At first glance the gospel lesson this week seems to encourage the kind of smug dualism that has characterized this long electoral season. (Can it really be coming to an end this week?): Some people are wise and some are foolish and thank God I’m among the wise ones.
Such readings (of political campaigns, of scriptural texts) do more to entrench our worst tendencies toward self-righteousness (and disdain for others) than to illuminate the larger complexities of life in a polis or the Gospel’s good news for all people.
And part and parcel of seeing ourselves favorably in the parables of Jesus (and other people not so much) is the temptation to parse these stories to death—to say that this stands for that; to fixate on minute details (what does the oil represent—faith? works? love?) and thus to miss, as the saying goes, the forest for the trees.
In the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids we are asked to consider, as we have been several times before in this gospel, what the kingdom of heaven will be like. And in looking toward that future vision we sense that the gospel writer is equally mindful of the past: The community’s break with the synagogue, its internal divisions, increasing social and political unrest—all of these factors seem to inform his vivid descriptions of the judgment to come. What seems jarring to us—harsh and urgently chaotic—must have been something of the lived experience of the Matthean community.
Yet for Matthew’s hearers then and now, the watchword is always: be ready, be prepared, be wise. But for what?
Again, it’s easy for our worst instincts to kick in and to read this parable as warning of a bitter wrath to come. We imagine the End as vengeance, rather than what we know it to be: the undoing of vengeance and of all violence. James Alison describes this as a transition from the apocalyptic imagination (which 1 Thessalonians may still have been captivated by) to the eschatological imagination. From vengeance to hope; from the conclusion of time to its redemption.
To live in time redeemed is to be unconcerned about insiders and outsiders. For sure it is to embrace wisdom and eschew folly, as the parable instructs, but we do so not for the purpose of fencing people out. Rather, to borrow from an earlier parable, we are to be ready for the thief who comes in the night, not to steal from us but to give us the Kingdom—to celebrate the joys of the heavenly banquet like giddy bridesmaids at a wedding party.
(For more on the image go to www.bcartfarm.com.)