Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the wise and foolish grooms maids. I call them “grooms maids” rather than the traditional “virgins” because virginity is not the issue here. They are female servants attached to the household of the groom (so they are not bridesmaids). The picture is that these ten young women, five described as smart and five as dumb, have set out after sunset with oil lamps to welcome the groom (presumably accompanied by his bride) and accompany him, and attendants, back to his place for the wedding feast. The groom is delayed. The women fall asleep, apparently with their lamps still lit and burning up oil. When they are finally awakened by the announcement of his coming, the improvident grooms maids discover that they have run out of oil, while the prudent servants, who thought to carry back-up flasks of oil, are ready and able to festively accompany the groom back home and join the fun of the wedding feast. The foolish five find themselves locked out of the party. (“Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But he said in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”)
The rest of the Gospel of Matthew has provided all we need to know to get the message. The groom is an image of Jesus the Son of Man. He had earlier described himself as a bridegroom when the disciples of John the baptizer asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast. He had replied, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (9:15) In the context, the return of the bridegroom after a long delay surely represents what this fifth speech of Jesus calls the “Parousia”—the final return of Jesus as glorious Son of Man in judgment. In this last discourse in the Gospel of Matthew, this parable comprises the fifth in a series of images portraying the Parousia as sudden and unpredictable. The previous chapter showed the Parousia as sudden and unpredictable as lightening, as the flood in Noah’s time, as a thief in the night, and as the return of an absentee landlord. Now we have it in the image of the delayed bridegroom.
If we wonder what the oil represents and what it means to be locked out of the party, we get a clue in the first speech of Jesus in this gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. Towards the end of that speech, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (7:22-23).
What is meant by doing the will of the Father was spelled out in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 5—curbing anger, minding lust, being totally honest and sexually faithful, responding to hostility non-violently, and loving enemies. A saying in chapter 16 recapitulates this: “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Fathers glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct [praxis]” (16:27). If we want more detail about what having oil when the Master comes means, we get it in the final part of this End-time speech—meeting the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
The symbolism of the Gospel explains itself, when we read it whole. Watch and pray, and act now so we have some oil when he comes. Who wants to get locked out of the party?
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