Monday, November 7, 2011
Rethinking "Wise" & "Foolish"
Among the things which plague us in our lives there are three “witches”: “Shoulda”, “Woulda”, and “Coulda”; and two words: “If only…” “If only I’d said this/that…”; “if only I’d have done this/that…”; “If only it had turned out this/that way…” The writer of the Joshua reading (24:1-3a; 14-25) emphasizes that human beings are faced with choices, and have alternatives on which they must deliberately decide: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served...or the gods of the Amorites...; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
My guess is that the five parthénoi [maidens/unmarried daughters/virgins], whom Matthew designates in the Gospel (25:1-13) as moraì [dull or stupid/heedless], were repeatedly saying “If only…”, both when turned down by their five “wise/practical” companions, and when they were left standing on the doorstep after the wedding party had arrived. They’d been faced with the same alternatives as their companions, yet chose to neglect planning ahead.
This is the first of three parables in Matthew’s Chapter 25 through which Jesus instructs his hearers to look ahead, to prepare, to be ready for the coming of God’s reign. He’d just said to them (Mt 24:43-44): “...understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. Therefore you also should be prepared, because the Son of Man will come at a time you don’t know…”
Notice that today’s parable mentions a bridegroom, but no bride. The Hebrew Scriptures commonly refer to Israel as Yahweh’s bride: the main gist of Hosea’s prophecy. There’s a similar reference in John’s Book of Revelation, which speaks of “the marriage supper of the lamb” and of a vision of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…”, a description of the Messianic Community. What’s peculiar in Matthew’s account is the
presence of the attendants. Having marriage attendants was part of a very ancient Near Eastern custom, but they would always have attended the bride, not the bridegroom. Probably those ancient manuscripts, such as the 16th century Douay-Rheims version, which depict the attendants going forth to meet “the bridegroom and the bride”, in order to accompany them to the bridegroom’s home, reflect a more ancient, possibly original, text.
Carrying through the theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, then, helps us see these 10 attendants in Matthew as representing those whose task it is to keep watch, to be alert for God’s coming visitation when God will claim the bride/Israel as God’s own. Matthew intimates that some will be prepared and ready; but some others will be careless, neglectful, irresponsible. Jesus‘ whole ministry inaugurates the coming of the reign of God, and Jesus is emphatic about his followers exercising vigilance as responsible custodians of the new Messianic Community.
Aside from that fairly obvious message, though, perhaps we need to look a bit closer at the episode to see if there could be other elements at work. To start with, why does Matthew have Jesus begin with the word “Then”: “Then the kingdom/reign of heaven will be like this…” ? The common interpretation holds that "Then" refers to the coming of Jesus, but that doesn’t quite fit within the passage's context. "Then" occurs some 17 times in the fifth discourse in Matthew (24:1-25:46). This section appears because of the disciples' question in 24:3: "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" “Then” might refer either to the beginning of the birth pangs of the kingdom’s coming, i.e., the destruction, or it might designate the time after the destruction, after the Messiah has already appeared. If we go along with scholars who believe “Then” refers here to the beginning of the birth pangs, the present, we’ll see Jesus’ words as a rhetorical possibility. In other words, the phrase "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this" doesn’t start a description of how the kingdom of heaven will actually be. Instead, the words invite hearers to compare the story to the kingdom of heaven. When we do that, the story is just the opposite. The shut door alludes to the destruction, the beginning of the birth pangs. The message, however, is “Keep awake, maintain hope. Though you find yourself shut out now, there’s another opening coming.”
Matthew uses all sorts of “time” words, though not linear time: viz., "then", "the bridegroom was delayed", "midnight", "later", "you know neither the day nor the hour". Luise Schottroff writes: "The idea of time in this eschatology is not intended to present a coherent scenario for the end-time but to help listeners to understand their own present in relation to the coming of God. These listeners are to be strengthened to maintain their hope that injustice will have an end and justice alone will rule on earth." (The Parables of Jesus, Fortress Press, 2006)
The message is: “Hang in there, keep awake, trust that God will come after all the suffering. Despite the reality of life’s injustice, it will have an end and justice alone will prevail. The One Who is to come is truly Lord, not some false prophet. God alone will reign.”
Another question to be asked is how come Matthew commends the behavior of the so-called wise attendants? When asked to show a little understanding and compassion by their sisters, they refuse to share. Their uncooperativeness with, even resentment of, the other women is foreign to the broader message of the parable. They, after all, are quite as human as the heedless five, having fallen asleep also when the bridegroom was delayed. If anything, the foolish attendants show a high degree of resourcefulness and tenacity when they finally set their minds to it, somehow being able to find a supply of oil, even after being snubbed by the others, and even at the midnight hour when the shops are closed. Biblical scholar, Shauna Hannan notes: “If having enough oil, or enough of anything, is what is key to getting into the banquet, then this is simply unfair to all of those who simply do not have access like others do.”
Then, there’s another significant issue in Matthew’s passage: the bridegroom. Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures depict God or Jesus as the bridegroom, but that isn’t necessarily the meaning here. Since no bride is mentioned in the story, it’s not likely that Matthew had in mind the allegory of the bridegroom and the Church. If, indeed, this bridegroom isn’t Jesus, perhaps the foolish bridesmaids don’t actually miss out by being left outside the closed door. The bridegroom is inside with those who refuse to share, with those who have all that’s needed for the celebration. Could it be, then, that Jesus is on the side of those who are shut out, since we know that he stands with the excluded. On the other hand, since Jesus, in Chapter 24, is encouraging the disciples not to be led astray by false messiahs, is the bridegroom of the story, perhaps, actually one of those? Might the bridegroom in the story be the one who tries to convince us to work energetically to claim what we’ve earned for ourselves without the need to care for others, to bask in the sunshine of our own accomplishments? If this is true, then when the bridegroom says to the "foolish" attendants, "I don’t know you", perhaps we could imagine them thinking that the feeling is mutual!
Luise Schottroff comments that “This is not an innocent text.” Matthew’s story speaks of social oppression and of violence. Maybe in the social reality of Matthew’s time people laughed at ugly or naïve girls. In fact, their derision amounted to a social death-sentence. In that kind of interpretation, the clever women are a metaphor for right behavior before God, at the expense of the naïve women. But that’s hardly the "Good News" which Jesus preached.
It might be advantageous for us to see today’s Gospel and those of the next two Sundays as a unit, and to keep our ear attuned to Jesus’ concluding words today: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” It’s a call to become a listening community: aware of the signs of the times, cognizant of the present birth pangs of the kingdom, comparing our present situations to the coming reign of God, and praying that that reign will come for us.
Matthew’s parable, like all the parables, is a call to continually re-evaluate our circumstances and to change our lives. It calls us not to focus on our own narrow-minded, personal, smug needs and successes, like the “wise” attendants, but to stand firm in the present of whatever surrounds us and tests us, to yearn with hope and longing for the One in whom is all truth and provision, and to resist all the forces of selfishness and falsity. We pray with the Collect that “having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory , we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…”