Proverbs 14:15 declares,”The simple person believes everything, but the clever one watches his step.”
It is so easy to over-complicate stuff. Right now I am preparing to move to NC and to leave FL. Our house is one huge hell-hole. Boxes are everywhere. Framed pictures are propped around me providing a panoramic backdrop against which my stacked books have formed a metropolitan skyline. The path to my office chair from the hallway is a thin trail upon which I seek to cleverly watch my step. And it seems that everyone (everywhere) offers moving advice—-there’s no proverb left unsaid—and at the end of the day I just want to pile it all in the yard and send it to the Most High as a burnt offering.
With each move I promise myself that this time will be different—that we will pack in a fashion that is wise and well-ordered. No dice. It just is not our way. All of the moving wisdom in the world does not save the Bryants from being foolish, and so we find ourselves in the apocalypse. It is a mess—-but it is one of our own making. The “box kingdom” over which the wiener dogs reign results not from divine action but rather from human folly. And because of our own foolishness we miss out on the chance to be a part of so many holy relational moments because, as usual, we’ve allowed folly to guide our way. We will miss parties, events, and chances to celebrate the journeys of dear friends, all because our waiting until the last minute forces us to pack. And I have to say, with a really cool Great Gatsby roarin’ 20s party likely to be nixed from the calendar due to folly—the whole wish-we’d-been-wiser-thing really bites down hard. I swear this move came up on us like a, “thief in the night.”
Most of us experience some event that pops up on us—one that we knew was coming our way—-but one we somehow put off, averted, shoved out of our minds…and then it was there, large as life, towering over us. This is how Jesus rolls out this specific “kingdom of heaven” parable. We call this parable, “the wise and the foolish,” “the wise and the foolish virgins,” and I call this line of thinking “RUBBISH!” The title ought to be “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus lays out the subject matter and people swing to the simile. The subject isn’t these ten women. The subject is the kingdom. For Jesus, throughout this gospel, the kingdom of heaven is a reality that is there in the present tense. We do see a tense shift in v.1 where Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven will be like.” Yet again, the kingdom is rooted in a present tense reality because its king is standing there with those people in that present. And the focus by the end of the parable is focused entirely on the bridegroom whose sobering present tense answer has scared people into end-time terror for almost 2000 years—-in v. 12 Jesus says, “…Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” And that’s what scares us—who wants to be told by the bridegroom, “I do not know you.” and as consequence to go to the party?
When we hear this I-do-not-know-you response our thoughts shift from a faith-filled focus on the kingdom of heaven to a fear-filled matter of getting to know this bridegroom who we know beyond a doubt to be Jesus—-though the text never says such a thing.
Our minds race with a series of questions:
Do I know Jesus?
Have I met Jesus?
How can I know Jesus?
And all of these questions are wrong-headed for nowhere in the text is the focus on the ten women knowing the bridegroom. The text is about the bridegroom coming and getting to know them. The women never say to the bridegroom, “Come let us know you.” The only “knowing” going on in this text is being done by the bridegroom.
Perhaps our minds ought to race with these questions:
Does Jesus know me?
Has Jesus met me?
How can Jesus know?
These three questions point to that part of the 1st century Jewish community that was seeking Messiah. A whole segment of Judaism had long since given up hope on that pipe dream. The small group that seemed to be looking for the promise to find fulfillment is historically labelled the “anawim.” These are the poorest of the poor, the most marginalized of the marginalized, and they are those whose lamps have only one reason for burning—the hope of a bridegroom.
Not every segment of 1st century Judaism hoped for Messiah. The ruler Herod surely didn’t want Messiah—check out Matt ch 2 v.3, and ch 14 v. 1. Many were foolishly happy to follow their own pursuits and in so doing, miss being known by the bridegroom. In chapters leading to this text, Jesus has been teaching and healing (ch. 4, 8, 9)—it’s a party in Judea and many are missing it. The poor and the marginalized are being known by the bridegroom but those who have their answers already are turning away—missing him altogether—’cause they’re asleep at the wheel.
Is it possible that Jesus is offering hope to the segment of 1st century Judaism that is sound asleep—-in saying “the kingdom of heaven will be like” is Jesus building anticipation about a party (wedding banquet) that can be missed out on altogether? The healings and teachings, miracles and interactions, even the “aha moments,” are totally lost on a people who are figuratively asleep. If Jesus is the bridegroom and is already walking in their midst then the trumpet call has already sounded and only a few are getting it in and around Jerusalem. And this is a shame—since only two chapters from now Jesus will be crucified and the chance to be known by him while he walks and talks among the living is soon to be gone. Is this Jesus offering another grace-filled chance? Or is this some hokey end-time prophecy? After all Jesus is a wise rabbi—what do you think?
This parable smacks of Jewish Wisdom literature, even more than apocalyptic literature. Jesus has paralleled wise and foolish women—just like the ancient Hebrew book Proverbs who extols Lady Wisdom and decries Lady Folly. Could this wily rabbi be using a teaching technique from the traditions of his people? Could this rabbi be drawing from Wisdom literature? Proverbs shows that following Lady Wisdom takes you to good places, yet following Lady Folly takes you to ruin. This seems to fit our Matthian text.
This seems particularly obvious to me, especially given that there are other pieces of Jewish Wisdom literature which are not in the Protestant Christian Bible translations yet are present in Orthodox and Roman translations, as well as the Jewish Tanakh, which makes this parable seem less about missing a wedding banquet and more about being a watchful devotee—-especially when considered in their light.
This gospel is known for being steeped in Judaism. It is believed that the audience is the 1st century Jewish community—and if this is so then the parable might be safely understood as, “Follow the wise ladies and look for the bridegroom before you miss the party.” This is the 21st century—and although this gospel speaks to us, it was not written for us—and to this end the wedding banquet is not ours. That banquet happened in the months and weeks leading up to the crucifixion, where one by one, people were known by and to Jesus. And the consummation of the wedding was a cross and the glorious result—resurrection. We can force-fit this text into some end-time hooplah—but it is intended for a 1st century Jewish audience. And face it, most Jews then and many Jews now do not have this elaborate idea of dramatic end-time happenings that gives way to a highly developed after-life. We Christians really tend to get caught up in all of that foo and bother.
Don’t over-complicate stuff.
Preachers, please waste no time unpacking some random notion that the text is about missing Jesus as he zips through the universe in his celestial TARDIS. Why not spend some time encouraging people be to be wide-eyed and hopeful, in wonder of a Bridegroom whose appearance will change absolutely everything and who is coming to town again to know them. Waste no energy scaring people about trimmed wicks and oil stocks. If one must preach this text and spin it into human vigilance and works, then be well-advised to explore why the five wise women did not hold the hands of the foolish and offer them the comfort of their own shared lamplight in the hour of their clearest need. Light knows no boundaries after all. But then again we know something about that all-my-light-for-me pattern don’t we—we’re still doing it today. I wonder in light of that revelation, who is wise and who really is foolish. I’ll bet few will want to stand up and preach that view amidst the clutter of human life, and then make a move to unpack that grace-filled box. No, just play it safe and stick to the old “watch and wait–don’t be foolish” model. That’s the easy road. Yes, it brings shame and guilt and we know those are oh-so-useful emotions. So, just play it safe—seems wise. After all, as Proverbs tells us, “The simple person believes everything, but the clever one watches his step.” Get to steppin’!