Distinction and Separation lie at the heart of Jesus’ teaching

Tracy Niven
Thursday 9 November 2023

Preacher: Monsignor Patrick Burke, Vicar General, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edinburgh and St Andrews
Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Sermon Title: Sermon: Distinction and Separation lie at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Can one be faithful in theory alone? Or must fidelity, in order to be real, be translated into a concrete way of being?

  • The Gospel reading today is taken from the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem (so we are post Palm Sunday), taught in the Temple and been involved in a series of increasingly hostile encounters with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He then leaves the Temple and begins to teach his disciples about what is going to happen in the future both to him and to them. The story that we have just heard is taken from this teaching (known as the eschatological Discourse) and is the second of three parables that he tells at this time – each of which stress the need for watchfulness and preparedness in all that is going to happen in the future.
  • Today’s parable is the story of the ten bridesmaids. Almost certainly Jesus told this story as a parable (i.e., a story where there is one point of comparison between the story and the audience). But because the story seemed to portray so accurately the situation in which the early Christians found themselves in the first century, it has often been interpreted by the early Church as more of an allegory than as a parable (i.e., a story where there are many points of comparison).
  • However, regardless of whether it is a parable or an allegory – to understand the story we need to understand something about the marriage customs of the ancient near east – to understand, in other words, why the groom at a wedding at that time might easily be late for his wedding and in what consisted the role of the bridesmaids.
  • So, first of all, we need to remember that in the ancient world marriages were not primarily romantic unions. Rather, they were contracts hammered out at a bargaining table, usually by marriage brokers employed for the purpose by the respective families. Often the bride and the groom never even met until the actual wedding day, and if there was a hitch in the negotiations, particularly over the dowry, the wedding party and indeed the entire wedding could easily be delayed.
  • Secondly, in order to prevent inbreeding, marriages were often arranged between people from different towns or regions. This meant that grooms not infrequently had to travel great distances at a time when the roads were poor, when there were no maps and when the means of transport were primitive. All of these were reasons for delays.
  • Thirdly, marriages were family affairs involving the whole family, from youngest to oldest, from brothers and sisters to distant cousins – which in the middle east could involve whole towns and villages. And since the whole extended family had to travel together for safety, and since the speed of the caravan was set by the slowest not the fastest, travel time was often prolonged and hard to predict. Still further reason for delays.
  • As for the bridesmaids, their role in the ancient near east was both ceremonial and
  • Like bridesmaids today, they added beauty and pageantry to the wedding and made it more festive. Their role in welcoming the groom at the gates of the town was ceremonial in the same way as even today, if you think about it, a delegation will be detailed to go to an airport to greet a head of state when he or she arrives in a foreign country.
  • But bridesmaids also served a practical purpose. In those days, remember, streets were not laid out in straight lines, and there were no street signs or city maps. A groom and his party coming from another town or region wouldn’t know the town and certainly wouldn’t know how to find the bride’s home. The bridesmaids were, therefore, essential as guides.
  • Moreover, coming from a distance and traveling under difficult conditions, the groom and his party would very often arrive after sunset. Ancient cities (remember again!) had no streetlights, and the roads were not paved and often full of potholes. Precisely because in the dark people could easily fall and get hurt, the torches held by bridesmaids were essential for the safety of everyone.
  • For a bridesmaid not to have her torch primed and ready was, therefore, a serious violation not only of etiquette and protocol but also of safety, one which would cause embarrassment and loss of face to the bride’s family.
  • The groom in this story thus had every right to be angry. Grooms were often delayed, and the bridesmaids should have been prepared. They were clearly negligent.
  • When Jesus told the story – he was comparing the audience with the 10 bridesmaids and the message was clear – to be prepared. For one knows not the day nor the hour.
  • The early Christians, however, suffering under persecution and waiting for the return of Christ on the clouds of heaven, could not help reading the story as an allegory of their own situation. They had believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent. And when Christ did not come, they were confused and began to interpret this story as containing Jesus’s answer for them. In such an allegorical reading: God the Father is the one who arranged the marriage; Christ is the groom; the Christian community is the 10 bridesmaids; and the barring of the doors is the last judgement.
  • The oil (and the light which was the result of burning oil) they interpreted as representing the good works of the faithful early Christians. Thus (against those who viewed the refusal of the wise bridesmaids to share their oil as uncharitable) they argued that the wise bridesmaids could no more share their oil with the foolish, than they could attribute their good works to another. Had they divided their oil, all the lamps would have gone out, putting the groom in even greater jeopardy.
  • The way for the early Christians to respond to the delay in the Second Coming was, therefore, not to grow negligent like the foolish bridesmaids, but to be vigilant and to remain always prepared like the wise ones.
  • Jesus is teaching the importance of watchfulness – and in the sense of being ready for the coming of Christ – being ready is not something that can be shared or passed on. It is an individual matter.
  • Jesus also used light as a symbol of good works when he said: “Let your light shine before men so that they can see your good works” (Mt 5:16). The foolish bridesmaids cry out “Lord, Lord, open the door for us.” But Jesus had said earlier “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven – but only those who do the will of the Father in Heaven.” (Mt 7:21).
  • Jesus is not telling a story about an event that happened – he is warning people (warning us) of the dreadful fate of those who know that they should be watching for the coming of the Son of Man but who fail to do so.
  • Jesus hammers the lesson home “Be watchful therefore” – “Stay awake”. For it is a condition of life here on earth that we cannot know how long it will last – and it is similarly a condition of life in the Kingdom of God that we cannot know when that kingdom will be consummated here on earth.
  • It is true that most of us do not expect the end of the world any time soon. However, it is also true, that we, none of us, know the day nor the hour in which we will be called to meet God.
  • The message of the Gospel is therefore the same now as it was then. Do not be negligent or forgetful in your duties as a Christan. Be prepared – for you know not the day nor the hour.

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