The parable of the ten bridesmaids is a confusing one for modern folks. It refers to traditions quite different from our own. Bridesmaids waiting with lamps is no longer part of our custom. Yet even if we take into account the unfamiliar traditions we are still left with many questions. Why seemingly reward the “wise” bridesmaids for refusing to share their oil? Why is such a harsh punishment leveled at the “foolish” bridesmaids who simply did not anticipate the bridegroom would be delayed so long? None of them stayed awake and none of them gave up and went home. Why such a disparity in treatment for such a small discrepancy?
But, notice the concluding statement which Jesus makes: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour..” Jesus’ concluding statement is not “be prepared” or “be patient” or “be wise” but rather “keep awake” which is something NONE OF THE BRIDESMAIDS DID. This indicates to me, despite wise vs. foolish labels, we are not being called to emulate any of the bridesmaids but rather to do differently than all of them.
Why this call to keep awake? Well, what might have happened if the bridesmaids had remained awake? Would they have sat there and watched their oil running out? Would the “wise” bridesmaids have simply gloated in their oil supply? Would the foolish bridesmaids have done nothing more than beg? Or might they all have noticed they were getting low on oil, taken steps to conserve oil, shared what they had while they still could, sent a few for more oil with plenty of time to return with it? Perhaps the point of this parable is not to be like any of the bridesmaids, either being shut out or watching your friends be shut out. Perhaps we are being called rather to work to together so all may enter the kingdom.
It may also be helpful to remember “the kingdom” is not only about what happens someday but about what happens now. Several times in the Gospels it is written the kingdom of God is among us or has come near. The life and death of Jesus brought the kingdom near and following Jesus means continuing to work toward the kingdom of God. When we refuse to share, when we leave the “foolish” to their own devices we attempt to reserve the kingdom for a few, we try to shrink the kingdom. Jesus calls us to expand the kingdom to keep awake to the needs of others, to make preparations for ourselves without neglecting the preparations of our neighbors no matter how clever we feel or how foolish they seem.
I have often wondered at the fact it seems acceptable in our society to view foolishness or lack of intelligence as a capital offense. If you make unwise decisions about finances, family planning, chemical use, or sexual partners it is sometimes seen as acceptable to then let you reap consequences even if those consequences are as lethal as hunger, malnutrition or lack of health care. It speaks volumes about the church that we have so often interpreted this parable as calling us to be like the wise bridesmaids, and have interpreted that as meaning believe the right things, go to church, think a lot about the coming of Jesus and then you will be lucky enough not to have the door shut in your face like those other people.
But Amos 5 tells us something about what God thinks about such attitudes saying, “… I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Let us look towards the kingdom of heaven by, keeping awake to the needs of our neighbors, making sure the door is not shut upon anyone in this world and to trust in God to be merciful and full of grace for the next.
Following Jesus is not about being wise and too bad for the foolish. Following Jesus is a calling to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Staying awake is not about some artificial hyper-vigilance we are somehow supposed to have sustained for thousands of years but rather simply about staying awake to God at work in the world, seeing our neighbors as children of God, reaching out to those in need, and working to keep the door open for all people.