From the Gospel according to Matthew:
[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 25:1-2 (NRSV) – December 19, 2013.)
The parable of the bridesmaids has always bothered me. Whenever I have to preach from it I have to get passed my first reaction, which is, “Really? People will be kept out of heaven for being stupid?” Of course, that is a misreading, or perhaps I should say “over-reading,” of the metaphor.
The message of this parable is once again the Advent message of preparation: it is an admonition to be ready for the unexpected return of the Lord, for the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven. It has nothing to do with “getting into heaven;” it says nothing of the judgment of God, much less of the mercy of God. It is simply about being alert and prepared. The metaphor goes no further.
Extending metaphors beyond their point is often a danger with the things Jesus says! It is, truth be told, the danger with the whole of Scripture. Stories of God have to be read in the context of the whole of the Bible and understood to be limited in themselves; they tell only a part of the much-larger story.
I meet once a week with a group of people studying the Old Testament. The past couple of weeks we’ve been reading and discussing the books of Joshua and Judges. If one were to understand God solely on the basis of the stories of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, one’s picture of God would be that of a petty tyrant interested only in ritual, the acquisition of territory, and racial purity. You would read how God gave victory to the Israelite army and helped them annexed Canaanite territory simply because, with no military preparation at all, they marched around behind priests blowing trumpets. You would read how God then ordered them to slaughter all the men, women, children, and even livestock in some of the towns they captured simply to prevent them from intermarrying with the conquered Canaanites. You would read how God rewarded the Israelites for the behavior of Jael who lied, violated the laws of hospitality, and murdered a guest in her tent. You would read how God empowered Samson to be a judge over Israel, Samson who was, at best, a womanizer and a dolt! Not a pretty picture of God . . . although God’s granting power to Samson goes a long way toward countering the bridesmaids metaphor’s suggestion that God does not reward the stupid.
No. One cannot read selected bits of Scripture, whether they be the ritualized (and largely legendary) military history of the occupation of Canaan or the parabolic words of God Incarnate, out of the larger context of the entire witness of the Bible.
Perhaps that is part of “being prepared,” reading and appreciating the testimony of the entire Scriptures, being biblically literate, knowing the story in its grander dimensions. Advent is nearly over, but it is never too late to begin. Even a foolish bridesmaid or a stupid judge should understand that!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.