The Parable of the Bridesmaids
We all know that sinking feeling when we’re not prepared for a situation – like driving up
Mt Donna Buang and it starts to snow and you need chains but you haven’t brought them,
so you have to turn back. Or you’re invited to a party and decide to give it a miss because
none of your friends are going. Then you discover it’s the biggest event in years, and lots
of them are now going, but by then it’s too late. You feel so denied. Is this what the
parable of the 10 bridesmaids is all about? Yes, I think it is, at an emotional level. It speaks
to regret, finding you’re wrong, finding yourself excluded, denied, missing out – FOMO.
This parable is often told to kids, but its context is anything but, child friendly. In fact, to
understand the bridesmaid’s parable, we have to understand chapter 24 of Matthew,
because Jesus is giving his final teaching, his valedictory words to his disciples, before his
trial and execution.
We’re going to look at chapter 24 first, and the meaning of the parable will ‘fall out’. So as
chapter begins, Jesus and the disciples are walking out of the temple, and the disciples
want Jesus’ approval of their magnificent temple! It was being rebuilt by Herod the Great
and was nearly finished. All that remains of it today however, is the western or ‘wailing
wall’, but in Jesus’ day, its sheer size, grandeur, and the engineering excellence of its
construction – which remains a mystery – spoke permanence! If the temple was being
built today, the largest stones would have required 6-7 of the world’s largest cranes to
move them into place. Yet, with no mortar, these huge stones fit together so perfectly, a
piece of paper can’t slide between them. The temple spoke – permanence! To the Jewish
people it also meant nationalistic hope! Things seemed to be looking up politically!
Jesus says: it’ll be ‘thrown down’…‘no stone left standing’! What Jesus had said, was as
unimaginable to them as aeroplanes flying into the twin towers in NY, on 9/11. So they
keep walking down in awkward silence, down into the Kidron Valley, and up the Mount of
Olives, where they could look down on the temple. Then they have the courage to ask,
‘Tell us, when will this happen and what will be the sign’ to look for?
Jesus answers with some chilling details of a terrible, future event. He says some of their
own generation would live to see 24:34. With the knowledge of history, we know Jesus is
describing the terrible military conquest of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. The temple was
completely destroyed by the Roman armies after a formidable Jewish resistance and
brilliant defence, in one of the longest and most brutal sieges of Roman warfare.
The destruction of Jerusalem isn’t often mentioned in sermons, as it doesn’t feature
directly in our New Testament, but in addition, this passage has been taken to refer to the
end times, the last things, when Christ will return. Increasingly however, as these
chapters have been studied by NT scholars, the times frame is being seen as much more
immediate. Jesus died on the cross around 33 AD and then the temple was destroyed in
70 AD. These two events, when put together, signalled something so epic, so epoch-
changing that the US elections are inconsequential, by comparison.
So in answering the disciples’ question Jesus warns that false messiahs would arise, wars
and rumours of wars, nations rising against nations, famines, earthquakes, but these
would be just the ‘birth pangs’ v8 – just the early stages leading to the fall of Jerusalem v4-
Then in v9-14 Jesus says endurance is going to be necessary during this time because
some of them will be tortured and put to death. Remember the Christians faced
gladiators, were fed to the lions and suffered for their faith. Yes, there would be
persecution, and some would lose their faith, but something else would happen at the
same time – the good news of the Kingdom would be proclaimed to all the nations of the
known world. Now we know this happened through the records in the Book of Acts. Paul
would go on his three missionary journeys, and Barnabas, Peter, Philip, Timothy, Silas
and the other disciples would take the good news to the edges of the Roman Empire!
Then in verses 15-27 Jesus says that as the fall of Jerusalem gets closer, people should
evacuate the city. Some object of desecration would be put in the Holy of Holies bringing
shame and horror to this Jewish place of worship. The residents of Jerusalem should
hesitate no longer, but flee to the safety of towns in the hill country.
