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What kind of wisdom?
Today is the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. I’m preaching in London, Ontario, this weekend — and it is my first trip back to Canada since before the pandemic. It is nice to be here again.
There are only two more Sundays before Advent begins! Whether yours are purple and pink or blue or some other color, make sure you have your candles!
Today, we continue on with the series of odd parables in Matthew’s gospel. This one is a doozy: A bridesmaids’ horror story Jesus-style.
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Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (sometimes called “bridesmaids”) is one of those Jesus stories I often skip when reading the Bible: “Oh yes. That one. The moral is ‘be prepared.’ Easy.
Really? Be prepared? Jesus sounds more like a Scout leader than, well, Jesus.
If, as is often the case, we lay aside what we think is the moral of the story and reread these verses, a much stranger — and even confusing — tale presents itself.
The groom is delayed, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep. Not only is there no groom, there’s no bride! When the groom finally shows, the young women are roused from a sound slumber to discover that only half of them have enough oil for their lamps. The oil-less bridesmaids ask their sisters to share. But the well-supplied bridesmaids refuse and tell the others to go and buy it for themselves! Where, exactly, do you buy oil in the middle of the night in ancient Israel? Is there a 24-hour Walmart? But the ones without oil go off, and after they purchase a supply, they arrive at the party only to have the bridegroom slam the door in their face and send them away like uninvited wedding crashers trying to get in.
Who does this? Nobody acts like this in real life! And it makes for a terrible allegory about Jesus. If the bridegroom is Jesus, we’re all in trouble because he’s a careless guy — and mean to boot. Where’s the Jesus who turns five loaves of bread into a meal for 5,000? Or Jesus-the-Jew who knew that hospitality to strangers was the most important practice of his faith? And where is that bride?
This parable seems more a comedy — like the movies 27 Dresses or Bridesmaids — than a serious theological lesson.
And that’s when it hits me: Maybe that’s exactly what this parable is. Funny. Perhaps we’re not supposed to read it with a straight face.
It is hard to imagine that its first hearers weren’t laughing! They, too, probably thought this sounded like the worst wedding ever. Who wants to go to a party where the groom is late and nasty to the guests? And where is that bride anyway? Maybe she doesn’t even like the groom. There’s no Fear Of Missing Out here — this is one party for which you are glad you never got an invitation!
The point of the story revolves around two words: “wise” and “foolish.” And those two words call to mind a biblical tradition that is far different than the parables — that of Proverbs and Wisdom literature. Parables are little fiction stories, full of metaphors and analogies, and often are allegories to make hearers stop and think about their assumptions about faith or God. But Proverbs and other wisdom writings are often witticisms, memorable contrasts, imaginative poetry, and provocative quips. The purpose of wisdom literature is to teach readers to live — here and now — justly, with mercy, and in community with one another.
In this story, “wise” is the word phronimos, meaning practical wisdom, shrewdness, savvy, being sensible or prudent. Matthew uses phronimos seven times in his gospel. But there’s another word for wisdom in biblical Greek, sophia, meaning divine wisdom, knowledge of sacred matters, insight to mystery. Matthew uses sophia once in his book when Jesus uses it to speak of himself: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (Matthew 11:19).
The “wise” bridesmaids are phronimos, full of practical wisdom. They brought flasks of oil to refill their lamps. They aren’t said to be sophia — attuned to divine wisdom. They contended with the “foolish” bridesmaids, who are described as moros in Greek, a word that can be translated into English as flat, dull, insipid, or nonsensical. The witticism in the story is the contrast between those who are full of practical wisdom and those who are dullards, maybe dreamers, who possess little or no common sense.
Who does the world praise? What do we teach to children? Ideally, we want our children or students to be practical, prudent, and sensible. Be prepared, we tell them.
But maybe Jesus has a different idea. Certainly Paul did.
Three decades before the Gospel of Matthew was written, the Apostle Paul penned these words to his friends in Corinth:
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’,
‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.’
