“A Problematic Parable”  Pentecost 22A

When I began to prepare for this morning’s worship service I was surprised to find that I had never preached on the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  How could that be?, I wondered.  Then I read the text carefully and I began to figure out why I had never chosen this lectionary passage.  

Honestly, I was shocked and dismayed by the story Jesus told.  This parable doesn’t seem to fit with the whole rest of the gospel’s teachings.  Did Matthew make a mistake?  Is this really a lesson Jesus meant to teach us?  Is Jesus even talking to us in this parable?  Who do I identify with most in this story?  Certainly not the bridegroom.  And while I want to think I am a wise bridesmaid, the truth of the matter is, I am probably more like the foolish bridesmaids.  So, where does that leave me in the end?  Banging on the door begging to be let in to the feast.

Does that sound like the gospel to you?

What can we do with this problematic parable so that it makes sense in light of everything we know about the kingdom of heaven?  The first thing that bothers me about this parable is the fact that the so-called “wise” bridesmaids wouldn't share their oil.  I’d rather call them the selfish bridesmaids.

Looking to all the other stories about the haves and the have nots in the whole Bible, where is it written that we must hoard our oil or anything else for that matter?  Isn’t everything about sharing what you have? taking care of the widow and orphan?helping those in need? feeding the hungry? clothing the naked? comforting the afflicted? giving away all that you have for the sake of the kingdom? not storing up for yourself treasures on earth? gathering just enough manna for one day so that no one lacks for anything? sharing all things in common?

I could go on and on citing example after example.  You probably could too.  Doesn’t it make you wonder about those selfish bridesmaids who were hogging all the oil?  The second thing that bothers me a little is why would the bridegroom come so late to his wedding feast?  Isn’t that rude? not to mention anxiety-producing for the bride and her family.  By the way, in this parable about weddings and bridesmaids and bridegrooms, why is there no mention of a bride?  Was she so insignificant and peripheral to this story that she didn’t even rate a passing reference?  Isn’t it her family who is throwing this big feast that will last for several days?  Think of all the preparation that has been going on behind the scenes to get ready for the sumptuous banquet and the special ceremony.  I am thinking about food, decorations, clothes, making sure there is enough wine and stewards to serve it, the cleaning of the house, the setting up of the tables and cushions for each guest to recline on.  Well, I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that it takes a ton of work to pull off a celebration of this magnitude.

So, why was the groom late and why did he get away without so much as a “sorry, I was delayed due to train traffic ahead… thanks for your patience everyone.”  He gives no apology or explanation when he arrives.  He just walks right in to the feast as if he owns the place.  He gets a free pass, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, the ten bridesmaids have been waiting so long they all fall asleep.  When they are awakened with the news that the bridegroom is near, it is no wonder that their lamps were almost out of oil.  Those with extra oil could refill their lamps but the ones who brought just enough were told to go to the bodega and buy some more oil… as if ancient Palestine had 24-hour convenience stores…  If the bridegroom had been on time, there would not be a problem with lamps going out in the first place.  And then when the five bridesmaids, who somehow were resourceful enough to go out and find some extra oil, came knocking at the door they were not allowed into the feast.  In fact, it was the bridegroom who said, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

So, does this sound like Jesus to you?  This parable goes against the grain of Jesus’ other parables because according to one commentator (who seems to have as much trouble with this text as I do)

“• it does not cut against social or religious expectations;

it does not surprise or shock his first listeners - instead it would confirm their conventional wisdom that the foolish are punished and the prepared are rewarded;

there is no unexpected twist in the story;

the story lacks humor, paradox, new insight;

it is unimaginative and easy to figure out what "the moral" is.

it concludes with a closed, impenetrable boundary - clearly separating insiders from outsiders.”

So what is to be done with this problematic parable where people are either in or out depending on how much oil they managed to have with them at a given time?  I’m sure if Jesus really did tell this parable there would have been a surprise ending like after the foolish bridesmaids were turned away at the door the wise bridesmaids, overcome by compassion for their left-out sisters, unlocked the door and invited the others in.  Or maybe this is the time the bride would make an appearance and she would insist that the groom open the door to the shut-out members of the wedding party.  Or maybe the bridegroom himself would say, “Just kidding, come on in to the feast.  I’m playing with you.”

I don’t have any good answers but what may be going on here in this problematic parable is more about how to wait rather than keeping awake or being well-prepared as many have interpreted this story.  What are we waiting for?  We wait for Jesus, sometimes referred to as the bridegroom, to return.  We don’t know when or where or how, but we are supposed to have some idea that Jesus is coming soon.  

We know all too well that God’s time is not our time and so this waiting may seem inconsequential.  While it is true that we may fall asleep waiting for the second coming or run out of supplies and have to go get more, the important thing to recognize is “that opportunities for waiting on Jesus’ presence are all around us. Each time we work for justice we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we bear each other’s burdens, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ…” (

The church, of all places, should take the lead and demonstrate how to wait effectively for the things that are not yet.  Those things which God sees and dreams for us can be easily missed in the midst of all the obligations our busy lives demand of us on a daily basis.  We are too easily discouraged and run out of patience when we don’t get the results we desire or the outcomes we expect.  When we come to church on  Sunday morning  all battered and beaten by the world’s demands and injustices, it is here that we should find help and support.  It is in this place where we hear messages of hope to help us wait a little longer, to remain steadfast and persevere in the midst of adversity, to continue to trust God’s promises and to long for the day when God’s rule is established on earth.  The Apostle Paul tells the church to encourage one another through times of waiting.  

In the words of one wise theologian, “As the church we must wait for each other- wise and foolish alike. We are those who sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. We are, in short, those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord.” (

When we as the church fulfill this role for one another and for the world we become filled with light.  It’s not so much about the oil, after all, is it?  It’s about being light-filled and illuminating the darkness for others.  We are the lamps who guide others to God’s love.

In closing, I leave you with a story from the desert fathers:

“Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?"

You can practice all manner of spiritual disciplines, pray without ceasing, seek God first, and be holy and devout, yet at some point you have to realize that it is not enough unless you become fire.  Becoming fire can mean different things for each one of us.  The best way to describe becoming fire is to tap into your passion and let it guide you in all you do.  As you go through life with your passion showing, the world will see your fire.  Maybe you have a passion for dance or organizing or cooking or math or relationships or comforting others or teaching… you fill in your own blank.  Whatever it is that drives you and urges you to get up in the morning, that makes you feel most alive … that is the passion that sets you on fire.  That is God’s gift to you for you to shine.

“Many of the mystics talk about God as the living flame within each of us: we each contain a spark of the divine.  Fire is a symbol of purification and passion, warmth and raging power, destruction and rising up like the Phoenix from the ashes.  Becoming fire means holding these tensions and saying yes to life by the very way we live. It means unleashing the tremendous power of love into the world and, as Teilhard de Chardin says so poetically , Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves and gravity, we shall harness for God energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world we will have discovered fire.” (

What holy fire is within you?  Use it to set the world ablaze with love.

 © Victoria Moss 2020