Veronica Lawson rsm
9 November 2011
Today’s parable of the ten lamp-bearers, the five ‘wise’ and the five ‘foolish’ young women, leaves us with endless questions. The setting is a wedding feast and yet there is no mention of a bride. The women are waiting for the bridegroom to return home. Where has he been? Why is he taking so long to come home?
From our limited knowledge of first-century marriage customs, it is likely that the bridegroom has gone to the home of his betrothed in order to bring her to his home.
The young women belong to his household. Are they slave women? Are they free? They are to be there to provide a welcoming light for the couple as they arrive for the wedding feast.
The delay is such (until midnight) that they all fall asleep. Five of the women bring flasks of oil with their lamps: they are prepared for the unexpected. The other five are unprepared: their lamps ‘are going out’.
The ‘wise’ are less than generous in response to the request of the ‘foolish’ for a share of their oil. They tell them to go to the merchants and buy their own oil.
Where would oil be available at midnight? In its original context, might this suggestion have raised a smile or an eyebrow at its foolishness, though coming from the ‘wise’?
And what of the bridegroom’s harsh refusal to admit the ‘foolish’ on their return, presumably with their lamps recharged with oil – or are we to understand that the merchants were closed for the night? His final advice about staying awake is strange in light of the fact that both wise and foolish had fallen asleep.
Maybe, as one scholar suggests, there are two parables here: the first about women who wait for the bridegroom and a wedding feast; the other about wisdom and foolishness, functioning as a corrective aimed at managing some ‘disruptive’ women in the Matthean community (Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt).
Whatever its origins and transmission history, the parable can speak to us in multiple ways. Matthew tends to draw sharp contrasts between the wise and the foolish. There are wise men and foolish men, wise women and foolish women.
In his Sermon on the Mount, a wise man who built his house on rock is compared with a foolish one who built on sand. Those who listen to the word are the wise who build on rock [Mt 7:24ff].
Women are invited to read as male in that instance, and men are invited to read as female in this. We can all be wise, just as we can all be foolish.
In real life, each of us is wise at times and foolish at other times. Each of us can benefit from the reminder to be prepared for all contingencies and to nourish our own inner resources so that we might be lamp-bearers for all who come our way.