Sunday, November 12th: "The Fainting Bridesmaid"
First United Presbyterian Church
“The Fainting Bridesmaid”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 12, 2023
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten young women 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 young women 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 young women 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.
I was mid-sentence, in the middle of my sermon, when the maid of honor suddenly fainted. There was a moment of panic, then she regained consciousness, and the groom’s father helped her out of the sanctuary so the wedding ceremony could continue. After an awkward pause, I continued with my sermon and moved on to the wedding vows. The maid of honor returned to the sanctuary, but wasn’t able to stand with the party, so she sat on the front row until after the happily married couple and the other bridesmaids recessed.
Now, your first assumption might be that the maid of honor was suffering from the malady that comes after a night of too much pre-wedding celebration. But that was not the case in this instance. In fact, her fainting spell was, in a way, my fault.
At every wedding rehearsal prior to this one, I had made a point of instructing the wedding party on how to endure standing through the length of the service. Not that weddings are terribly long affairs, but if you’re trying to stand up straight the whole time, and you’re maybe a little nervous, you have a tendency to lock your knees. This inhibits blood flow to the brain and results in – fainting. To prevent this from happening, you need to occasionally bend your knees.
But at this wedding, I had neglected to share this advice, thinking it was maybe really unnecessary. Weddings aren’t really that long, after all. It was the last time I made that mistake. After the ceremony, I apologized to the bridesmaid for not preparing her how long she would be standing, how long she would need to wait.
Jesus doesn’t make that mistake with his disciples. His story about bridesmaids is intended to prepare them for the wait.
This story is unique to the gospel of Matthew and is part of a larger group of teachings about the second coming of Jesus and the final judgment. Matthew’s gospel was probably constructed around 70 CE, because that is the year Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed. It was an apocalyptic moment for first-century Jews, literally the end of the world as they knew it. And though Matthew’s community was likely about 300 miles away in Antioch, this event would have still been shattering. So this community remembers the story of Jesus in a way that makes sense of what is happening to them now. Chapter 24 of Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus foretelling this exact event – the destruction of the temple. And then he shares other signs of the end of the age, the desolating sacrilege, coming persecutions, and the glorious and terrifying return of the Son of Man. Jesus then encourages watchfulness but instructs the disciples to also plan for his return to come unexpectedly and for it to take longer than they expect.
Which brings us to the story of the foolish and wise bridesmaids. While the “moral” of the story as it is stated at the end is, “keep awake,” both the foolish and wise bridesmaids fall asleep. The only difference is that the wise bridesmaids brought along extra oil, they were prepared to wait for a long time, while the foolish bridesmaids did not, indicating they were not prepared for the bridegroom to be delayed. The Greek word translated as “keep awake,” might better be translated as “be expectant” or “be prepared.”
This message was especially important to the community of Christians in the first century who were reading Matthew’s gospel. They had been eagerly expecting Christ’s return. They desperately wanted God’s reign to be complete on earth and for the earthly powers that were oppressing them to be judged and punished. They wanted Christ’s reign of justice and peace instead of the Roman Empire’s reign of violence and oppression.
We might feel like the end of the world is not a good thing, and there are passages in scripture that do make it sound terrifying. The prophet Amos describes the day of the Lord as “darkness, not light,
19 as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?”
Jesus describes great suffering at the end of the age, and promises that when he returns, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see 'the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' with power and great glory.”
As scary as this all sounds, it was good news that was eagerly anticipated by early Christians. Jewish Christians were being expelled from synagogues, disowned by their families, and blamed for the fall of Jerusalem. Gentile Christians didn’t feel like they belonged to Roman culture, which demanded worship of the Imperial cult, nor did they feel welcome in Jewish communities that expected them to adhere to Jewish laws and customs. The early church was this mixed bag of Jews and Gentiles, men and women, people of different social status, people who are new to the community and those who were born into it. They are trying to sort out how who is in and who is out, and what they’re supposed to be doing until Jesus returns.
