One thing’s for sure. When Jesus returns, and we finally have the opportunity to meet him face to face, we don’t want him to say, “I don’t know you.”
But that’s exactly the punchline of another of his parables of readiness, told in Matthew 25:1-13. Several translations call this the parable of the ten “virgins.” But that word tends to have a rather specific meaning in our culture, so some translations opt instead for “bridesmaids,” a reasonable approximation of their role in the story.
In Jesus’ day, a wedding would have been a truly communal celebration, and many preparations would have to be made by the groom. He would be attended by his family and friends. At some point, the bridegroom and his party would usually make their way to the home of the bride’s parents, where she would be waiting with her attendants. From there the entire party would be a joyous torchlight procession to the couple’s new home, and the wedding guests would celebrate with a banquet.
Ten of the bride’s attendants were appointed to be the torchbearers. All of them should have known two important things. First, there was no telling when the bridegroom might arrive; these things did not happen according to a strict schedule. Second, the torches themselves would only burn for a short period of time; there was no way for them to stay brightly lit without replenishing the oil.
Five of the young women took all this seriously and brought additional oil. Jesus characterizes them as wise. The other five, the foolish ones, did not bring oil. Jesus doesn’t tell us why.
The bridegroom, of course, took his time in coming, arriving in the middle of the night while the girls slept. In our hurry-sick American culture, we’re tempted to say he was late–but that would be an imposition on the story. Quite simply, it was not his responsibility to come at some expected hour. It was their responsibility to be ready whenever he came.
Needless to say, the foolish girls quickly found themselves in a spot when their torches went out and they had no oil. The wise ones refused to share; there simply wasn’t enough to go around. And while the Foolish Five were searching for an all-night Oil Mart, the bridegroom arrived, the procession went on without them, everyone went into the banquet, and the door was shut.
Did they ever get the oil? Jesus doesn’t say, and it doesn’t matter. They beg to be let in–after all, didn’t they have invitations? But the bridegroom responds from the other side of the door: “I don’t know you.” These aren’t just words of disapproval, as if to say, “Sorry, girls. You messed up big time and I can’t let you in.” Rather, they’re words of disavowal, as if the five young women had never existed.
The phrase makes me want to rebel, to push back. Come on. One little mistake. It’s not like they failed to show up; they just didn’t bring extra oil. You’re going to lock them out just for that? It scares me, and I want to cry foul.
But just as we should avoid thinking that the bridegroom was “late,” so too should we avoid thinking that the oil was “extra.” It’s not as if the wise ones were exceptionally insightful. Nor should we imagine them as chronic worry-warts, compulsively anticipating every possible problem, and being vindicated when the unthinkable finally happens. Rather, they correctly saw the situation for what it was, and responded accordingly. Who knows why the foolish girls didn’t see it, or if they did, why they didn’t act. They were negligent, and paid the price.
“I don’t know you” may sound like an odd response; but parables don’t reduce down to a single “point”; multiple ideas and images may come into play in ways that seem awkward. I take the response as an extension of Jesus’ distinction between wisdom and foolishness, which in the Old Testament is less about single actions, and more about the tenor of a whole life. (I think a similar argument could be made for the meaning of “I don’t know you” in Luke 13:22-27.)
In other words, the story isn’t about being punished for a single slip-up. The mistake is symptomatic of folly, of a consistent and culpable failure to see reality for what it is.
And what is that reality? If we imagine our way into the parable, it’s that we’ve been given the incredible privilege of having a key role in the celebration of the bridegroom. And he’s coming.
I don’t know about you, but if I found out that I had been handed the job of driving a visiting dignitary to a banquet, I’d at least wash and wax the car and check to make sure the tank was full.
Probably more than once.
What, then, the Holy Spirit whispers to my spirit, are you willing to do to be ready when Jesus comes?