Matthew 25:1-13: A Word to the Wise

November 18, 2007
Joanna Harader

Someone 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.

And when we do fall into the temptation to divide the world into two groups, it is seldom a neutral division.  One group is “us” and the other is “them.”  One “good,” the other “bad.”

That is certainly true in this parable.  We are introduced to ten young women.  Sometimes the word is translated as “maiden” or “bridesmaid” or “virgin.”  They are in their early teens, not yet married, but marriageable.  So we are told who they are.

And we are told what they are doing.  They are taking their lamps—more like torches—and going to meet the bridegroom. 

And we are told what two categories they fit into. Five are foolish and five are wise. 

It is important to note that the wisdom identified here 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.

Wise and foolish. Smart and dumb. These were well-known categories in the ancient world. The proverbs have a lot to say about wisdom and foolishness. Jesus tells the story about the wise and foolish builders.  As soon as the narrator says “Five were wise and five were foolish,” the audience has a decent idea what is coming.

I would say the wise and foolish are equally popular categories today. 

Before Ozzie Osborne was famous, he was poor. So he broke into an apartment and stole some stuff.  He wore gloves, but they were the kind with the fingertips cut off.  Stupid.

Some guy was in jail and his buddies decided to get him out. They sent a fax from the corner store claiming to be from the governor’s office and ordering the release of their friend. So the jail personnel released the guy. Stupid.

Talk to anyone with expertise in a particular area and they will probably be glad to tell you how stupid other people are. Computer experts will tell you about the people who call for help with their computer.  “It just won’t work. I push the button and nothing happens.”  “Is it plugged in?”  “Oh, wait, so that’s the problem.”

English nerds like myself will be happy to tell you how few people seem to know the difference between there, their, and they’re or every day and everyday.

Some people just cannot understand why I still, after many weeks of class, have to have written directions to my school with me in the car every time I drive into Kansas City for class. I must be stupid. (Which, frankly, I am when it comes to directions.)

I think we value phronimos a lot in this society. It’s just common sense. We get irritated when other people don’t seem to have it. And we really get irritated when we have a lapse ourselves. 

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? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

That’s the kind of stupid the foolish 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 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 walked 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!

How many of you were the child in the family that saved your allowance like a wise and responsible person while your siblings spent their money every week on junky toys and candy? Then, when you finally had enough saved to buy the Cabbage Patch doll or Lego set or whatever it was, your siblings wanted you to share your money. To buy them  something. Hardly.

I don’t even need to ask how many of you were the ones who studied hard in school. Went to every class. Took diligent notes, highlighted the appropriate places in the textbook, made study cards.  And then Fred comes along, he’s been to two classes all semester, and wants you to give him a copy of your study guide. I don’t think so.

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 stupid forever. You might enjoy junky toys and candy, but then you have to suffer not getting to buy the cool toys you want. You might get to sleep in on class days, but you have to suffer a bad grade. 

We even have a term for someone who always bails people out. We call them “enablers.” And it is not a positive term.

Imagine you are driving on highway 54 and 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.

We want people to have some consequences.

And that is where the joke should be over. 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.  Well, they will come in late and everyone will know they have been foolish. They forgot the extra oil.

But they don’t come into the party late because 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. This inhospitality on the part of the host is almost unbelievable. 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.

I know of a pastor who was preparing to baptize some people.  He was standing in the baptistery, waist-deep in water, and reached for the microphone. Stupid. When he grabbed the microphone he was electrocuted to death in front of the entire congregation.  — The joke is not funny anymore.

We suddenly realize that we do not always adhere to the speed limit. We stupidly grab for things without thinking. 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.  Are we the wise? Are we the foolish? Probably both.

In our moments of foolishness, when we have forgotten the oil and so stumble in the dark toward the party, 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.