We have three intriguing lessons from scripture today. First we have a denunciation of Hebrew worship, which also interestingly contains a verse most famous in American politics for having been spoken on the steps of the Lincoln monument by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people who dislike liturgy, or some aspect of liturgy, like incense, or vestments or music, ignoring that sentence about justice flowing like streams, have used this text to prove that God also dislikes, liturgy, or incense, or vestments, or whatever. However, that’s not what this lesson is about and I’ll get back to that in just a moment.
The second lesson is a crazy excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. With all that talk of God playing a trumpet and people flying up to meet Jesus in the air, it reads like some sort of hallucination or LSD trip, or like the ramblings of our crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner, muttering about things people don’t understand. The thing about Paul’s letters, though, is that they’re intended to be read as a whole. Breaking them up into excerpts, as the common lectionary does, can lead to a misreading and a misunderstanding. Fortunately, the lectionary doesn’t intend the epistle lesson to necessarily be read and interpreted in conjunction with the gospel lesson, as it does with the thematically related Old Testament lesson, so today we’ll just set crazy, old uncle Paul in a chair over there and let him be today.
Finally, from Matthew’s gospel, we have a lesson in which Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He does this using a parable. Now, you know what a parable is, right? It’s kind of like a metaphor and it’s kind of like a simile, but it’s neither a metaphor nor a simile. In a metaphor, the speaker says or implies that A is B, when the listener knows darn good and well that A is not B at all, but metaphoric imagery challenges us to consider A in ways we might not have done before.
A simile, on the other hand, is a sort of favorable comparison or equivalency. My high school English teacher taught me that similes nearly always use the word “like” or something similar, so where a metaphor says “A is B” a simile says “A is like B.” Assuming you know something about B, the similarity allows you to understand something about A; you might even find you can substitute B for A.
The English word parable comes from the Greek word parabole, which means “to place along side.” Bible scholars, following a typology developed by a 19th Century German New Testament professor named Adolf Jülicher, categorize Jesus’ parables into three types: similitudes (which are most like similes), exemplary tales, and fables.
Similitudes are short analogical present-tense statements using “a typical or recurring event in daily life” to illustrate an external spiritual reality: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or like a woman mixing yeast and flour, or like a treasure buried in a field, or a like net thrown into the sea.
Exemplary tales narrate a typical event from real life which the audience would recognize. Exemplary tales are neither allegorical nor metaphoric and, while they may be fictitious, “they never indulge in the fanciful or fantastic, but remain true-to-life.” Their object is to encourage adherence to a moral principal, an ethical obligation, or a religious duty. According to Jülicher only four of the parables are exemplary stories: the rich fool, which depicts a negative example of believing that wealth can secure prosperity; the rich man and Lazarus, another negative exemplar teaching us not to be indifferent to the poor and suffering; the Pharisee and the publican, which gives us two examples contrasting the sin of pride with the virtue of humility; and the story of the good Samaritan, which illustrates the concept of neighborliness.
Finally, there are fables which are analogical stories telling about a one-time fictitious event set in the past. They have been called “once upon a time” stories. Examples include the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the prodigal son, the parable of the sower, and today’s story of the bridesmaids, all meant to illustrate some aspect of life in the kingdom of Heaven. Parables of this sort “challenge their hearers to step back and reflect on [their] world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways. They invite their hearers to ponder ‘whatever is taken totally for granted in [their] world’.”
So when we look at this familiar story of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, and the bridegroom who excludes the foolish girls from his wedding feast, we shouldn’t ask questions like “Who’s God in this story?” and “Who represents the church and who represents the worldly?” While those are, perhaps, questions to ask of similes and metaphors, the question to ask of a parable is “What are we taking for granted?” Or better, “What might its first audience have been taking for granted?” As I said, Jesus’ parables make use of common aspects of everyday life; this parable makes use of a First Century wedding. The people Jesus was talking to, and the people Matthew was writing for, would have known what it was to light the way for a wedding couple and to attend their celebration feast.
Marriages among First Century Jews were community events; they involved not just the two people getting married, but their entire families. Family wealth and reputation were at issue. Before the wedding day, there would have been negotiations about the bride-price and the size of the dowery. It may be foreign to us, possibly even offensive, to think of weddings as financial transactions, but that’s what they were. The day of the wedding, the groom would go to the bride’s family’s house to get his betrothed and to consummate the financial agreements. There could be delays while livestock and jewelry and whatever else had been agreed to be exchanged was examined, and perhaps haggled over some more.
Then the couple would be escorted, maybe even carried, beneath a portable canopy to the groom’s family’s house; a lot of people would be involved, probably most, if not all, of a village. At the groom’s home, the wedding ceremony would occur and then the first of several nights of feasting. This happened when it was dark. The Jewish day starts at sundown, and weddings were celebrated at the beginning of a day. So from our perspective, things happened late in the evening. As the couple and their escorts made their way from one home to the other, the path would be lighted by torches, sometimes (as in the parable) carried by the unmarried young women of the village, sometimes by men, sometimes just placed on poles by prearrangement of the bride’s father.
