by the Rev. Mary Lessman
Ten bridesmaids – five wise and five foolish – await the arrival of the bridegroom. The bridesmaids fall asleep waiting. When the bridegroom’s imminent arrival is announced, the five foolish bridesmaids, who are low on oil, try and borrow some from the wise bridesmaids. They say, ‘no can do,’ and the foolish scurry off to get more oil. By the time they return, the bridegroom has arrived, everyone has gone into the feast, and the door is shut. They call out to the bridegroom through the door but he refuses to let them in, insisting that he doesn’t know them.
I really dislike this parable. I don’t think any of these folks come off looking good. The bridegroom has caused the crisis by being late. And when he finally gets there and starts the party, he wants to judge the foolish bridesmaids for being late? And look at the ‘wise’ bridesmaids. Yes, they were prepared – they had plenty of oil. But they fell asleep waiting just like the other bridesmaids. And how selfish and snarky not to share some of their oil with the other ladies? You can almost hear them saying, “See, this is what happens when you don’t prepare properly. We’re always the ones who have to bail out people like you. Well, not this time. What goes around comes around. Go get your own oil.” And I’m not happy with the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids, either. Maybe they’re the type that assume someone else is always going to pick up their slack or bail them out. Maybe they’ve skated through life on their charm or their looks and they would benefit from having to cope with the consequences of their actions…or inaction. Yeah…I don’t like any of them.
Here’s my redeemed version of the parable. The wise bridesmaids share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids because they know on any given day they could find themselves in the other group and it would be nice to know that someone might be gracious enough to help them out. Then none of them had enough oil to keep the lamps going long enough, but they were all present when the bridegroom arrived. And it didn’t matter once they got into the wedding feast because there was plenty of light for all.
This better reflects the teaching Matthew gives us just a few verses later. Here we’re told, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison – or without oil – and took care of you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these – or a foolish bridesmaid – you did it to me.” This is what gets you into the wedding feast.
The Rev. Mary Lessmann is Associate for Spiritual Growth at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. Mary is an Enneagram specialist, a workshop presenter, and a leader of pilgrimages. When not in Dallas, Mary and her husband, Russ, can be found exploring a new locale or hiking a mountain.