So the tale of the foolish and wise bridesmaids prepares them to wait together. They don’t have to know who’s doing it right - everyone is dressed for the wedding, carrying their lamps. Everybody gets sleepy sometimes and dozes off because the wait is long. But the ones who are prepared to wait, who bring along reserves of what is needed to join in the celebration, those are the ones who will get to party in the end.
This story is a kind of tragicomedy, kind of like Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Even just the set-up at the beginning of the story is funny. The word “foolish” in Greek is moros, from which we get the word “moron.” You’ve got 10 bridesmaids dozing off, which is also a funny image. And then you’ve got the five “foolish” bridesmaids stumbling off into the darkness at midnight looking for a 24-hour 7-11 stocked with lamp oil. And then comes the tragedy, when the door is slammed in the faces of the foolish bridesmaids.
This tragic part of the story is troubling, and it should be. It doesn’t sound very Jesus-y to say, “sorry, you messed up, I don’t even know you, get out of here.” But let’s remember, first of all, that this is a story, an allegory or a parable, not a prophesy of how Jesus plans to treat people. It’s a story for people who desperately need to know that Jesus is coming, and what they’re supposed to do in the meantime. This story is an assurance that Jesus is indeed going to return in power and glory, that at the end of the age his justice and peace will come to reign, and that all the faithful will get to celebrate and rejoice with him. This story also provides instructions on how Christians are to live in these in-between times. We are to live in joyful anticipation, and we are to be prepared for the wait to be longer than expected. And if we are not prepared to wait, we, like my fainting bridesmaid, might miss out on the party.
I also wonder if things would have gone differently for the foolish bridesmaids if they had just owned up to their mistake, their lack of preparedness, instead of trying to bum off of someone else or run off in the middle of the night in search of something to make it look like they hadn’t messed up. Theologian Debi Thomas wonders: “Perhaps the lesson of this parable is: don’t allow your fear or your sense of inadequacy to keep you away from the party. Be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and half-baked. The groom delights in you — not in your lamp. Your light doesn’t have to dazzle. Remember, God created light. God is light. And Jesus is the light of the world. Your half-empty flask of oil isn’t the point. You are. So stay.”
Perhaps the foolishness of those 5 bridesmaids was not that they didn’t bring extra oil. Maybe they were foolish because they thought they wouldn’t be welcome if they didn’t shine as brightly as the others. Hanging in there, staying with something when you are unprepared or under resourced, is tough to do. Admitting our faults and failings is painful. But it’s also our ticket to the party. If we try to cover up and make up and figure it out for ourselves, we can make ourselves unrecognizable to the ones who love us the most.
We may not be as excited about Christ’s return as the early Christians were. These apocalyptic images and dire warnings feel like distant fictional narratives after millenniums of waiting. No one in the first century could have imagined the bridegroom would be delayed this long. No one could have been prepared for this. There’s just not enough oil in the universe to keep the lamps burning for so long. Through the centuries, the church has sometimes been a bright light in dark places. But sometimes, it has fallen asleep on the job. Sometimes, it has run off into the darkness trying to make itself sufficient. And sometimes, it has become unrecognizable to those who love it the most.
So this story is still speaking to us today. To a church that was unprepared for this long of a wait. To a church that is in the dark. To a church that tries to provide for itself. To a church that sometimes looks like something Jesus would not even recognize.
But each time we hear this story, we are assured that Jesus will indeed return in power and glory, that at the end of the age his justice and peace will come to reign, and that all the faithful will get to celebrate and rejoice with him. We are reminded by this story that the wait will be long, and in these in-between times we can live in joyful anticipation. We can hope that, even if we get weary, even if we fall asleep, even if we didn’t adequately prepare for this long of a wait, we can still rise up and follow Jesus by the half-light of others’ lamps, own up to our inadequacies, and still be recognized and welcomed by the One who loves us most. Amen.