Listening to Snakes and Bridesmaids
a sermon on how self-reliance is overrated.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten young women took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those young women got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ 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. Later the other young women came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. - Matthew 25
(Click above to hear me preach - sermon starts at 38:00)
I’m not sure about you, but to me, the parable of the “foolish bridesmaids” sounds almost exactly like an anxiety dream I’d wake up from in a panic.
It feels like Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God is like a bad dream where I’m supposed to go pick someone important up from the airport like . . . Dolly Parton, but I forget to fill my gas tank and then I’m idling outside baggage claim for so long I doze off and then when Dolly Parton finally texts she’s almost there, my car starts beeping that it’s nearly out of gas but then I realize the dude in front of me has a gas can strapped in the back of his monster truck and I ask if he can help me out but he just points to the overpriced gas station outside the airport and in a panic I use the fumes in my tank to get there but then when I’m filling up my Subaru I see Dolly Parton drive off in the passenger side of the dude’s F150 and she doesn’t even return my wave - like she doesn’t even know me.
So stay alert. The kingdom of God is like that.
So, um what exactly are we to take from this parable?
That we should not rely on others? That we should not give to those who ask of us? I mean, that would be weird wouldn’t it, if Jesus just suddenly took back everything he said about generosity and self-giving and instead gave us a parable about how we should be stingy and self-reliant?
I mean, if you are thinking that this parable doesn’t sound like most of the other stuff Jesus said, you’re not alone. I mean here’s 3 other verses from Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew 5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you
Matthew 19:21 If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor
Matthew 23:13 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
I mean, given all of that, what could possibly be the moral of the story in this parable of the foolish bridesmaids?
And that my friends– that assumption we have that our job is to find the moral instruction in these texts is what I like to call, The Parable Trap.
Welcome to it.
See, there are many things you can do with a parable: You can meditate on Jesus’ parables, struggle with them, enter into them, speak of them but the very best way to suck the life out of a parable is by attempting to figure out the so-called moral of the story.
Because parables aren't about morals. Parables are about truth - hidden, unyielding, disruptive truth.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus said that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. Interestingly enough he didn’t say “you will know the morals and the morals will set you free”
So I insist on trying to find truth in this parable that’s slightly more nuanced than some Boy Scout sentiment about always being prepared. I insist on digging to find the good news that Jesus has hidden for us in this parable of the 10 bridesmaids. And the reason I insist on finding the good news is because I need some good news right now. I’m desperate for it. I need a truth that can set me free, because I’ve tried half-truths and fake news and they just leave me wanting to up my meds.
So, my friends, some texts we must wrestle with. They will not hand over the goods so easily. And sometimes, the way to find the good news in a text is to use the rest of scripture as like, a secret decoder ring. So, I promise you that when read alongside the Garden of Eden, The feeding of the 5,000 and a lovely verse from the book of Revelation, the parable of the foolish bridesmaids absolutely shines with good news.
Here we go:
Years ago when I was still in my parish, a parishioner of mine posted something on Facebook that said she just saw a big snake on her hike. I replied “as your pastor I feel that I should say, if the snake starts talking….don't listen”
If you remember, things started really unraveling for us the first time we listened to a snake, the world’s first Instagram influencer.
When Adam and Eve were in the garden we are told they were naked and unashamed… until they listened to a snake – until they listened to a voice other than God’s tell them who they were and what they really needed. And then they believed that voice more than they believed God’s voice– and they went for it, they clicked on the link, so to speak - - and as a result, they were filled with shame for the very first time and tried to hide from God, and then God calls out and says where are you…and they say we are naked and afraid, and God says “Wait. who told you you were naked?!?”
Who told you you were naked? My money is on the snake.
Which brings us back to the bridesmaids.
I don’t think the foolish bridesmaids were foolish because they didn't bring extra oil. Or because they feel asleep.
I think they were foolish for listening to the other bridesmaids tell them what to do and they were certainly foolish for doing it.
I think they were foolish in the exact same way we are foolish.
They were foolish because they listened when voices other than God’s tried to tell them who they were. They listened to those whispering voices telling them that they can only approach the groom if they have already met all their own needs first. And here’s what really got to me this week as I studied this text, it was reading this verse from Revelation 22 In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light
I mean, think about it. If at midnight the guy who was on watch said hey, wake up, the groom is coming! The groom must have had a lamp or torch of some kind, right? How else could the groom have been seen from that far away at midnight? The foolish bridesmaids weren’t foolish because they didn’t bring back up oil, they were foolish because instead of trusting that the light of Christ was enough to shine the way, they wasted all that time and energy and money trying to get their own because someone shamed them into thinking they could never approach the Lord with their lack. Rather than just trusting that the light of those around them and the light of the groom was enough they assumed they had to provide their own– and then they were so consumed by the shame of not being enough, they busied themselves trying to fix it – so much so that they missed the wedding banquet.
They missed everything.
Of course the bridegroom said “I don’t know you” because they hadn’t come to him in their need and lack and want. But Jesus knows us not by our independence from him, Jesus knows us by our need of him, for which we should never be ashamed.
They, perhaps not unlike us, mistakenly assumed that all God is interested in is our strength, our preparedness, and goodness. When what God really asks of us is to know our need for him.
Which brings me to the feeding of the 5,000 when Jesus asks the disciples what they have with them to feed the crowd – do you remember? He said what do you have and they say nothing – nothing but a couple loaves and a few fish. They say it like it’s a problem. But do we not have a God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones nothing, that can put life in a dusty womb nothing, I mean…let’s face it… NOTHING is like God’s favorite raw material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing” “Insignificant” “worthless” and says “Ha! Now that I can do something with”.
So, my sweet friends, all that is to say - the Kingdom of God is not like an existential anxiety dream.
Maybe you are sitting here today having listened to a voice other than God’s. And maybe the story it told you is so familiar that you think it’s the truth. But consider that maybe you’ve been listening to the wrong voices all along. Listen and maybe you can hear God saying, Wait. Who told you you were naked? Who told you that you have to lie to be loved? Who told you your body is not beautiful? Who told you that your only value is in your excellence? Who told you that what you have done (good or bad) is actually who you are? Who told you that? My money is on the snake. And he’s a damned liar. Always has been.
So when snakes and bridesmaids start talking blasphemy, don’t listen. You don’t have to show up with everything you need. The light of Christ is bright enough . And always has been. Amen.
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I have heard this exact story for 65 years. Today you gave me a new perspective. My mind is gratefully blown.
OK, this one hit me like a lightning bolt, so thank you.
This is what happened in my head as I got to the last part:
Oh, crap. Who told me I wasn't ready and equipped to go with the Bridegroom to the feast?
Same voices that told me I wouldn't be able to go in to the feast because I was queer.
God never told me that. The Bridegroom never told me that. So who did?
I got a pretty good idea now that it was people who heard it from a certain snake.
I've been getting secondhand snake messages that they told me were from God.
Wouldn't be the first time, either.