It’s About the Oil

The Gospel story about the 10 bridesmaids is a weird little parable and I have to admit that I’ve struggled with this homily all week.  Supposedly, God’s kingdom is like ten young bridesmaids who took oil lamps and went out to greet the bridegroom. Five were silly and five were smart. The silly ones took lamps, but no extra oil. The smart ones took jars of oil to feed their lamps. The bridegroom didn’t show up when they expected him, and they all fell asleep.

In the middle of the night someone yelled out, “He’s here! The bridegroom’s here! Go out and greet him!

The ten bridesmaids got up and got their lamps ready. The silly ones said to the smart ones, “Hey, our lamps are going out; lend us some of your oil.”

They answered, “There might not be enough to go around; go buy your own.”

They did, but while they were out buying oil, the bridegroom arrived. When everyone who was there to greet him had gone into the wedding feast, the door was locked.

They knocked on the door, saying, “Master, we’re here. Let us in.”

He answered, “Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.”

So stay alert. You have no idea when he might arrive.

So, alright, some are wise and some are otherwise. Half of the bridesmaids will miss the big event-the wedding banquet. Now why does Jesus make a moral distinction between these wedding attendants? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that there is a detail here that seems important to me, namely, that appearance alone is an inadequate measurement for most things in life.

Could we, for instance, pick out the foolish ones from the wise in a lineup? We’d have a tough time of it. All ten have come to the wedding, all ten have their lamps aglow with anticipation, presumably, all ten have dressed in their bridal attire. But five are never going to experience the very thing they have prepared for, so the story clearly is about more than oil and lamps or long dresses.

It’s no wonder why this strange story is little talked about.  The Good Samaritan is a good parable of social criticism and compassion; the Prodigal Son is a great story about redeeming grace when we find that we’ve compromised our lives. But what do we do with the Ten Bridesmaids? We’re suddenly on a strange stage with strange customs and a weird ending. For instance, where is the bride in all this? Who is she? Why the long wait for the bridegroom apart from the wedding couple?

These are just a few of the issues I have with this story, but the main problem I have is I don’t clearly understand the point.  Historically, a lot of allegorical interpretations have surfaced and maybe they have some merit, maybe not.  The fundamental problem is that we don’t have any clue as to who is supposed to be who.  Matthew might be making a statement on the early Christian/Jewish conflicts that divided the church in his own time and place. But in the hands of our earliest commentators, the meaning becomes ever more creative and improbable:

  • Caesarius of Arles: the five wise maidens = the five senses through which life and death come to us, or those who cling to the holy catholic faith;
  • the lamps = good works
  • Augustine: the oil = charity (because oil swims above all liquids and the ‘greatest of these is love’).
  • Hilary of Poitiers: the whole story = the great day of the Lord at the end of time.

I’ve decided to leave the allegorical answers to our patristic forebears and try to enter the story through the door of the existing culture of the time. This was apparently a folk wedding-very different from the royal wedding that we’ll meet in the next chapter of Matthew. The parents did the courting in those days with the arrangements completed between the two families. When the time for the wedding arrived, one more last-minute detail remained: the fathers had to make the final marital negotiations. They would haggle over the relative worth of the daughter in question, the relative merits of the proposed groom, and this might go on for some time.  Sooner or later the bargain would be struck and the families would go together as friends in the procession which would lead to the home of the bride and her bridesmaids where she would join the bridegroom as they proceeded to his home to be married and celebrate.

No one really knew exactly when the haggling would turn to handshakes, so they waited nearby, always on the lookout for the procession. As the hours slipped by the bridesmaids would catch a little nap.  In Jesus’ story the groom finally arrives and the ten bridesmaids awake and trim their torches. A shortage of oil causes an emergency for five of the bridesmaids and this must be the seed of the modern proverb: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” So the non-planners run to find (and awaken) an oil merchant and once filled they hurry off to catch the procession, which unfortunately has ended at the groom’s house.

Question: why did they need torches in the first place? Couldn’t they just jump in line and follow the torch-bearers ahead and behind them? If ancient protocol makes this option impossible, the next question is why weren’t they prepared? If they knew the procession might be delayed until the wee hours . . . if they knew about the unpredictability of the final bargaining session and the uncertainty of the procession, why would have been so negligent? We don’t’ know. No clue. What we do know is that once the door was closed to the wedding guests, it was bolted from the inside and no one was admitted. The door remained locked—even if the bride could identify her bridesmaids from the other side of the door.

The point? Maybe it is as stark as this: some people who are expected to be there, who have been invited to be there and fully intend to be there, won’t be there in the end. We’re not necessarily talking bad versus good; all of the maidens may be equally excellent. Maybe they all had impeccable character. But Jesus is talking wisdom-talk: its about being wise-and unwise.

Maybe they assumed that the others of the bridal party would simply share their oil. Sometimes we do that, don’t we? We can go off little prepared when we know that someone will rescue us from our own lack of planning.

Readiness is what living the life of the Kingdom is in Matthew’s gospel. Living in the gospel of the beatitudes (chs 5-7) is a quality of life that marks the wise ones’ lives. But what happens when the delay comes? Being peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being peacemaker year after year and especially in the face of the new kinds of violence that we’re experiencing right now in a post September 11th world. .

At the beginning of our life of faith, we cannot tell the followers of Jesus apart. We all have lamps, we’re all excited about the wedding feast.  We all know how to sing a rousing, “Lord, Lord!” and we’re all good people.  But somehow, deep into the endless journey of serving the least of our sisters and brothers, there are some who are more wise than others.  Being a disciple means there will be delays and setbacks and disappointments.  Things won’t happen in our time.  As an ancient Holy Cross Sister once told me, as I was lamenting impatiently about my vocation, “God is good, but He’s not prompt.”  Not all who begin the journey will be prepared for the delays and complications that ministry necessarily entails.  It remains our challenge, then, to try to stay awake, to come fully prepared to serve each other, to be fully prepared to make our own way to God.  We know neither the day nor the hour of the definitive establishment of the Reign of God, and in the meantime, we each have a role to play in bringing it about.  No one can light the way for me, no one can make my choices for me, no one can tell me what the will of God is for my life—the divine life of God is within me and as a result, I already know the answers to my questions.  We can share our insights and lessons with others, but ultimately, each of us must live our life by our own light, burning our own oil, basing our successes on our own efforts as we wait for the final revelation of the Reign of God.



About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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