Parables aren’t easy to interpret, and just like swimming in deep water, it’s wise to proceed carefully and definitely don’t go out there alone. A few months ago, I came across an interpretation of this parable of the bridesmaids that stuck with me, so I’ll share it with you.
This interpretation comes from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor and theologian who has a knack for interpreting scripture through a Lutheran lens and making it make sense. Some of us who look up to her call her Pastor Nadia, so that’s how I’ll refer to her when quoting her work.
When considering this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, Pastor Nadia questions what we’re supposed to take from this parable: that we shouldn’t rely on other people? That we shouldn’t give to those who ask? What’s the moral of this story? And there she identifies the parable trap: this assumption that our job is to find the moral instruction in the text.
“See, there are many things you can do with a parable: You can meditate on Jesus’ parables, struggle with them, enter into them, speak of them but the very best way to suck the life out of a parable is by attempting to figure out the so-called moral of the story. Because parables aren't about morals. Parables are about truth—hidden, unyielding, disruptive truth.
“And not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus said that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Interestingly enough he didn’t say “you will know the morals and the morals will set you free.”
So how do we search for truth? We put this story in context with the other things Jesus said. Lutherans like to pay attention to context, not proof-text. You know what proof-texting is, right? It’s that thing when you read a Bible verse by itself and come up with some meaning, maybe a literal meaning, that is self-justified because, well, look right there, the Bible says so.
It can be misleading to look at a single verse, by itself, anywhere in the Bible, and imagine that one sentence, all by itself, holds the key to knowledge. This is how that one part of 1 Thessalonians about Christ’s return, which Jesus himself didn’t say a whole lot about, becomes not about assuring believers that they will be united with God—and that’s really the point of the reading—but about an imagined rapture because someone overfocused on the words “we who are alive…will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”
If you heard that section of 1 Thessalonians this morning and thought it’s about encouraging believers that God is paying attention to humans and God will take care of us, then congratulations, you’ve been paying attention to the rest of the stories and finding how this one fits in. If you’re looking at something in the Bible and imagining something entirely new that has no other reference point in Scripture, you might be going astray. Lutherans like to say that scripture interprets scripture, because we read it all together, finding where pieces fit together.
So if this parable about foolish bridesmaids getting locked out of the party sounds kinda “off,” because it doesn’t sound like a bunch of other things Jesus said, then congratulations again: you’ve been paying attention.
Pastor Nadia put this bridesmaid parable alongside some other things Jesus said, also in Matthew’s gospel: in the fifth chapter (5:42) Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” And in chapter 19 (19:21), “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” And in chapter 23 (23:13), “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.”
But you don’t have to look only in the same gospel to find clues about how to interpret this bridesmaid parable. Pastor Nadia also remembered the story of creation, how in the Garden of Eden, the trouble comes from people listening to a voice other than God, the voice of a serpent that didn’t have the people’s best interests at heart but instead manipulated people’s fear.
Pastor Nadia explains the bridesmaids parable this way:
“I don’t think the foolish bridesmaids were foolish because they didn't bring extra oil. Or because they feel asleep.
“I think they were foolish for listening to the other bridesmaids tell them what to do and they were certainly foolish for doing it.
“I think they were foolish in the exact same way we are foolish. They were foolish because they listened when voices other than God’s tried to tell them who they were. They listened to those whispering voices telling them that they can only approach the groom if they have already met all their own needs first.”
Then Pastor Nadia considered the expectation suggested in this parable about the bridesmaids providing light—it sounded especially strange next to what she found in Revelation, chapter 22: [In the city of God]… “they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…”
Pastor Nadia writes,
“I mean, think about it. If at midnight the guy who was on watch said hey, wake up, the groom is coming! The groom must have had a lamp or torch of some kind, right? How else could the groom have been seen from that far away at midnight?
“The foolish bridesmaids weren’t foolish because they didn’t bring back up oil, they were foolish because…they wasted all that time and energy and money trying to get their own [oil] because someone shamed them into thinking they could never approach the Lord with[out their own light]…instead of trusting that the light of Christ was enough to shine the way.
“Rather than just trusting that the light of those around them and the light of the groom was enough they assumed they had to provide their own—and then they were so consumed by the shame of not being enough, they busied themselves trying to fix it—so much so that they missed the wedding banquet. They missed everything.
“Of course the bridegroom said “I don’t know you” because they hadn’t come to him in their need…But Jesus knows us not by our independence from him, Jesus knows us by our need of him, for which we should never be ashamed.”
So the foolish bridesmaids in the parable mistakenly assumed that God is only interested in their strength, their preparedness, their own goodness—does that sound familiar? We do all the same things. God doesn’t ask us to do all of that, but instead to confess our need, to call on God, to be in relationship, to trust God’s promises, to listen for God’s voice.
Be ready to listen for God’s voice. This parable is not about a threat of future separation from God as much as it’s about the hell you create for yourself every time you choose fear or choose scarcity rather than trusting God’s abundance.
This concept of trusting in God is a common theme throughout all of scripture. The original humans stumbled into trouble when they trusted a voice other than God. For the past few months, we’ve been reading the origin stories of the people of Israel, who struggled to trust God. Today’s reading from Joshua comes from the part of the story where Joshua speaks for God and confronts the people directly: choose this day whom you will serve.
When human behavior suggests over and over again all the ways we don’t trust God, then it’s hard to prove our loyalty and faithfulness. It’s hard to justify ourselves. We can’t. We’re foolish bridesmaids, out of oil, running around to find our own supply and forgetting the source of the light.
Keep awake, Jesus says—not to say that a person should never sleep, but that a person should pay attention. Don’t overestimate your role in the relationship between God and creation. Be ready to receive the light, the light we know in Jesus Christ, no secrets nor hidden meanings required, bathed in the truth that will set you free. This light—this truth—is enough.
 https://thecorners.substack.com/p/listening-to-snakes-and-bridesmaids  That someone was John Nelson Darby, in the 1830s, his idea popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible of the early 1900s. Barbara Rossing’s “Rapture Exposed” explains all of this in detail.  Revelation 22:5