One of the Bible commentators I most appreciate is Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. Dr. Bailey’s parents were Christian missionaries in Egypt and that is where Dr. Bailey was raised. As an adult Dr. Bailey spent many years working in the Middle East. Even in retirement he maintained an impressive title:: “Emeritus research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.” Isn’t that amazing? If prestige is measured by number of words in a title, then Dr. Bailey is by far one of the most prestigious scholars I have ever come across. And, did I mention that he was fluent in Arabic? Sadly, he died last year. The world lost a deep thinker and a committed Christian theologian.
What I like about Dr. Bailey is that since he lived most of his life in the Middle East, he had the extraordinary ability to read the Bible from the inside out. That is to say, he knew the culture in which the Bible was written, and so he understood it in a way that we can’t from a white, Protestant, 21st century North American perspective. With that in mind, I want to share with you some of what Dr. Bailey said about today’s parable.
In the Middle East, weddings take place in the seven hottest and driest months of the year. So says Dr. Bailey. I don’t know why that is so, but I suspect it has something to do with farming. There’s free time after the crops are in, but before harvest. Let us assume, then, that our story takes place in July. It’s hot. There is nary a cloud in the sky. The rest of the story I will present, with Dr. Bailey’s “middle eastern” spin on it. Here goes:
The groom, we’ll call him Joshua, has been raised in a small, Middle Eastern village and he still lives there, right next to his ancestral home, since most people in the Middle East do not stray far from home as adults. Joshua’s family has recently made arrangements for him to marry a beautiful young woman, who lives in the next town over. The day has come. Joshua is ready. He and his village buddies, of which he has many, go to retrieve Joshua’s bride. They have waited until late in the day to start out on their mission. They want to avoid the hot, oppressive mid-day summer sun. They travel on foot. There is much celebrating as the party makes its way through winding streets. They sing and laugh and people in the village open their shuttered windows to see what’s happening. When they observe the groom dressed in his finest, they understand. They wave, and offer congratulations. Finally, the group reaches the bride’s house, which might be as far away as the next village. There is more celebrating and more singing. The bride, we’ll call her Sarah, is gathered up by the groom and placed on the bride’s donkey. That donkey has been procured by the bride’s family for just this purpose.
Sarah, Joshua and the rest of the party wave goodbye to the bride’s sisters and brothers, mother and father, all of whom stand in the doorway of their home and wave until the revelers are only a tiny speck on the horizon. The party moves slowly—after all, they can’t leave the bride behind and this donkey, like all donkeys, is not fleet of foot. It is getting dark by this time. The sky is always cloudless in July, though, so the moon and stars light their way.
Back at the ranch, er, Joshua’s ancestral home, anticipation reigns. The bridesmaids have gathered. They have brought oil lamps with them. Dr. Bailey says that is the custom. The lamps aren’t really needed to light the way, though, as we might imagine. The moon and stars do that. However, no respectable young woman would be without her lamp at night. As Dr. Bailey says, “For young unmarried women to move around in the dark without carrying lamps is unthinkable! What might they be doing in the dark and with whom? Also, with a lamp, no one can harass them unseen.” Dr. Bailey continues, “I have observed that village women do not carry such lamps conveniently close to the ground (like a flashlight) so that they can see the street. Instead, they carry them directly in front of their faces so that all can witness who they are and where they are going.” In other words, the lamp speaks to a young woman’s respectability; It helps preserve her standing in society—it’s more in the vein of an accessory that has social overtones—like an engagement ring; or in Muslim s society, a head covering.
Alas, in the excitement of getting ready for the party—bathing, making sure dresses are clean and mended, braiding hair, —filling a flask with extra olive oil in case the hour gets late—well, that gets overlooked by some of the bridesmaids. And so only half of the ten bridesmaids who come to Josh’s ancestral house to welcome the bride and groom bring flasks of extra oil. The hour gets late—so late that all 10 women fall asleep. They are draped over benches and tables. Several are curled up on mats. And then…and then… the revelers arrive!