They probably took those wedding torches for granted, but can you imagine the problems that might ensue if there was no light? If somebody stumbled or tripped, if somebody fell and was injured, maybe even the bride or the groom? Lighting the path was important not only to the bride and the groom, not only to their families, but to the whole community. Theologian Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt says that this is a story about women who failed their community.
Matthew’s Jesus underscores this by the adjectives he applies to the maidens. The “wise” bridesmaids are described with the Greek word phronesis. This is a type of wisdom connected to practical action. It is concerned with how to act in particular situations. Phronesis encompasses both good judgment and excellent character. It is concerned with how one’s life and actions relate to the lives of others. The Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ time used this word in their translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to describe the wisdom through which God created the earth and the wisdom with which God gifted the four young men in the Book of Daniel. In Luke’s gospel, when the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son John will be the forerunner, he uses the word phronesis to describe the wisdom of the righteous or the just.
On the other hand, the “foolish” bridesmaids are not just empty-headed blunderers lacking in good sense. The Greek word Jesus uses to describe them is moros, which implies a moral judgment. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says that calling a person moros renders one liable to hellfire, William Barclay says that to call a person moros is to do more than criticize that person’s mental ability, it is to cast aspersions on their moral character. To pronounce a person moros is to declare that he or she is not just, not righteous.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In this parable, participation in the public ceremony, the liturgy of marriage, and in the ritual feasting that follows it, is contingent on just and righteous conduct. This relationship between ritual and righteousness, between liturgy and justice, says Jesus, characterizes the kingdom of heaven; and it is this relationship that Amos addresses in his prophecy.
“I hate, I despise your festivals,” says Amos on God’s behalf, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” As I said earlier, many, especially those who dislike liturgy or certain aspects of it (like vestments or incense or music) have misused this as a proof text to demonstrate that God also dislikes those things. But our God does not disapprove of liturgy or of ritual practices. Just take a quick glance at chapters 25-31 and 35-40 of the Book of Exodus with their instructions for making and using the various implements of the Tabernacle and the vestments of the priests! Those are not the directions of a deity who disdains ceremony!
So what’s the problem? Well, in a word or two, injustice and inequity. The problem was not Israel’s religious practices per se. The problem was that Israel’s religious practices were disconnected from matters of justice and righteousness, particularly in regard to the ruling class’s treatment of the marginalized and the poor. In terms of Jesus’ summary of the Law, they were paying lip service to the First Great Commandment and completely ignoring the Second. They made a show of worshiping God, but failed to respect or to be concerned for their brothers and sisters. “Religious activities without justice and righteousness are abhorrent to Yahweh.” “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” cries Amos.
The key lesson of the parable of the ten maidens is that the deliberate and consistent practice of phronesis, the wisdom of the just and the righteous, provides the essential oil for our torches. In the parable of the bridesmaids, the foolish maidens seek to borrow oil from the pragmatic girls. But the oil needed to light up the darkness of injustice and illuminate the way with righteousness cannot be borrowed nor, it turns out, can it be purchased at the market. In our lives, it is acquired and accumulated one drop at a time through righteous living, by acting justly, by loving mercy, and by walking humbly with our God. We gather those drops individually and together in community, and they add up to become Amos’s ever-flowing stream. As William Shakespeare observed, great floods flow from simple sources. Drop by drop, the flood of justice and righteousness accumulates. Drop by drop, our torches are fueled so that they burn bright, and we are admitted to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2023, to the people of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Warren, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest presider and preacher.
The lessons were from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Proper 27: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; and St. Matthew 25:1-13. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
The illustration is “The Wise and Foolish Virgins” by Charles Haslewood Shannon (ca. 1919-20), on display at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums, Liverpool, UK.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Luke 13:19
 Luke 13:21
 Matthew 13:44
 Matthew 13:47
 Luke 12:13-21
 Luke 16:19-31
 Luke 18:10-14
 Luke 10:25-37
 Gowler, op. cit.
 Boucher, op. cit.
 Matthew 20:1-15
 Luke 15:11-32
 Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8
 Greg Carey, Crossan on Parables and Gospels, Huffpost, June 16, 2012, citing John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (HarperOne, San Francisco:2012), p. 63.
 Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, Got into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins in Amy-Jill Levine & Marianne Blickenstaff, eds., Feminist Companion to Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp. 171-195, 183
 Proverbs 3:19 (LXX)
 Daniel 1:17 (LXX)
 Luke 1:17
 “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:22 (NRSV)
 Matthew 5:20 (NRSV)
 Amos 5:21 (NRSV)
 Amos 5:24 (NRSV)
 Micah 6:8
 Wm. Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 2, Scene 1