Some Virgins and a Rabbi meet Sophia: a sermon on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and Sophia

SophiaDoveChaliceHranaJantoWisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 and Matthew 25:1-13 – Here’s a sermon that I preached several years ago when this coming Sunday’s readings prompted me to use/borrow/steal from the book “Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration”, by Susan Cady, Marian Ronan, Hal Taussig (Harper and Row, 1986). 

The parable of the ten, what??? Bridesmaids??? Really, ten bridesmaids, it sounds like the set up for some elaborate joke. Ten bridesmaids were waiting for a bridegroom, they waited so long that they fell asleep! I don’t know, you fill in the rest! I’ve never been much good at telling jokes, I’m more of a storyteller. Part of the fun of a story is the journey itself, but when you tell a joke you have to worry about punch lines. I tend to forget punch lines, or if I do remember them, I usually manage to mess them up and loose the laugh. So, there were these ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. Five of the bridesmaids were wise and five of the bridesmaids were foolish. The wise bridesmaids brought along some extra oil for their lamps, the foolish bridesmaids did not. Long before the bridegroom arrived all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Yada yada yada!

A little detail here, a little detail there and lo and behold we’re at the punch line. Turns out the bridegroom doesn’t know five of the bridesmaids so he shuts the door and says: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Ha, ha, ha, very funny…. I simply don’t get it. For years and years, generation upon generation, people have been telling this one, and leaving people hanging with that punch line. Ha, ha, too bad, so sad, you just don’t get it. You don’t get to come into the party!

Okay, I know this is a parable and that means that like all parables there’s a trick of some sort that we have to work out. So, for generations preachers have been unraveling this one and the usual explanation goes something like this….“Keep awake! Don’t fall asleep! And for heaven’s sake be prepared! Cause if your not. Christ will bar the door and you won’t get into heaven! So, Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Christ could come back at any moment and if your not ready! That’s it! Boom! Christ will deny you, the door will be shut and you’re not getting in. Oh and by the way, your going to burn in hell for all eternity. So, remember keep awake, be afraid be very afraid. Cause your gonna die! And if you haven’t brought along some extra oil for your lamp, well it ain’t gonna be pretty!”

Ha, ha, ha, the joke will be on you. I don’t know about you, but why don’t we just forget about the ten virgins. I’d much rather hear the joke about the priest and the rabbi who walk into bar! Now I know that I’m a preacher and my job is to take these old joke and breath new life into them. But hell fire and damnation, some old jokes simply aren’t funny anymore! Look, I could tell you all the things that I’ve learned about this joke.    I could unravel ancient wedding traditions for you. I could tell you that the Greek word parthenoi, doesn’t mean bridesmaids or virgins, as so many interpretations are wont to translate it, like we think of bridesmaids or virgins…I mean the fact that these girls haven’t had sex before is not the point…a parthenoi is simply a young women; well a young girl really probably about 12.

So there are these 12-year-old girls who are invited to this wedding! I could tell you that a more accurate translation, would divide these girls up as 5 wise girls and 5 naïve girls. I could say that oil is necessary for shedding light and that we are all expected to be the light of the world. But then the story takes a nasty shift and the wise girls won’t share their oil with the naïve girls and that kinda goes against the grain, cause aren’t we supposed to share with those in need? Then there’s the bride groom; I could do what most preachers do and tell you that the bride groom is really Jesus, who shows up late to his own wedding, only to discover that half the wedding party is unprepared and so, he simply denies that he even knows them and then shuts the door and leaves them out there in the darkness.

But where’s the good news in that? What happened to God’s grace! I mean after all, the bridegroom was late. Is the penalty for being naïve really eternal damnation? Well if that’s true then heaven help those who are naïve. God save us all from naïveté! Let’s all be wise virgins! Are there any biblical literalists in the house? Who wants to be a wise virgin? Any takers?

Well now, isn’t it a good thing that there’s more than one reading from the bible on a Sunday morning? Beause, I think if we take a look at the first reading we just might find some relief on this virgin thing!           