The young women wake to loud commotion. They nervously straighten their dresses, smooth down their hair and look at the dwindling flames in their lamps. Oh no! Five of the young women diligently pick up the flasks they have brought with them and fill their lamps full. The other half are in a panic. “What should we do?” They plead, they beg, “Won’t you lend us some?” but to no avail. No, the bridesmaids with the oil don’t have any to lend. “So sorry. Good bye.” And before you can say, Aladdin’s lamp” Joshua and Sarah enter the house, make straight for the party room, followed by the revelers and the 5 bridesmaids with oil in their lamps—and the groom closes the door. THE GROOM closes the door?
Now, this is the story that Jesus tells his followers. What are we to make of this? First of all, it is as obvious as the noses on our faces, or the fingernails on our fingers, that Jesus is the bride groom. Jesus refers to himself as a bridegroom in several other stories in Matthew. It is also obvious that the bridesmaids are supposed to be us, the ones waiting for Jesus to arrive. Jesus is talking about his return to earth to bring in the kingdom, after his resurrection. But what is this? Jesus closes the door to some of the bridesmaids—does that mean that Jesus closes the door to some of us? Aren’’t we ALL beloved children of God? Why does Jesus close the door? Our blood pressure rises, we breathe a little faster. Are we in trouble, then? Will there be a winnowing out at the end times—the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats? We’ve heard that before, haven’t we?
Now, I have thought about this a lot this week. The most common interpretation of this parable is that Jesus closes the door because the five young women were so ill- prepared. He wasn’t going to wait around for these flakey females to get their act together. Salvation could come tomorrow. You have to be ready. In other words “Live each day to its fullest.” We’ve all heard that before, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Be kind to your friends, and kind to your enemies, now. Reach out and touch someone as the commercial goes, but do it sooner rather than later. And, grow that relationship with God. If you haven’t already, find out your purpose in life. Make sure you are doing what God expects you to do on this planet and then ready set, do it!
But Thanks to Dr. Bailey, we now know another reason that the groom closes the door on those five young women who forgot to bring extra oil. As we have learned, the five bridesmaids without oil for their lamps, actually didn’t need the oil to light their way anyway. The night sky in July in the Middle East is plenty bright enough for all-night partiers.
And, really, wasn’t that one of the points of Jesus’ ministry? To get people to rethink cultural strictures, and to do away with meaningless rituals and outmoded traditions? “You have heard it said….but I tell you….” Jesus used that formula over and over and over again. Think for yourselves people! Don't get trapped into doing things for no good reason. Don’t get sucked into acting according to other peoples’ prejudices. Is it really wrong to heal on the Sabbath? Are Samaritans really as evil as we’ve been taught? Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Get your priorities straight.
It’s like being invited to the White House. You get as far as the entrance foyer. A servant takes your coat. Then you look down and notice you have a run in your stocking or a stain on your tie. What will people think? So, you turn on your heels take your coat and go home to change. Meanwhile you miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with the President and tell him how you think he should be running this country and why. Not to mention the fact that you pass up some really, really incredible hors d-oeuvres!
The thing that truly gets me about this story, though, is the finality of it all. I will agree with Jesus that the five bridesmaids act stupidly. They should have been prepared; and they should have set better priorities for themselves—but should their bad decisions really keep them from entering the kingdom of God--forever? God is forgiving, after all--or does there come a time when even God’s patience runs out?
What I want to do is add an addendum to this story. The bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you, but give me a minute and I’ll come out and we can discuss this further.”
Dr. Bailey does say that in the Middle East, nothing is final. Middle Easterners are great negotiators. So, let us hope that the groom eventually tears himself away from his well- wishers and his bride and comes out to talk with the young women. The bridesmaids admit the error of their ways, the groom takes pity on them, gives them each a hug of reconciliation, and opens the door to them. Inside the party room the bridesmaids join with the other revelers in toasting the groom. No one mentions oil or lamps for the rest of the evening and as far as anyone knows the party is going on still. May it be so for you as for me. Amen