Monday, November 10, 2014

Always a Bridesmaid

The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

Today and the next two Sundays, we will be wrestling with the final three parables of Matthew’s Gospel.  They are all douses:  today, the parable of the ten bridesmaids; next week, the parable of the talents; and then the parable of the final judgment – I’m sure you all can’t wait for that one!  In Matthew’s Gospel, these parables are Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about the signs of the end of the age:  When will the kingdom of God come and what will it be like? 

Most scholars agree that these parables are independent teachings of Jesus that Matthew has brought together and arranged into an eschatological discourse or teaching about the end of the age.    This is the question that preoccupied Matthew’s community, but the parables in their original setting might have addressed other concerns.   Just as the early Christian community of Matthew, probably centered in the city of Antioch, exercised great freedom in its elaboration of the meaning of the parables, I would claim a similar freedom in our attempts to interpret the parables in light of our own questions and concerns. 

It seems to me that this is what Jesus wants us to do.  He chose to teach in parables precisely because they challenge us to wrestle with the meaning of our lives as it is found in our ordinary experience.  As C. H. Dodd states in his classic definition:  “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[1]  The parables are meant to challenge our way of seeing the world and provoke imagination.

In fact, Jesus’ parables are often shocking or even offensive.  They disturb us and expose the limitations of our understanding of reality.  They work by means of what Bishop Fred Borsch calls “reorientation by disorientation.”[2]  By dissolving our usual way of constructing the world, the parables open up the possibility of an alternative way of seeing, feeling, and acting.   The word “parable” literally means, “to throw or hurl alongside.”[3] Jesus comes alongside us and hurls these stories into our existence with tremendous power, where they in turn hurl us into a new awareness of reality.  In this movement of disorientation and reorientation we are given a new consciousness.  This is what repentance means:  to be given a new mind.

The parables work by means of conversion rather than coercion; not by the application of force, but rather by the invitation to see things differently.  This is the power of the parables, and they show us something of what God is like:  a mysterious, engaging, transformative power that subverts our way of being from the inside out.  God’s power is experienced in the way the parables mess with our minds.  As we are given a new mind, we become conscious of the kingdom of God.  Jesus didn’t start a movement waiting for God’s power to be revealed at the end of time.  His movement experienced God’s power in the present moment.  This is what the parables seek to open up for us.

Parables are like rivers: we never step into the same one twice.  Each time we come to them, they open up something new for us.  I don’t know what today’s parable will open up for you.   What I can do is make some observations about what I am noticing about today’s parable, the questions it is raising for me.  You will have to enter into the parable yourself or allow it to enter into you.  I can’t do that for you.

The first thing I notice about the parable is that it is about a wedding.   The characters are getting ready for a big party.  In fact, in Jewish practice the wedding festivities would last for seven days, a period which mirrors the seven days of creation.  One of the things that marriage symbolizes is our participation in God’s ongoing creation of the world.   We are part of the unfolding of God’s creative power manifest in our life.  This is cause for joy!  

The kingdom of heaven is like a party that goes on and on, and we are invited to get in on the party.  Is this how we see our life in the world?  Are we aware of the wonder and delight that surrounds us?  Or are we asleep, like the bridesmaids?  Too often, I find myself sleepwalking through my life, grinding it out, moving through my ordinary routines without really being present to my experience.  But every now and then I wake up! 

Just yesterday, I was walking along the beach near Fort Funston talking with my husband while looking out on the water.  It was a perfect day, with majestic waves throwing up spray and sunlight sparkling on the water.  A pod of porpoises were swimming near the shore, and I just happened to be looking when one of them leaped out of the water and dove back under, in a breath-taking display of grace and beauty.  In that moment, I glimpsed the kingdom of heaven.  I was awake and enjoying the party! 

You know, we all sleepwalk through life from time to time:  whether we are wise or foolish or a mix of both.  And we all experience moments of waking-up: “The bridegroom is coming, the party is starting!”  I take some comfort in the fact that all ten of the bridesmaids in the parable fall asleep.  I don’t have to stay awake all the time, if that is even possible.  Autopilot will happen.   God will always find a way to wake me-up.  Life happens, the party happens too. 

