesus saying, “I never knew you,” convey a sense of finality. At first glance they seem to say that some people will find themselves excluded from the kingdom altogether.
Yet, Matthew contains one of the most memorable parables about salvation in the New Testament. You know the story in chapter 20. A boss hires workers all day long. The workers who put in only an hour receive the same salary as those who work all day. Clearly, in Matthew’s eyes, we do not earn our way into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God opens for us out of God’s generosity. We cannot predict who gets in with any certainty.
Besides the message of entrance into the kingdom of God because of God’s generosity, not because of our works, our parable for today talks not about individuals, but the church. The five foolish bridesmaids represent half of the church. They decided to skip getting extra oil. We don’t know how they interacted, or whether they influenced each other to take a pass on bringing more oil, but we know that people in the church influence each other. The parable does not describe an individual failure, but a collective problem within the church.
What does half of the church fail to do? Earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the disciples, and hence the church, that they are “the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world.”6 Jesus doesn’t say that the church should be the salt and the light, but that they are salt and light. The church shines the light of grace into the darkness of the world. Perhaps, the shut door near the end of the parable, the “too late” curtain, indicates that the church failed to live up to its identity. The church had the opportunity to shine the light, to live out its calling, but it failed. It didn’t bring enough oil.
Did the bridesmaids become caught up in the emotion of the wedding banquet? The parable describes the ones who have sufficient oil as wise and the others as foolish. Doesn’t wisdom prepare carefully for what lies ahead? Don’t wise people practice patience?
The church might become weary doing its ministry day after day, year after year, not seeing much change in the world. We might wish the TV preachers had it right, that Jesus would come soon to rescue us, to give us a break.
A wise church knows that we continue to do our ministry, not out of fear of a shut door or of the “too late” curtain falling, but out of love and obedience to God. We reach out to others because God loves them. We find energy for our tired days from the Holy Spirit. We keep plodding along because God has given us the honor of serving as the salt and the light. We may think our flask of oil looks dangerously low, but with God’s help, we keep going. The joy of the wedding banquet and the promise of the healing of all creation empower our ministry. In wisdom, we stop for more oil, seeking it from God who is the only source.
1 Matthew 7:21.
2 Matthew 7: 23.
3 Matthew 13:24-30.
4 Matthew 13:36-43.
5 Matthew 13:50.
6 Matthew 5:13-16.