A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost: November 12, 2017: Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13
25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

25:2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

25:3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;

25:4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.

25:5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.

25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’

25:7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.

25:8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’

25:9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’

25:10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.

25:11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’

25:12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

25:13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

A Question or Two:

  • Why are there so many stories about weddings?
  • Why are people always excluded in those stories?

Some Longer Reflections:

How odd.

All parables are odd.  That’s what makes them parables.

But Matthew’s parables are really odd.  And in that odd bunch, this one stands out:

  • there is a clear hierarchy of power, with a male holding ultimate power and being addressed as “lord,”  κύριε in Greek;
  • in this clear hierarchy, there is a group of women, identified in English as “bridesmaids” and in Greek as παρθένοι (which means virgins), without power who ask for admission, and are refused;
  • there is another group of women, also παρθένοι, that is not excluded;
  • the first group of παρθένοι is characterized as being μωραὶ, which is weakly translated into English as “foolish,” but means something more like “morons,” a much harsher word;
  • the other group of women is characterized as being  φρόνιμοι, translated as “wise,” which implies to my ear depth and breadth of knowledge, moral virtue, and piercing insight, but the word in Greek is  φρόνιμοι, which means something more like “prudent,” which only means (for sure) that they were good at planning ahead;
  • being  φρόνιμοι apparently does not imply that they are kind or generous, since when the other women discover that their lamps are going out the φρόνιμοι refuse to share with them;
  • as further evidence, both of their lack of influence and their lack of generosity, when the μωραὶ return after buying oil sometime after midnight (quite a feat in a world without 24-hour convenience stores), they do not intercede on behalf of their sisters to help them gain admission to the marriage feast;
  • the “lord”  (κύριε) tells those who have hunted for oil in the middle of the night, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

This is odd.  It is entirely possible that he does not know them, especially if he is the bridegroom and they are “bridesmaids,” since this would imply that they come from different clans.  But why, then, does he not ask the bride to identify them?

Of course, as Jülicher pointed out in the last century, parables make a central point, and they will move heaven and the narrative earth to do this.  So the unreasonable act of exclusion is what allows the storyteller to give Jesus his final line: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  This final line implies that we ought perhaps to be thinking about the “feast that is to come,” and not just some average wedding feast.  But that makes things worse, not better, since now inclusion in the Dominion of God is determined by a gatekeeper who locks the door against those who are not sufficiently prudent, against those who asked for help and were refused.

This is not the first wedding feast in the gospel of Matthew with a master who retaliates, but the last time the invited guests were murderous brutes.  This time the people excluded are little girls.  If women typically married at around 13 years of age, as many sources suggest, then the μωραὶ in this story could be 10 or 12 years old.  Even in a world that expects full adulthood to emerge at 13, this is unreasonable.  

Prudence is a virtue, but this goes too far.  

I am sure that interpreters will, this year as every year, find a way to justify this narrative structure.  Perhaps this is really about the abruptness of the arrival of the Reign of God, so abrupt (they will say) that it seems random, both in its long delay and in its unexpected appearance.

Sure.

Or perhaps this will be about a wider meaning of prudence, one that includes a long-established practice of Torah observance, and this, not the arrival of the Reign of God, is the real point.

That could work.

Or perhaps this is a parable about how a life well-lived is a life that experiences every instant as being charged with the electricity of the aeon.  Read this way, the parable urges a kind of apocalyptic mindfulness.

I kind of like this last option.

But when I finish hearing the parable, I still notice that it does its work by separating and excluding.  The women are separated from each other (by the amount of oil in their lamps) and they do not offer aid to each other.  Those who arrive late have the door shut in their faces, this though it is the middle of the night and they are alone on the street.  Beyond that, this story of separation and exclusion aims its energy at women.

I am suspicious of such stories, and have come to distrust them.  There is danger in narrative schemes that only work if women are made to be morons.  There is danger in any theological structure that imagines that separation and exclusion are the essence of faithfulness.  It is time we pointed these dangers out.

I notice (as I have written before) that at the end of the story Jesus no longer does his work by separating and excluding.  When he appears to his gathered disciples, some “wise” enough to worship, some “foolish” enough to doubt (Matthew 28, only three chapters from this scene), he does not slam the door in the face of the doubters.  Instead, he sends the whole mixed group out to baptize and teach, and he explicitly promises to be with ALL  of them, wise and foolish, worshipers and doubters, throughout the aeon.

I wonder if he apologized to the little girls that he called morons?

 

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