My father always told me, “If you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question.” The idea behind this is sometimes we ask things without realizing we may not really want to know what the answer is. The passage we read today is part of an answer to a question asked a few pages back in the story. The disciples speak in marveled tones about the Temple of Jerusalem, where they stand at the beginning of chapter 24. Jesus answers them and says,
Do you see all these things? I assure that no stone will be left on another. Everything will be demolished.
The astonished disciples respond privately when they come to the Mount of Olives,
Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?
With the question asked, Jesus begins to respond to these two questions about the impending destruction of the Temple and the time period it will happen. He tells of coming troubles and difficulties as well as false Messiahs who, “will appear and deceive many people.” Jesus goes on to tell the disciples,
Because disobedience will expand, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered.
This verse is important to our understanding of the passage today because I believe the parable today is a way of expressing this idea of “one who endures to the end.”
So, what is a parable? I feel like we need to understand what we are reading if we are going to get the message behind it. A parable is a story to illustrate a greater point. Think about the tortoise and the hare for example. The story is along form way of saying, “The race is not always won by the swift” or “Slow and steady wins the race.” But even that may be too simple. We should always remember that there are things that go without saying—those things that the original hearers know in their time and place—which we miss by assuming they think like we think and hold the same things as important that we do. So, our responsibility as good students is to try and see through their eyes to understand what they really meant. My hope is that I can help point you in a good direction and at least begin the conversation.
First off, let’s set the scene as best we can. It’s a wedding. That sounds easy, right? But first century Jewish weddings are not like the weddings we have today that are over in a few hours. While we don’t necessarily know exhaustive amounts, we do know some things about Jewish weddings of the time. It wasn’t a joining of two individuals—as is often seen in our culture—but of two families. Jewish first century weddings were a major communal event, especially for the families. Families often spent great amounts of money, going into debt at times, to outdo one another for the sake of family honor. When we see that six water jugs—giant forty to fifty-gallon containers—are present at the marriage in John 2, we know that neighbors pitched in to help because the average family would only have one. Running out of supplies at a wedding was a great loss of family honor, a sign to the community that you not only lacked financial resources but also friends to help you when you needed them most.
The wedding would end at the groom’s house on either a Wednesday or Thursday evening. If the woman was a virgin, it started on Wednesday and lasted as long as seven days depending on the family and village resources. If the woman was a widow, the celebration usually lasted three days, most likely because the woman had been through this before. The day would start with the bride getting dressed and made ready by a group of attendants while the husband finished the arrangements for the celebration and the ‘home taking’.
The ‘home taking’ is the part the wedding our parable is focused on. The groom would come to the bride’s home and a torchlight procession would travel from the bride’s house to the groom’s house. The bride was adorned with a wreath on her head and wore her hair down. Sometimes the bride walked, sometimes she was driven in a decorated carriage. Either way, there was much dancing and singing along the route and both men and women participated.
And that brings us to the parable itself. For the person listening to Jesus tell this story, there are a lot of things understood in their culture that we might miss. In the parable, there are ten bridal attendants. These women are all probably understood to be around the age of the bride and unmarried. They all have torches and are prepared for the wedding march from the bride’s house to the groom’s house, something I think we echo when the bride walks down the aisle in modern weddings. They await a groom who is late in getting there, apparently very late because instead of being there in the early evening, which is customary, the groom is closer to the middle of the night.
Half of these bridesmaids have extra oil for the torches and the other half do not, one half called wise and one half called foolish. Are they foolish because they feel asleep? No, all of them fell asleep, after all, it was around midnight when the groom finally showed up. We usually look at this and think the women are called foolish in the parable for not having oil, but I don’t think that is the reason. Think about it for a moment. The torches were meant to light the way and the other five would have oil enough to keep torches burning not to mention that the groom would have attendants and likely his own torch to see by. Besides, the torches of the foolish women may have lasted long enough to get where they were going.
A little background, this gospel was written during a time when the followers of Jesus—especially those in Jerusalem—were struggling to hold on to their faith. People claiming to be Messiahs—those anointed by God to save and lead Israel—had just led Israel in a failed war against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (like in the beginning of chapter 24) and the people were scattered. Followers of Jesus were being lumped in with ‘the other Jews’ according Romans and being persecuted as those who were part of the uprising. Some of those followers may have been trying to distance themselves from both Jews and Disciples of Jesus, most of whom were still Jews ethnically. This is the situation the Gospel of Matthew was written in and the Jewish believers in Jerusalem were the ones believed to be the first audience of the gospel.
Which is why I believe the bridal attendants left out of fear. Panicked by their circumstances, they lost faith in the groom and the groom’s mercy and ran off to buy oil. They did not wait for the groom and have faith that their oil would be enough. They did wait to see if the groom would be understanding and show grace to them. They lost faith in him and went to seek their own protection. Had they shown patience and waited for groom, even walking by the light of another’s torch, they may well have gone with the bridal party and not been shut out of the wedding feast and celebration.
Like most theologians, I think this is a Kingdom parable a way of showing what life in the Kingdom will be like. But unlike most, I don’t think this about a rapture or us begin taken away to heaven. I think it’s about being patient with God and carrying on the work of the Kingdom. People for centuries have tried to guess the dates and times of the Parousia or the return of Jesus. In the first century, they thought it would be in their lifetime and likewise the century after. Over time, the focus of the church shifted but there have always been those, especially in the last few centuries who have been focused squarely on the return of Jesus. I think we have forgotten that our focus should be and is on building the Kingdom. The bridal attendants lost faith in the groom and left their post. For us to live into the Kingdom ideals we must not leave the post or be distracted by what goes on in the greater world around us. We need to be aware of it. We need to have an understanding of it insofar as it affects our work. But never distracted by it and we certainly need not abandon the work.