We’ve just heard the story of another wedding. It used to be called the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (AV). Not anymore. Perhaps because the idea of virgins at a wedding stretches the bounds of contemporary credulity. So now we call it the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (NRSV), Young Women, or even Girls (REB, GNB), because they were probably teenagers.
Let’s set the scene as Jesus paints it, with the colours of first century Palestine. We’re talking a bit of a nuptial do – and then some. The wedding feast takes place not at the local Dragon Hotel but at the home of the groom. A crowd of family, friends, and neighbours fills the house and spills into the street. Meanwhile, the groom and his best men (if you like) make their way to the bride’s house. From there the groom collects his bride (sorry, Dad!), puts her on a donkey (not a Daimler!), and escorts her back to his house. But not directly: the high-spirited entourage takes an extended detour through as many streets as possible, to show off the bride to the whole village. By the time the party arrives, it’s nightfall, and the waiting guests are well ready to party – including our ten teenagers.
What’s with the lamps? Well, it was one thing for young men to be out on the streets at night, but women, young or old, always carried lamps. Not to see by, mind, but to ensure that passers-by wouldn’t hassle them, or think that they were out on the pull – reputation was, is, everything in the Middle East. So all ten young women are being prudent and proper. Each has a lamp. Ah, but only half of them have brought extra fuel, small flasks of olive oil, just in case the bridal party, in its youthful exuberance, takes even longer than usual to parade its way back to the groom’s house. So long, in this case, that they become sleepy and nod off…
When, at the stroke of midnight, from the dark a cry is heard. “Here they come!” “Oops!” say the gaggle of girls who didn’t plan ahead. And then to those who did, “Give us some oil!” “No way!” comes the reply. “Not our problem.” Miffed and muttering, the former five storm off to beg, borrow, or buy some oil. But it’s the middle of the night. It takes a while. And when they finally return to the banquet, now in full flow, it’s too late – the door is shut. “Open the door!” they shout. “Sorry,” says the groom, “Do I know you?” End of.
And the point is …? “Be prepared”? Well, of course, advanced planning is always a good thing. Whether or not Jesus himself is referring, in the parable, to his second coming, St Matthew has certainly adapted the story with the Lord’s return – his delayed return – in mind. By the time the evangelist is writing, maybe fifty years after the first Easter, he advises the church to be ready for the long haul. And we’re still long-hauling it. But “be prepared” – is that it?
Let me tease out two further points (parables are always a tease). First, how do we react to failure? When we screw up, what do we do next? I think the parable puts to us this important question. How do the young women who weren’t prepared react, first, when they discover that they didn’t bring enough oil to see them through the evening, and, second, when they find the door shut in their face? They shout, that’s how they react. Although the awkward position in which they find themselves is their own fault, they shout, first at their five friends, “Give us some oil!”, and then at the groom, “Open the door!” That’s foolish. That’s stupid. As foolish and stupid as being unprepared in the first place. In the world, in the church, “barking orders at others is not an acceptable way to try to solve problems created by our own inadequacies” (Kenneth Bailey).
And yet isn’t that precisely the way some people in the church are reacting to our own failures? The church is in trouble and sometimes you’d think we were in those old Laurel and Hardy sketches where Ollie says to Stan, “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!” “You” being the liberals if you’re an evangelical, and the evangelicals if you’re a liberal, or – outside the church – the secularists, or the Muslims, or “the world” as such. Christians aren’t in charge anymore, we feel marginalised, and we don’t like it. And it can’t be our fault, can it? For centuries we’ve more or less acquiesced in being the nation’s Department of Religion and, as court chaplain, we’ve blessed its deployment of wealth and power. We’ve colluded in the domestication of the gospel, the privatisation of faith, and the reduction of morality to family values and good citizenship. We’ve conceded that the Sermon on the Mount is quite lovely, but altogether impractical, and totally irrelevant to the real business of living. And now governments of the left and the right don’t do God anymore and – what? – we’re surprised? When the church itself hasn’t been doing God – not really, not radically, not riskily – not like Amos did God, not like Jesus did God, since almost forever?
No, whatever state we’re in, it’s not our fault, blame this or that, bark at him or her, play the victim, raise the volume. Can this be right? Or is it not a sign of both denial and panic, and a sure indication that we’ve lost both the argument and the plot? What about taking responsibility for our failure to be the Israel of Amos, the church Jesus? And what about having the good grace to announce the wedding feast of the kingdom, not with a paranoid posture and a shrill voice, but with a calm confidence that Christ is risen and reigns, and a tone in our evangelism that is joyful without being cheesy, and bold without being bolshie? Hey, it’s a wedding we’re talking about!
And the second thing I tease out of our parable is this. Note well: it’s not about good and bad people, it’s about smart and stupid people. Of course Jesus came to take away our sins, but the way some Christians talk you’d think he also came to take away our minds. Jesus himself enjoyed the company of bad people – the gospels call them “tax collectors and sinners”. The good people – the gospels call them “scribes and Pharisees” – they didn’t like that at all. And, of course, it was these good folk, not the bad folk, who conspired to kill Jesus. Why? Because they thought that because they weren’t bad they could do no wrong – which is a fatally stupid conclusion to draw. Bad people certainly do harm, but it’s stupid people that wreak the real havoc in the world, people with a catastrophic combination of self-importance, conviction, and complacency.
By “smart”, of course, I don’t mean having academic intelligence but nous, practical intelligence, which includes having your deception detector in good working order, to see through the posturing and guff we get every day from the corridors of political and financial power, precisely from people educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics, the so-called great and, yes, the “good.” By “smart” I mean carrying your lamp, with plenty of oil, to shine light into the dark places we encounter. By “smart” I mean having the wise-as-a-serpent mind of Christ.
We live in benighted times where lying has become routine, systemic, and very lucrative, while truth-telling is ever threatened by the demands of social stability and so-called economic necessity. Pilate can only look askance at the very idea of truth, while mendacity is the morality of Mammon. But Jesus looks at the world and asks: What is really going on here? Who is really smart? Who is really stupid? He means according to the standards, not of Whitehall or the City of London, but of God’s covenant and kingdom. The standards of justice and compassion that drove Amos to lodge his protest on behalf of the dispossessed outside the temple in Bethel. The same standards that will drive our Lord to stage a demonstration on behalf of the dispossessed outside the great Temple in Jerusalem. Which, interestingly, was the political and banking centre of the nation. In fact, the St Paul’s Cathedral of his day. If you catch my drift.