We began with a reading from the Book of Wisdom: Wisdom, Sophia is bright, and does not grow dim, by those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her. Quick to anticipate those who desire her, she makes herself known to them. Watch for her early and you will have no trouble; you will find her sitting at your gates. Even to think about her is understanding fully grown; be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you. She herself walks about looking for those who are worthy of her and graciously shows herself to them as they go, in every thought of theirs come to meet them. Of her the most sure beginning is the desire for discipline, care for discipline means loving her, loving her means keeping her laws, obeying her laws guarantees incorruptibility, incorruptibility brings near to God; thus desire for Wisdom, Sophia leads to sovereignty.

Sophia! Jesus knew Sophia. Listen to the way Jesus talks about her in the Gospel of John: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “he has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

In Jesus words we can here the dim echoes of a by gone time. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the Old Testament books of Proverbs and Job, and in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the Wisdom literature is full of stories about a character who most of us never learn about. In the book of Proverbs she claims to have been there when God was busy with creation and she declares:

When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits… when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman, delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”       

Who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.” In the Wisdom of Solomon she is described as ” quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”

You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures was. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called Hokhma. In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called Sophia. In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as wisdom. The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. There were no spaces between the words. And until long after Jesus day there were only capital letters. Upper and lower case letters were not used. Unlike our system were personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Words do not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us.

When you read the texts that describe wisdom, it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about wisdom as though wisdom were a person. Sophia is wisdom personified. Sophia is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before creation. She was with Yahweh at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence. Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them. She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her. She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things. She is the way to life abundant. She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done.

You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered Sophia standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in Sophia’s playful dance. Sophia’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people. But his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Jesus declares: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.” Despite his own reputation, Jesus harkens back to the images of Sophia in the Scriptures and insists that, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Sophia’s reputation as a trickster and for accomplishing things through play and Jesus reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes eating and drinking do not exactly recommend them as voices to be followed by the wise and the intelligent. But to those who have the courage to play with them there is much wisdom to be revealed. In scripture Sophia often appears as a playful mischievous character. Her childish behaviour makes it easy to over-look her presence. But if we look closely, the playfulness of Sophia reveals something important about God and about how creation happens. Perhaps playfulness is an important part of who God is. For after all doesn’t creativity need an attitude of play. In wisdom literature, creation doesn’t happen without Wisdom/Sophia’s presence. Some passages describe God’s search for Sophia; after finding her, then God creates the world. She is essential; with her creation happens; with childlike playfulness, creativity blossoms.

Most of us have a hard time valuing play. Play is for children. Play is what we do after all the important things are done. Play is our reward for work well don; rarely is play a means for doing our work well. We just don’t think that way. Play can be wonderfully serious. Play is being in touch with creativity, with newness, with wonder, with life. You can see it when children play together. Play can open us up to the newness and the wonder of life, and it can also bring us close to the possibility of failure and the nearness of death. Running often ends in tears with bloody knees. Bubbles burst.

I remember playing in the waves, which is so much fun because they can knock you over; they’re a danger that’s momentary, then you come through– all wet, but ready to face another one, a bigger one. Play allows us to be fully open to life because we’ve faced the threats as well as the pleasures.

Play is what allows us to stand in the face of fear–in the face of pain, suffering, failure and not crumble to pieces. Most of us have forgotten how to play like that; we’ve lost the wonderful seriousness of children’s playfulness. We turn our play into a solemn pastime. We play tennis and worry about perfecting our serve or fret about the point we should have had–and we forget to enjoy the graceful backstroke of our opponent or the ball that when right where we wanted it to go. Getting together with friends turns into worry about cleaning the house or putting together the perfect menu rather than enjoying their company. We adults have an incredible ability for turning play into work. Or we use play as an escape from life rather than as a way to face life. Some of us, spend too much time trying to glaze over our unhappiness with alcohol, only to have it all return in head-splitting pain the next day. Or we spend an evening in front of the TV trying to relax and too often find ourselves numb and deadened, unable even to get up and go to bed. Our play becomes a retreat from life and its realities, with no chance to transform them in any creative way.

