One of my least favorite stories in scripture is the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. You might recall that Jesus had come to visit the sisters’ home, and while there, Martha hustles around ensuring that the house clean, the meal prepped, and her guests are comfortable while Mary just sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. The story ends with what is often assumed to be Jesus’ chastisement of Martha, “You are worried about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”
And so, given my dislike for that story, I should love Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:1-13, often called the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. I should love this parable because its easiest interpretation is that preparation is more valuable than free-spiritedness, and the unprepared will ultimately be left behind. My to-do lists, color-coded calendar, and endless sticky notes should appreciate what is assumed to be Jesus’ call for personal responsibility.
But instead, I find that the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps some are silly questions, like where is the bride in this parable? But others are more serious. How does Jesus not even know the five “foolish” bridesmaids? Why do the five “wise” bridesmaids refuse to share from their abundance? And who even is the groom?
Such questions make me rethink the traditional interpretation of personal responsibility, although, you will note, that my current sermon title seems to uphold this interpretation.
But parables, especially Jesus’ parables, were never meant to have a single interpretation. Rather the parables are meant to be read more like the way we might look at a diamond. You can look at one facet of a diamond and see one thing, only to turn the same diamond, even just a little, and see something entirely different.
Jesus didn’t tell parables to guarantee that his disciples figured out his one main point. When Jesus wanted to make sure that his disciples understood what he was saying, he spoke plainly about such things (even if his disciples still didn’t understand). But the parables are meant to interpreted in many ways; they are meant to be wrestled with and to be read repeatedly and with curiosity.
New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine, in her book “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” reminds us that parables are not answers but invitations. Even more, the parables are stories full of memorable characters, not historical portraits of real people. They are characters who can inspire, humble, challenge, and confront us.
And that is what keeps drawing me back to the parables, and especially to the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. Because maybe the traditional interpretation isn’t all that there is, maybe there is another facet, another view that invites us into a new way of living.
I hope you’ll join us for worship on Sunday as we wrestle with this parable.
Grace and peace,