First, a bit of cultural archeology. Who are these “bridesmaids?” They are family members of the groom. They are the young, unmarried women attached to the family, in other words the grooms sisters and female cousins who live in or close to the patriarch’s house, as the does groom as well who has his house, usually, in close vicinity to the patriarch as well. Call it a family compound, if you like.
Why are they there with lamps and what is the purpose of their waiting? The marriage that is anticipated has been arranged by the father of the groom and the father of the bride, who were probably cousins or even brothers, and who did so after the mothers had come to an agreement that the marriage was a good idea. The family elder was the final one to have to give consent to the whole thing and the matter could go ahead and interestingly, it was the patriarch who set the festivities in motion. Only he knew the day, not even the groom who would tell the bride that he was “going to prepare a place” but would answer that “only my father knows,” to the question of when his return would be. Both of those sentences are on Jesus’ lips, one John 14, one in Matthew 24:36.
As the young woman came of age the marriage day was set and at some time, the groom and his family went to the bride’s father’s house to move her over to his own father’s compound and house, often not too far away. That act began the marriage festivities. The young women are the welcome committee when the groom, his entourage, and his new bride arrived at the house. The ladies in waiting and the groom’s men would wait outside the bridal chamber for the couple to consummate the marriage. It was their secret duty to be witnesses to the woman’s purity.
The sequence seem to be a bit different from ours. It seems to have been: agreement between the families, contract for marriage, celebration at the groom’s house and at the brides house but separate, wedding night — the stage that were this story takes place — and an extended celebration if all goes well that everyone goes to in procession. (Deut 22:13-21)
If all goes well? In a strange way, the crow outside the wedding chamber are witnesses that he groom is satisfied with the bride’s purity and is therefore not sending her back as having been found damaged goods.
Second, a bit of context. Jesus has gotten done condemning the pharissrees and the temple authorities and then after leaving the temple, he has spoken of the temple’s destruction and about the end times. The son of man will come in the clouds. (Matt 24:30-31) The elect will be gathered from all corners of the earth and even all corners of heaven. When will this be? It will be at an appointed time that no one is privileged to know and it will come suddenly but when it comes it will be as obvious as the coming of spring. (Matt 24:32) Weddings, it is said, begin when the patriarch decides it is time, not the groom, so, “Only the Father knows,” indeed.
Disciples know that it will come suddenly and are therefore always ready. (Matt 24:42) In their readiness, they do not fail to take how they treat others into consideration. That ethical stance is repeated in 25:31-46, the sheep and the goats parable.
The Ten young women, under consideration here, is followed by a parable that speaks of actively seeking to do good on behalf of the master in the story of the three servants each entrusted with treasure to care for while the master was absent.
If one is allowed to make a overview and summary here it might be this
- The end will come — nothing is forever.
- Do not spent overmuch effort trying to find out when it will be, it will be sudden but you will be able to perceive that it is in progress.
- Just because the end is taking its sweet time coming does not mean that it will not come, keep watch on how you treat others therefore.
- Be wise in your preparations.
- Work the work of faith.
- Assume that the Lord thought absent is not absent at all but is found in unexpected places under unexpected guise, usually under the guise of poverty and rejection. There you can and need to serve him.
A distinct flavor of judgment is present in all of these.
But, we are discussing number 4 for now. Be wise. Be wise or you will be excluded from the celebration and from doing your part. You must be present to do that part. If you are “away” you will not and cannot do it. As a matter of fact, you will be so absent as to be treated as a stranger when you finally get there because the door is closed when the last person of the wedding party gets there.
There is a time when it is just too late and no one can help you any longer.
The Gospel of our Lord; Praise to you . . . oh, Yuck!
Yes, sometimes it seems that the “gospel” readings have nothing but law in them. That is especially true at the end of Pentecost. They are End-times and Judgement readings. As we read Reformation and All Saints texts for a few weeks, we do not get the full brunt and scope of the matter and never really get to develop the theme: there will be judgement. Not that many of us want to. But it is real. “He will come again to judge the quick and the dead.”
The time and the text leave me with questions: What does the Master mean by: “They fell asleep?” Or, what does it mean that they: “Were away to buy oil?” Why the cold sentence: "No! there will not be enough for you and for us?” What is the “oil” and what “merchant” can supply it? And why do they leave when they know the groom is even at hand; Would it not have been better that they had stayed and been present without light rather than be absent in frantic search for oil?
The night only lasts so long. I will be daylight soon enough, prepare yourself for morning and the coming of the light. (Paul) If oil is endurance in suffering or faith, maybe there is a promise there. You will only need so much, the night will not last forever. But, you will need it. It is wise to to have faith in abundance for the living of these latter days. If you have not enough, you will be absent naturally enough. The weight of worldly things and worries about the day, as well as the heat of hardship will take it from you and you will walk away. Are not these the warnings of the parable of the sower and the sermon on the mount? (Matt 13:1-23; 6:25-34)
Maybe that is the “absent.” We can be overcome. Human faith, as we well know, has limits. No one can have it for you in the end, hence: “There will not be enough.” Wisdom counsels that one pray with the disciples: “Increase our faith.” (Lk 17:5) But you must aspire to faith. No one else can do that for you. They can merely pray that you turn and come to your senses and Jesus for that matter.
Epiphinias the Latin wrote that the foolishness of the unwise was that they had only enough oil for the present, but not for the future. The somewhat unpredictable nature of weddings in olden days indeed meant that one not live for the moment in preparation but that one lived for a possible long haul. What is the Oil according to Epiphinias? Compassion. The parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant in 24:45-51 might well have suggested this to him. Augustine thought that surely it was charity since it was the highest of virtues. (1 Cor 13) These two fathers of the church might indeed mean the same thing in the end.
If you think about it, as in previous weeks, the cardinal virtues raise their heads again for certainly those who wait, prepared for the long haul, wait in hope as well, since no one hopes for what is not wanted.
We work out our salvation in fear and trembling, says St. Paul. As Christians,waiting for the Lord is and always will be, an exercise in tending the cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. These are great things indeed. But no one can do them for you any more than be able to breathe for you. Inhale.