Reflection on Matthew

November 8, 2020

By Katherine Kasameyer

This week’s Gospel is the parable about the bridesmaids and the lamps.  Five are foolish, and five are wise, and they are all waiting for the bridegroom. The wise bring extra oil for the lamps, but the foolish do not. All fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom, and all are wakened with a shout at midnight. The bridegroom has arrived!  They all get up and trim their lamps. The five bridesmaids who are foolish apparently don’t have enough oil, and ask the ones with oil to share. But the wise bridesmaids refuse, and send the five foolish bridesmaids into the night to find the oil dealers.  The Gospel tells us that while the five foolish bridesmaids are gone, the bridegroom came and “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.”  Later the foolish bridesmaids came and asked for the door to be open, but he said “I do not know you.” And the door remained shut.

I find this week’s Gospel rather frightening.  It seems to say that if I am not ready when some unexpected event comes, I won’t get the good stuff.  I will find myself in the middle of the night looking at a closed door. I will know that a bunch of my former companions are eating and drinking and having a good time in the light and the warmth on the other side of that door, but it will be shut to me.  I will ask to come in but Jesus will say he does not know me.

The prospect of being shut out in the dark was scary in Jesus’ time and it is scary in ours.  Steve Hitchcock reminded me this week that Matthew’s readers would have been living in a very unsettled time, when there was probably a lot of bickering, and waiting.

We are told at the end of the parable avoid disaster by keeping “awake,” or perhaps keeping “ready.”  If we do, we will be prepared for the coming of the bridegroom, which we understand to be Jesus.  What would being awake, or ready, mean?

It might mean being prepared.  We know from our recent experiences with a pandemic and wildfires that being prepared can be exhausting.  I’m not sure whether you get the Chronicle, but I do.  Here’s the supplement that arrives every few weeks: preparing for disaster. It has tips about how to stock up on food and water, how to inventory everything in every drawer in case you lose it all, and how to pack a go bag and a stay bin …. And I know I should do all of it, but I don’t. I think I have time for other things.  So I do a little. I make some preparations but not all of them.

So listening to this parable, I suppose I know what I should do. More prayer. More study. More helping others. More giving to worthy causes. More patience with my family.  More holding my tongue and opening my heart.  More things that are easier said than done. Some of it just seems like too much to take on. I feel spread too thin. But then again, that’s probably how Matthew’s readers felt.

But then the little rational part of me can’t give up wondering about the rest of the parable. What is going on with these “wise” bridesmaids?  They have enough oil, and they refuse to share with the “foolish” bridesmaids. They don’t even let the foolish following the light from their lamps. We are told in Leviticus not to place a stumbling block before the blind.  But the wise bridesmaids send the foolish bridesmaids off to buy oil at midnight. We know that in the ancient world that would have an almost impossible errand.  Why would Jesus tell us that the “wise” behave this way?

The only way I can come up with is that the oil here cannot be transferred from one person to another. But what would that mean? In the course of reading picture books to my son I had occasion to read a lovely picture book about how to make olive oil. It has photos of the farmers whacking the olive trees with sticks and gathering and sorting the olives. Then waiting and then bringing them to a machine, where they all get squished together until the oil comes out. The fruit that goes in gets transformed into oil.

But the fresh oil isn’t like what you buy in the store. It is cloudy and gets clearer in time.  Making oil isn’t necessarily a quick process.

I was looking around this week for writings about the meaning of oil. One of the interpretations I came across is that it is like wisdom.  Wisdom can come from difficult parts in our lives, where we are squeezed.  And certainly the last few months has included a lot of squeezing, a lot of pressure.

My life looks different post-pandemic than it did before it. Much less movement, much more time with my family.  There is wisdom to be gained here, and maybe even faith.  So I hope that I am able to collect the drops that may be coming out of this squeezing, and collect them into fuel to keep me going.

Or maybe I will just keep humming the Taize chant we used to do at communion: ‘wait for the Lord, whose day is near, wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart.’