Your Lamps with Gladness Take
by Kimberly Miller van Driel
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from LF Fall 2017
The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1–13 was one of the best-loved Bible stories in the Middle Ages and early modern period. Images of the bridesmaids—or virgins, if you prefer—were carved into cathedrals in France and Germany and depicted in frescos on altarpieces. The hope of the Lord Jesus returning to his people as a bridegroom inspired Lutheran composers Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608) and Laurentius Laurenti (1660–1722) to pen hymns encouraging us to “rejoice, rejoice… and let [our] lights appear” and to “wake, awake for night is flying.” For these hymnwriters, the story of the bridegroom returning to his people was fundamentally a story of hope and celebration: Jesus is coming! He is like a bridegroom! Let us go and meet him when he comes!
In contemporary times, however, this parable is far less popular than it was for our forebears, and for a number of reasons. For one, the allegorical modes of interpretation that shaped preaching on this parable from ancient times have fallen into disfavor. The early church fathers made much of the fact that the term the NRSV translates as “bridesmaid” (parthenos) can also be rendered “virgin.” Try building a sermon on that detail today!
Meanwhile, the historical-critical tools that today’s scholars prefer do not shed much interpretive light. We don’t actually know much about the customs of weddings in Jesus’ place and time, which makes it difficult to place lamps, oil, the role of bridesmaids, and the details of wedding processions in their cultural context.
Another reason the parable is less popular is the strong theme of judgment that runs throughout the story. If Nicolai and Laurenti read the parable and heard an invitation to a party, many of us read it and note only the refusal of the wise bridesmaids to share their oil or the unforgiving character of the bridegroom who refuses to open the door. “I don’t know you,” the bridegroom says, strange and seemingly harsh words. How do we reconcile them with the idea that our Lord is gracious—especially to sinners? After all, in nearly every form of interpretation, whether ancient and allegorical or modern and historical-critical, the bridegroom is understood to be a symbol of Jesus as the coming Messiah, and the wedding banquet is an image of the great eschatological feast.
But it could be that the final words of the bridegroom, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you,” are in fact the key to unlocking this parable as a celebratory story about a gracious God. There is a strong note of judgment in them, to be sure. But the inability to hold together grace and judgment is a theological failing on our part, not on the part of Scripture! A fresh understanding of these words will reframe our understanding of all the other details in the story—oil, lamps, bridesmaids, dealers, and the cry at midnight—in such a way that we, too, will want to sing with joy.
Let’s start with the parable’s final scene of judgment, which takes place at the door of the bridegroom’s house. There’s a party going on inside, and on the outside are the foolish bridesmaids. They have just returned from a midnight errand to the oil dealers, a last-ditch attempt to prepare for the festal procession. Having not brought extra oil for their lamps, they were not prepared for the bridegroom to be delayed; and when the cry went up that the bridegroom was coming, and they were to do their task as bridesmaids—to join him in procession—they discovered that their lamps were going out.
The wise bridesmaids, who had enough oil, declined to share the extra with them and sent them to the store. “There will not be enough for you and for us, you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves,” they said (25:9). The trip took them away from the scene of the wedding, though, and so when the bridegroom came, they missed the procession, and with it, the entry into the party. All they find upon their return is a locked door. When they knock, the bridegroom responds to them as if they were burglars or party-crashers: “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you” (25:12).
It is tempting to read that line as a kind of passive-aggressive swipe at the bridesmaids’ lack of preparation. Of course the bridegroom must know them—they are members of his wedding party, after all—so he must be somehow pretending not to know them or denying them in some kind of cold-hearted and unforgiving fashion. Yet nothing in the text indicates that there is a dynamic deeper than what the words say, namely, that the bridegroom simply does not recognize the women at his door as people he knows.
In related parables in Matthew’s gospel—the wicked slave (24:45–51), the talents (25:14–30), and the sheep and the goats (25:30–46)—the dynamics of punishment and reward are clear. Lazy slaves are thrown out where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth; the goats who do not recognize him are cast into hellfire. Here, as in the other parables, there is no indication that the bridegroom wants to punish the bridesmaids for their failures. It is just that he does not know who they are, and from his perspective there is no connection between him and them, even if they are crying out to him, “Lord, Lord.”
Thus, by the end of the parable, the foolish bridesmaids are defined as those who are not known by the bridegroom. If you turn that definition inside out and upside down, as parables often prompt us to do, we get some clarity about the meaning of “wise” and “foolish.” What distinguishes the wise from the foolish is that they are known by Jesus. If the result of not bringing oil for the long night and needing to run an errand at the last moment results in a completely severed connection from the bridegroom, then the actions of bringing oil and being prepared point to already being known by him and acting accordingly. Oil, flasks, lamps—these things are about relationship, and in particular how that relationship is to be sustained through a long night in which the bridegroom is not physically present and in which his festive banquet remains the stuff of promise. In this sense, the parable itself is less about a moment of harsh judgment than it is about what happens before that moment arrives.
