Weekly Seeds: Wisdom
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost | Year A
Wise God, keep us alert and ready to discern your presence and movement among us. Amen.
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
All readings for this Sunday:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7 • Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24 and Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70 • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 • Matthew 25:1-13
What is wisdom? How does it reflect in our lives?
How do you deal with uncertainty?
How do you prepare for the future?
What is the significance of readiness as it pertains to faith?
Do you consider yourself alert, ready, or unprepared for whatever comes next?
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Even the simplest weddings take preparation. After a couple agrees to join their lives together, the ceremony that makes that commitment official can become a significant event with layers of participation and complexity. Some couples add rituals that reflect their heritage and identity such as handfasting or jumping the broom. When one or both parties have offspring, they may be invited to demonstrate their commitment and support of the union in some way. Other couples eschew all of that by having a simple ceremony at a courthouse, eloping to a distant location, or inviting their officiant to perform a private wedding at home.
The reception can be an even grander occasion. It may be held at a rented location, in a hotel or special event center. Sometimes, the couple may opt to transform a humble space with extravagant decorations in order to satisfy a desire to party hard without maximizing the costs. When there is a celebration following the nuptials, guests are invited to celebrate, bring gifts, and express their support. Family members often are given special treatment, and the attendants of the spouses hold special responsibility as they position themselves alongside the couple entering a new life.
Today, these attendants reflect the state of life of the bride. Bridesmaids may already be married themselves. Or, they may be single and live independently. They have voice in how they support the couple, and their encouragement, attention, and responsibility is directed toward the bride not the groom. Our contemporary experience of bridesmaids makes this parable a bit confusing in translation. The role has changed.
The parable of the ten bridesmaids is found only in Matthew. The term translated by the NRSV as “bridesmaids” is literally “virgins” (Greek parthenoi), but that term is used very generally to refer to any young women of marriageable age. In wedding customs of first century Palestine, it was common for the bridegroom to be escorted by such a company of bridesmaids/virgins to the home of the bride. They would then escort the couple to the house where the wedding and the wedding feast were to take place. In this parable, five are wise and five are foolish. This contrasting of the “wise” and the “foolish” is an ancient conventional device used in wisdom literature. Jesus uses this device both here and in the Sermon on the Mount where a wise man builds on a rock and a foolish man builds on sand (7:24–27). Because the foolish bridesmaids are unprepared—having taken no flask of extra oil for their lamps—they miss the wedding banquet. The earlier motif of Jesus as the bridegroom (9:15) and the eschaton as a wedding banquet (22:2) is picked up once again here.
Far too often this passage is preached with an exclusive focus on the foolishness of a few bridesmaids. While they are significant, they are not the only part of the story. Given that they are used in a parable relying on contrast, the wise bridesmaids deserve at least equal attention. Perhaps they invite even more focus as they serve as the exemplars in the narrative. Interestingly, the groom is not the center of the action either; rather, he serves instrumentally as the object of the bridesmaids’ action rather than the subject of the story. In this story, the groom presumably represents Jesus, but Jesus wants his disciples to know that their actions in the coming age will matter just as much as his for the continued reign of God.
After several chapters in which Jesus engages in adversarial conversations with religious leaders and detractors of his ministry, Jesus turns his attention directly to the preparation of his disciples for ministry without his physical presence. The audience has changed and so has the nature of his teaching. The point is not to convict or confound; they are not trying to set traps or gather evidence. He is their teacher; they are faithful students. Jesus no longer chastises and corrects people who have lost their way. Now, he encourages and prepares friends who eagerly receive his instruction and who will soon be responsible for continuing his ministry.
In this parable, the message is simply to be prepared and ready at any moment because opportunities come unannounced. Jesus has demonstrated his responsiveness to dynamic conditions during their time together. Some moments have called for preaching. At other times, healing of the sick has been needed. He dialogued and debated with religious opponents and spent time in conversation with other religious leaders who displayed more curiosity than confrontation. Throughout his ministry, Jesus modeled what would be required of his disciples. The metaphor of the ten bridesmaids informed them that wisdom would be necessary for them to discern their path and to be responsive to the needs of a given moment, encounter, or opportunity.
