A Word to the Wise

Reflections on the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens
Matthew 25: 1-13
frozen-fire-1481493-639x851Someone once told me there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world in to two kinds of people, and those who do not.

Rich and poor; men and women; Republicans and Democrats, believers and non-believers, liberal and conservative, Sunni and Shiite, wise and foolish.

It is important to note that the wisdom identified in this parable is not sophia, the deep, even divine, wisdom that is sometimes spoken of in the Bible. Sophia wisdom is a relational wisdom that guides people in righteous action toward all.

The wisdom identified here is phronimos. These women are clever, prudent, street-smart. They know the groom is likely to get caught up in the dowry negotiations and show up late for the wedding. So they pack some extra oil. They are smart women.

As opposed to the other women. Did you ever schedule one meeting on top of another? Or get everything but milk at the grocery store? Or wash your new wool sweater in hot water?

That’s the kind of foolish the maidens were. They weren’t deeply misguided. They weren’t even necessarily uneducated or dim-witted. They just weren’t thinking. In the excitement of the wedding festivities, they forgot to bring the extra oil.

They forgot to pack an extra diaper. Forgot to grab change for the meter. Forgot to charge their cell phone.

They were “foolish.” And Jesus’ listeners know how stories about foolish people go. When Jesus says, “Five of them were foolish and five were wise,” it’s like if I would say,“A priest, a rabbi, and a pastor walk into a bar.” You know you’re in for a joke. Those foolish women are going to do something crazy.

And sure enough, they don’t have enough oil to keep their torches lit when the bridegroom shows up. Now, this was a really big deal. The torch-bearers in a wedding procession likely had a quasi-religious function. And besides, these “bridesmaids” are, in theory, hoping to be brides. What man will want to marry a woman that doesn’t even have the sense to bring along extra oil?

And then, of all things, the foolish ones think that the wise should sacrifice some of their oil!

We feel a certain sense of justice when someone who has been unwise finally has to face some consequences for their actions. We like to know that you can’t get away with being irresponsible forever.

Imagine you are driving on a two lane highway when a red corvette goes whizzing past you. It pulls back over close in front of you, barely missing a car coming the other way. The corvette speeds on ahead out of sight. But pretty soon you crest a hill and see police lights flashing. And there is the corvette on the side of the road. The driver getting a ticket. Ah, justice.

People who do stupid things deserve to suffer consequences. I imagine the audience is cheering on those wise maidens. Those other five should have brought their own oil. Let them try to find some at midnight. The smart ones won’t have their party ruined because the others didn’t think ahead.

And that is where the joke should end. Everyone gets what they deserve. The prudent maidens are honored and get to carry their torches. The foolish ones are shamed and go off in search of oil.

But the story doesn’t end there. The foolish maidens somehow find their way to the wedding feast, and

the bridegroom refuses to open the door. “I don’t know you,” he says. And they are left in the outer darkness.

This is a consequence too severe. The joke is not funny anymore.

Imagine that along with the flashing police lights up ahead, there are also ambulance lights and you see the red corvette flipped over on the side of the road, crushed.

We suddenly realize that we do not always adhere to the speed limit. We forget the diapers, the change, the cell phone, the oil.

As we listen to this joke turned horror story, we are suddenly less confident about which category of people we fit into.

In our moments of foolishness, when we have forgotten the oil and so stumble in the dark, let us remember that we serve the one who is true Wisdom. Let us remember that Jesus says everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

(Adapted from a sermon preached on November 18, 2007)

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