A real head-scratcher

I am usually a big fan of the parables.  I enjoy them like I enjoy a good riddle.  It takes thought, prayer, consideration, and not a little bit of time to look at a parable from its many different angles.  Whether you choose to use the metaphor of a multi-side diamond or a narrative time bomb, parables offer a lot of chew on and enjoy.  However, the reality of liking something in theory doesn’t always mean you’ll like everything about it.  I really loved the television show Scrubs, but in order to do so, I have to pretend that season nine didn’t happen.  This is how that show ended. Period. Full stop.

I’m feeling kind of Scrubs Season 9 about the eschatological kingdom parable we will hear this week.  It is the first of three apocalyptic parables we will hear from Matthew’s Gospel as we wrap up the long season after Pentecost, and it is the one I am most comfortable doing without.  The more I read it, the less it makes sense.  The more I read about it, the less it appeals to me.  The more I consider its ramifications, the less I want to allow it to actually be Jesus’ words about the Kingdom he came to inaugurate.  Like his admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” this parable doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of what Jesus spends his time teaching and living.

Take, for example, the distinction between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids.  Thanks to several of the commentaries available at TextWeek.com (many of which actively contradict each other), I’ve come to notice that there is very little that actually distinguishes these two groups from one another.  Both groups took lamps filled with oil, both waited for the bridegroom, both eventually fell asleep when the groom tarried for an unimaginably long time.  What makes the wise bridesmaids wise is that they chose to bring extra oil on the off chance that the groom was delayed much longer than one would reasonably expect.  Are we really supposed to learn something from this?  Is the Kingdom of Heaven really about being prepared for every possible eventuality?  Even Jesus seems to contradict himself in summarizing the parable with “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Is this about oil or about staying awake?

Consider also the behavior of the wise bridesmaids.  When, at midnight, the bridegroom finally arrives, and the foolish ask the wise for some extra oil, the wise get stingy.  Rather than showing the abundant generosity of God’s grace, like in the parable of the Prodigal Son, these women subscribe to a theology of scarcity, and refuse to share with their friends.  Instead, the wise send the foolish off into the dark of night to try to buy oil from the 1st century Palestine equivalent of Meijer.  In the moment of decision, these women become like the punchline of a Seinfeld joke.  They can’t even spare a square.

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There is, I’m certain, something to be mined from this odd parable, and I promise, dear reader, that I’ll keep digging.  In the meantime, if you have some wisdom to spare, please don’t hesitate to comment.  I’ll happily give you credit in my sermon come Sunday.

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4 thoughts on “A real head-scratcher

  1. I’m finding this week’s Joshua passage to be helpful in interpreting this parable. This is the famous “Choose this day whom you will serve” speech. I think this parable has to have something to do with preparedness (whether that looks like extra oil or keeping awake), but perhaps not the anxious preparedness that this parable, at first, seems to advocate for (you’re right that it’s still difficult to make sense of the stinginess of the wise maidens). I wonder if preparedness is more about choosing this day to serve Christ. And then this day. And then this day. That choosing looks like practices of prayer and mediation, the receiving of Word and Sacrament, the habits of hospitality and service. Putting Joshua in conversation with this parable helps shift it from an “If you died tonight” sermon to an “If you live tomorrow” sermon. Augustine famously prayed “Lord make me pure…but not yet!” This sermon is preaching against that. It resists the idea that a holy life is a joyless slog rather than a banquet. It’s saying,”The bridegroom has arrived in Christ and is inviting you to choose life in him. Don’t refuse him. Don’t miss out.” Yes, there is an element of “Don’t wait until it’s too late” and rightly so, but the broader message, the good news, is that any “not yet” is too late, because it resists the call of Christ. Choose this day whom you will serve. Accept the invitation. And then keep accepting it. Keep choosing him. Keep oiled and awake. Not because you might die tonight, but so you can live today.

  2. I told my Wed. lectionary study group that this parable reminds me of a Grimm’s fairy tale. They were wanting to re-write the parable so that the “wise” ones shared at least their light and they all walked together and were all admitted to the banquet and I compared that to dumbing down a scary story like Red Riding Hood. She and grandma were both eaten by the wolf but we tell it like they both escaped. We try to re-write it. If Jesus wanted us to consider getting left out, than we must. Otherwise we might take admittance for granted. I’m going to preach about “now-ness” like Kester. Track 1’s Joshua passage and all.

  3. Pingback: A Modern Day Parable | Draughting Theology

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