What do we do to prepare for an eventual reality that is anticipated but unscheduled? Be ready for it at all times, Jesus suggests. Readers often consider this text to be eschatological in nature. This is about the second coming of Christ, and certainly, being ready for that anticipated and unscheduled event, in whatever form it may take, is a good idea. At the same time, Jesus’ orientation to the future was never at the expense of the present. While Christian communities have become almost exclusively preoccupied with making reservations for heaven, Jesus told us to pray and act for heaven on earth.
These two chapters pose numerous questions for contemporary readers. Perhaps the most basic question concerns how we engage eschatological thinking, both the notion of divine intervention to affect the end of history with the establishment of God’s purposes, and its bleak, hopeless perspective on the present. Two thousand years later and counting, the imminent expectation of 24:34 has not materialized. Some parts of the contemporary church live in such thinking; other parts find no resonance with it at all.
The bridegroom comes to get married; Jesus came to repair the rift and dissolve the disconnect between heaven and earth. In the beginning, the separation between the two does not reflect hierarchy…merely difference. The earth, according to the creation narratives, was never intended to be this desolate and doomed place that humanity would need to escape from. The incarnation is the embodiment of the prayer for God’s kindom on earth as it is in heaven.
The foolish bridesmaids do not respect the role they play in the marriage event. The wise ones know that active participation requires preparation. They may not be the bride but this moment also belongs to them. They take that responsibility seriously. They are ready to accompany the bridegroom on the journey. Are we?
How do we stay alert so it doesn’t catch us off guard, overwhelmed and ultimately lost? Surprisingly…, Jesus never told us to prepare for his return with a spiritually disengaged escapism, withdrawing from this world’s pain and joys, hanging on by our fingernails until he extracts us from this evil place. Instead, by presenting three images of readiness—a household, a wedding and a pot of money—Jesus tells us to prepare for his return and for our eternal destiny by caring more and not less about our present life.
Having enough oil to keep the lamp burning is such a mundane example of preparedness. It’s a simple and obvious detail, at least it would have been for an audience without the convenience of electricity and light switches. The gospel imperative is hard but not particularly complex. Readiness comes in the small details as much as in the climatic moments. Jesus lived over thirty years, spent three years in public ministry, and only a few hours on the cross. Every moment made up his mission. Every encounter was important. Every decision moved him forward in preparation for the glory of the passion and resurrection.
Following Jesus means being ready to pick up our cross when the hard thing is required. But, more often, it means living a life that participates in the reign of God. All of the bridesmaids have enough wick. They all trimmed it. Half of them did not have enough oil to keep the flame going. What fuels your life in Christ? What keeps you going in the journey toward the realization of the kindom?
The wise bridesmaids do not give up their oil. A superficial reading of the text may accuse them of lacking generosity, or being petty and pompous in their response to the pleas of their foolish counterparts. Yet, there is no condemnation in their wise reply. What they have is not enough to supply the needs of all the bridesmaids. If they give up what they have, no one will have enough. The wise ones direct their peers to go to the source to fill their needs.
In ministry, and in life, we may be tempted to depend upon one another for what we can only receive from the Source. When we believe that only authorized ministers can pray or lead in worship, we deplete our spiritual life. When we fail to affirm, cultivate, and nurture the gifts of each member of our faith community, we stunt our collective growth and development. When we think that we can piggyback on the service that others render, we limit our participation in the kindom. When we fail to build up our spiritual supply, we close the door and miss out, not on heaven, but on now. That’s foolish.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
I wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in Haiti. It was damned up in me, and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish that I could write it again. In fact, I regret all of my books. It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning. Perhaps, it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would be written at all. It might be better to ask yourself “Why?” afterwards than before. Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you. You have all heard of the Spartan youth with the fox under his cloak.
–Zora Neale Hurston
For Further Reflection
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.” ― Lao Tzu
“Angry people are not always wise.” ― Jane Austen
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.” ― Oprah Winfrey
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.