Paul doesn’t use the word phronimos here. He used sophia. But he calls it the “sophia of the world,” clearly implying the kind of wisdom that the “world” extols. Earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul explicitly calls Christ “the sophia of God” and thereby sets up a contrast between worldly wisdom and divine wisdom. In this letter, and in his other letters, Paul makes this contrast repeatedly — there are two kinds of wisdom, one, a conventional, common sense wisdom, that is really foolishness, and the other, “divine wisdom,” that is the source of life and salvation.
Is that the same point Jesus is making in this story? Maybe it isn’t a parable — an allegory for a theological point — but a kind of extended proverb about wisdom?
After all, what do those practical bridesmaids get? They get to go to a party when they are exhausted, where there doesn’t seem to be a bride, and the groom is, at best, a bore. And they are locked in with him at this miserable affair in the wee hours of the night!
Honestly, the ones outside the door seem to wind up with the better end of the bargain. Think of some of Jesus’ other stories about weddings and parties — the last will be first, don’t invite your rich friends but invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” — and just a few pages before today’s story in Matthew, Jesus told a parable about a king who instructs his servants: “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”
Did the “wise” bridesmaids, those full of common sense and practical wisdom, go to the wrong party with a bad bridegroom? Maybe the real party hadn’t started yet! Sometimes phronimos isn’t all it is cracked up to be. And what of the “foolish” bridesmaids, the ones locked out, the young women standing on the streets? Were they about to receive an invitation to the King’s wedding, the party-to-end-all-parties? And just maybe they weren’t going to be just bridesmaids there — but they would finally be the Bride?
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.
The words at the end of Jesus’ wisdom story-proverb now sound like less a threat and more like an invitation — not “be prepared” or you are going to Hell, but “be discerning” so you end up at the right party. Understand the difference between the “wisdom of this world” and the divine wisdom of God: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The best banquet awaits.
ADVENT IS COMING!
During Advent, The Cottage will host a paid subscriber special series — a thematic Advent calendar from December 1 - Christmas. I offer these for the paid community in order to create a more intimate experience with a smaller community. More details will follow, but I’m looking forward to it — lots of visuals and mini-reflections coming your way. As many of you know, the winter spiritual seasons — Advent, winter solstice, Christmas, and Epiphany — are my favorites. Something in my soul awakens in the dark.
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Always we are following a light,
Always the light recedes; with groping hands
We stretch toward this glory, while the lands
We journey through are hidden from our sight
Dim and mysterious, folded deep in night,
We care not, all our utmost need demands
Is but the light, the light! So still it stands
Surely our own if we exert our might.
Fool! Never can’st thou grasp this fleeting gleam,
Its glowing flame would die if it were caught,
Its value is that it doth always seem
But just a little farther on. Distraught,
But lighted ever onward, we are brought
Upon our way unknowing, in a dream.
— Amy Lowell (1874-1925), “The Lamp of Life”
The traditional Anglican and Roman Catholic lectionaries (which include readings from the Apocrypha) twin the “parable” of the Wise and Foolish virgins with this passage from the Book of Wisdom, written about fifty years before the birth of Jesus:
Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.
— Wisdom 6:12–16
NOVEMBER GRATITUDE NUDGE
When has a door been closed in your face, only for you to discover that something better was just around the corner? I can think of a number of times when I expected one thing, was excluded from or failed at it, and that “closed door” opened to a new, unexpected possibility that I’d never considered before.
Sometimes being shut out can be an injustice. At other times, the closed door is actually a gift. It can be hard to tell the difference when it happens, but easier to see in the longer term. I’ve learned to be grateful for closed doors as well as easy paths. Do you have a similar story of gratitude for a closed door?
SOUTHERN LIGHTS IS BACK
January 12 -14, 2024
Our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy — and many in the The Cottage community have signed up to gather in person!
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
JOIN US THIS COMING JANUARY!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and my dear friend Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer (our “resident” Mary Magdalene guide!). Our special guest chaplain for the weekend will be the Rev. Winnie Varghese (St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta). And you’ll be treated to the amazing music of Ken Medema and Solveig Leithaug.
Please come and be with us in Georgia. SEATS ARE INCREASINGLY LIMITED and hotels are filling up!
Or, if you’d rather be with us online, you can choose that option as well.