This where things get interesting, because that is exactly the time in which we are living—the time between Jesus’ resurrection and return. We have been called to the wedding party but the party hasn’t gotten going in its fullness. In fact, it has been so long delayed that there are times when we can forget that that partying with Jesus is God’s ultimate goal and purpose for us.
The wait—let’s call it “the time of the church”—can in fact be quite boring. All the bridesmaids, the parable tells us, wise and foolish together, grew drowsy and fell asleep. That is an interesting detail in the narrative. It suggests that wisdom and weariness are not incompatible. A relationship with Jesus, once begun, does not necessarily guarantee that hearts and minds will always be driven by excitement and adrenaline in the face of the coming party. God’s people can and do fall asleep.
But within this time of the church and its inevitable weariness, there sometimes comes a cry that shakes us from our slumbers and calls us to attention. In advance of that last, great call of the watchman at Christ’s return, there are many smaller calls that have the effect of summoning the church to its purpose. Maybe it is an episode of violence in the neighborhood or another local disaster that stirs the church to say, “Something must be done!” Maybe a well-loved and long-serving pastor retires and a congregation must ask, “Who are we now?” Maybe a bequest bestows two million dollars on a church council and suddenly its members are faced with the opportunity to be more creative and imaginative in ministry than they have ever been able to before.
In any case, good or bad, the question is how the church, God’s wedding party, will stand up and bear witness to Christ in the moment of its call. But witness to Christ is always deeply grounded in relationship with Christ. It does not rest on the ingenuity or cleverness or success or planning of God’s people on their own accord.
“Wise bridesmaids” are different from “foolish bridesmaids” in that the wise understand that they cannot depend on what they have stored up within their own lamps to be ready for the decisive moment. They will need help, especially because the night can be long. They need assistance, especially because the wait can be boring. They need grace—extra oil that comes in flasks. The wise are wise not because they are intrinsically smarter than everyone else, but because they know that they cannot take care of a relationship with God on their own.
Here, Lutherans could have a lot of things to say about what the “oil” that fills our lamps might be, because we have a well-developed understanding of how Christ comes to us here and now to sustain a relationship of grace: the waters of holy baptism (which can be remembered daily), the bread and wine of holy communion (which we can blessedly now receive more than once a month in most places!), the preaching of the word, the study of the Scriptures, the ongoing support and prayers of other faithful people, and service to neighbors in whose face we see Christ. All of those things point to the festival banquet for which God has truly destined us. They fuel a light that serves to brighten a boring night and make us ready to respond faithfully when the cry comes.
There will, however, always be those within the church who prefer not to rely on grace. They are the foolish ones. When the cry goes up and it is time to light the lamps, the foolish discover they are not prepared. Moreover, they discover they cannot simply rely on the wise for help. The foolish ask the wise to borrow their oil—the way desperate congregations sometimes, for example, call the synod staff in hopes of a miracle cure for what ails them—only to discover that what they most need the wise can’t share. “There won’t be enough for you and for us!” the wise say. “You’d better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”
The truth is, we cannot be one another’s substitutes in terms of relationship with Christ, for he seeks to give each one of us grace. I cannot be baptized in your stead, and you cannot receive communion in mine. As many pastors know, when the cry goes up for a congregation to bear witness, the responsiveness of the congregation can be stymied by those who are not grounded in a relationship of grace with their Lord. They will want to siphon off energy from those who are wise and prepared: “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out!” The wise, however, will refuse this demand. What their foolish counterparts need is not theirs to give, and trying to deal with their lack will only diminish the vitality of their own work.
The wise bridesmaids thus direct the foolish to the dealers, where they can get oil for themselves. On this reading of the parable, the dealers can only be another symbol for Christ. He is not only the bridegroom who will come again to party with us at the end, but he is also present with us now to keep us supplied with what we need. Through this long night, he is available to keep us connected to himself, so we will be forgiven, hopeful, and ready for responsive mission whenever the cry comes. When we are well-supplied with his grace, there is no need to fear his return, for then we will be his bridesmaids, and he will know us.
That is why we can sing, with Laurenti and Nicolai, “Rejoice, rejoice!” and “Your lamps with gladness take!”
Kimberly Miller van Driel is Pastor at First English Lutheran Church in Butler, Pennsylvania.
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1. Laurentius Laurenti, “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers, ” trans. Sarah B. Findlater, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #244.
2. Phillip Nicolai, “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #436.
3. For examples of allegorical interpretation, see Augustine, “Sermon 93,” and John Chrysostom, “Homily LXXVIII,” both trans. Philip Schaff and available online.
4. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), 395.