So there is sleeping, and there is waking up for the party.  I also notice that the wedding party is happening at night.  It is hard to stay awake at night.  It is hard to see what is going on in the darkness.  I wonder if it isn’t precisely when it is dark, when we find it hard to see, that we most need to wake up for the party.  I’m glad to know that the party is going on all night long, day and night. 

It is in the darkest moments of my life, when I’m most aware of my own loss and the suffering of the world; that is when I most need to remember that the party is still going on.   In fact, the best part of the wedding celebration is often well after sundown – at least, that has been my experience!  I don’t even have to go looking for the party – it will find me.  One of the oddest aspects of this parable is the bridegroom who comes looking for the bridal procession.  He is supposed to be waiting at home for the procession to bring his bride to him.  That was the Jewish practice.  Why were these silly bridesmaids expecting him to come to them!   

And yet that is just what he does!  He can’t wait anymore!  The bridesmaids have what he needs – his bride!  The whole point of the party hinges on their bringing what is lacking to make the celebration complete.  We miss the scandal of the bridegroom’s going after his bride.  In that patriarchal culture, no man ran after a woman.  It would have been considered beneath him.  The bride is supposed to come to him.  I wonder if we would be shocked to know how much God desires us, how much God is yearning for our arrival at the party to bring creation to its fulfillment?

I wonder if what seems like a delayed bridegroom from the point of view of the bridesmaids, isn’t a delayed bridal procession from the point of view of the bridegroom.  Who is waiting on whom?  Are we waiting on God, or is God waiting on us?  That is one thing this parable has got me thinking about. 

Perhaps the most puzzling – even disturbing – part of the parable is the door closed in the face of the latecomers to the party.  When the bridegroom goes looking for the wedding procession, he only finds half of them waiting with their lamps lit.  The others didn’t bring enough oil, and so their light had gone out.  Although the woke-up and were excited for the party, they missed out on the arrival of the bridegroom because they were scrambling to buy some more oil for their lamps.  When they arrive late for the party, they find the door shut and the bridegroom claims that he doesn’t even know who they are.

Like Nikos Kazantzakis, I want to rewrite this part of the parable, or at least add an interpretive gloss.  In his script for The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantzakis imagines a dialogue between Jesus and Nathaniel about this part of the parable.  Jesus asks, “What would you have done, Nathaniel?”  Nathaniel replies, “I would have opened the door.”  And Jesus replies:  “Congratulations, friend Nathaniel . . . this moment, though you are still alive, you enter paradise.  The bridegroom did exactly as you said:  he called to his servants to open the door . . . Open the door for the foolish virgins and wash and refresh their feet, for they have run much.”[4]

Well, yes, that is what I would have said, too.  But I wonder if that is really the point.  I think about these foolish bridesmaids, looking for the oil outside of themselves:  trying to borrow some from the wise bridesmaids and then buying some from a shopkeeper.  They are scrambling around looking for the oil – the oil of gladness, the oil the lights our way in the dark – but no one else can provide it for them.  It can’t be borrowed, bought or stolen.  It is simply given to us.  It is ours already.  If we think we’ve secured it on our own, in any other way, than we are knocking on the wrong door. 

Were I busy looking for the oil yesterday, rather than being awake and aware that I already was carrying it within me, I would have missed the dancing porpoise celebrating the party that is God’s ongoing creation.  The moment would have passed, the door closed, no matter how hard I was knocking. 

Is it too late for the foolish bridesmaids?  The parable doesn’t really say.  "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," means that there is, alas, no limit to the number of times one can be a bridesmaid.  The door is closed for now.  But is the kingdom of heaven a one-time offer?   I could have missed the porpoise yesterday.  But there are miracles happening all around me right now.  The party is still going on for the whole seven days of creation, for as long as it takes.  I’m going to try to stay awake, keep my lamp trimmed, and trust that I’ve been given all the oil I need.  I’m counting on the door opening again, and the bridegroom finding me more than ready.  Maybe being always a bridesmaid isn't so bad after all.

[1] Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in Ordinary Time: The Extraordinary Tales of God’s World,” Review and Expositor, 104, Spring 2007, pp. 331-332.
[2] Bridges, p. 332.
[3] Bridges, p. 329.
[4] Bridges, p. 355.

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