Transforming the way in which we deal with life’s realities is what play, at its best, is all about. Because, there are times when we sit in front of the TV and a show can transform the way we deal with life’s realities. Remember MASH or what about ER. These shows exposed us to the harshness and the tragedy that life is full of. And yet, in the midst of unbearable difficult situations, the characters in these shows are able to laugh and joke their way through, to cry and reach out to one another, to remain human in dehumanising situations. We get to participate vicariously with the characters. To pretend. To play with them if you will. To see the world through another set of eyes. We can step back and watch life from a distance, we can laugh and cry with the characters and be assured that life can and will go on. Play somehow transcends and transforms the situation we’re in.

It accepts life and the possibility of failure, mistakes or tragedy, and in the process of accepting it all, play somehow changes it. Play allows us to see new possibilities where there were none before. It allows us to say yes when everything around us is shouting no. But even at our best, we adults don’t know much about play; we don’t use it enough, don’t make it a part of our lives, don’t incorporate it into our being anywhere near the way children do. It’s no accident that the scriptures describe Sophia as being like a little child or that Jesus says that wisdom is hidden from us and revealed to infants.

I used to know a little girl who over the course of her short life underwent all sorts of medical treatments and operations. Her parents had two other children and I used to help out from time to time. Sometimes, I would be the one who would sit with her while she waited for an operation or procedure. On such occasions it was very important that the little girl’s blue Oscar the Grouch would come along. She would ask the doctors and the nurses all sorts of questions about what was going to happen to her and then she would explain it all to Oscar the Grouch. She would play the part of the doctor. She would give Oscar the necessary shots. She would test his blood. She would take his temperature, cut him up and sew him back together. That ratty old blue grouch went through every procedure and operation over and over again. That little girl would replay every entire traumatic event with Oscar. Playing with Oscar allowed her to face what she feared the most: the pain, the loss of control, the terrible aloneness, the threat of never waking up. In play, she was in control; she was in charge. In play, she faced what could not be faced any other way. She played her way through her short life.

We all need to play our way through life, through the trying times of our lives. Dreaming helps us to do that–it helps us face our past and our future and live in the present. Worship at its best can do the same. Worship is a way of playing our way through life–singing, telling old stories, looking toward the future, gathering courage to face the present –gaining control over what seems uncontrollable, if only for an hour. There is something about playfulness that allows us to stand our ground–to face the worst– and be strengthened and renewed in the process. There’s something about laughing–telling jokes on ourselves, relaxing with a friend, taking a walk, dancing, writing poetry, singing in the shower–there’s something about play in all its forms that is renewing, refreshing, life-giving.

So, let me tell you the one about the 10 virgins. Five of the young women were wise and five of the young women were naïve. But you’ve heard all that already. So, let me skip ahead to the punch line!

“Keep awake! For you know neither the day nor the hour!” And remember, what all ten of those young women were waiting for. It wasn’t a funeral. It was a wedding. This is not a parable about what happens at the end of life. This isn’t about a funeral, it’s about a wedding party! This is a parable about the nature of life itself! So, be prepared, cause Christ returns each and every day! Christ returns over and over again in the lives and in the faces of the people we meet! So, you’d better be ready to party! Life is a party, and the wise ones among us have the good sense to be ready to be transformed from their drowsiness; ready to party, to live it up and to enjoy! According to the Scriptures Sophia stood out in the streets and invited the people to come and play–to tell jokes–to laugh at our blunders.

In today’s gospel Jesus compares his generation to children who sit and won’t play and reminds us that God has hidden certain things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.

Jesus invites us to come and play. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In our playfulness we can be transformed. So remember to take delight in your play; to be transformed; to meet this God given life of ours head on and to laugh. Let the wisdom that is hidden be revealed in our play. Keep awake! And let the party begin!

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