In verses 29 to 31 Jesus speaks in highly graphic and symbolic language: ‘The sun will be
darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the
powers of the heaven will be shaken’. This kind of language uses metaphors drawn from
the heavens, like we might say ‘the stars aligned’ and they fell in love! So in Jesus’ day, this
kind of astronomical language was used to describe forces like a change of government or
the end of one empire and the start of a new one. Remember the star that the wise men
followed from the East signified a new King, when Jesus was born? Well the description
uses a similar style, only it describes a cataclysmic event when one epoch comes crashing
down and a new one begins. The prophets Joel and Isaiah use this language, and
especially Daniel who describes a human being, the Son of Man being presented before
the Ancient of Days and given dominion, glory, and kingship Daniel 7:13-14.
So, Jesus is saying to his disciples that something big will take place and some of them will
be alive to see it. So, what was this cataclysmic event or events? I’ve already mentioned
the fall of Jerusalem, when the Jewish nation would be cruelly crushed by Rome, and their
national spirit broken. But in AD 69, the Roman Empire itself experienced a time of
unprecedented political upheaval, including a civil war, and the rise and fall of no less
than four emperors! It was a hugely turbulent time on the world stage.
Yet something far bigger was taking place at this time! Yes, the Roman Empire was
dealing with crises, and the Jewish nation was crushed, BUT when the temple in
Jerusalem was destroyed, God was dismantling the Old Covenant! It was over! It was no
longer necessary! The Old Covenant relied on the temple as the location where God and
human beings could meet and be in fellowship. NOW, Jesus himself, in his human body,
would become the location, the person, in whom, and through whom, God and
humankind can be united, to have fellowship and community. The temple where
sacrifices were made for the sins of the people was temporary! The real sacrifice that
would be permanent for all time and all people was about to take place in just a few days,
when Jesus died on the cross. The curtain in the temple would be ripped apart as a sign
that the temple was being de-commissioned! It was no longer necessary. This is the epoch
changing moment for humanity’s relationship with God.
So today I’m not going to sacrifice pigeons, or a spotless lamb, or a bull for our sins,
before bringing our prayers before God. Instead, I’m going to preside at a symbolic meal
remembering and giving thanks to God for our Lord Jesus – the Lord’s Supper.
Beforehand however, we will do something absolutely crucial. We will humbly and
honestly confess before Almighty God, before whom we must stand one day and give an
account of our lives, that we have sinned.
Let’s stop in wonder at this! No other faith offers this kind of opportunity – this direct,
verbal access to a deity. And certainly no deity offers unqualified, immediate forgiveness
of sins! And no deity then invites worshippers to a join them for supper, to nourish them!
You might be thinking – Well Ruth, people don’t really believe in God these days. So what
of Atheism, which has had quite a comeback in the past few decades with Richard
Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and other vocal proponents. They’ve
commandeered science as their stick to ‘disprove’ Christianity, but this has been wearing
thin as scientific knowledge isn’t fixed. But when it comes to an alternative, we find
Atheism is good at criticism but poor on alternatives! It can offer no moral basis to
distinguish good from evil, Mother Teresa from Hitler, which is rather unsatisfactory to
the real world we live in.
So, when we consider the parable of the bridesmaids, it starts to make sense when we
know from Matthew that the high priestly leadership was not spiritually alert, if even
alive. They’d become corrupt, wealthy, powerful, and were not leading God’s people or
caring for the poor. The Pharisees and scribes were good teachers, but they didn’t
practice the rules they burdened the common people with. These leadership groups are
the 5 bridesmaids who weren’t ready, who resisted Jesus, and when Jerusalem fell and
the temple was destroyed, it was too late, they never turned to Jesus. The disciples and
any Israelite who had faithfully longed for God to act, are the 5 bridesmaids who were
ready to receive him. They were watching Jesus, and they saw him die and rise again, and
believed in Jesus.
As the temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman forces, Jesus, who had humbled
Himself to take a human body, in selfless love, to unite us to God the Father, was already
seated in power at the right hand of God having died and risen, triumphing over ALL evil,
just as Daniel 7 describes.
When we dare to believe Jesus’ valedictory message, and recognise how history itself
bore out his words, we come face to face with something that that’s hard to ignore:
A depth of love that satisfies our deepest longings to matter, to be loved, where we don’t
need to fear being overlooked, denied, missing out, or regretting poor choices. The
parable says we don’t have to be like the 5 unprepared bridesmaids! It says we’re
welcome! Not excluded or denied! And in that moment, we find ourselves ready, day or
night to love and serve this God, like a bridesmaid with oil and her lamp blazing!