A wedding. Everyone has their own interpretation of what a wedding is, or at least what it should be. Your own, your friends, your children’s and perhaps even your parents. A wedding is a celebration of life, a union of two people in love who pledge their lives to one another. In Nevada and in many states, this now includes ALL people, and that is truly a good and joyful thing!
A wedding is a binding contract tying two people together. In the church we consider it to be one of the sacraments as we see it as far more than simply a civil contract, but as a gift from God and a pledge of obedience to each other and to God. It is also often a huge event! It is a time for celebration with family and friends, a time to eat, drink and be merry. A time to connect with people you don’t see often and to renew bonds of friendship and family.
In the ancient world, weddings had some of the same character, but there were some very distinct differences. It is these differences that make today’s passage from Matthew a bit hard to understand, so this morning I would like to talk about them and see how they may help us with the wedding concept.
Today we think of a wedding in basically two parts; the ceremony and the reception. Whether in a church in front of a priest, at city hall in front of a justice of the peace, or in a wedding chapel in front of Elvis, the ceremony marks the beginning of the union. An engagement is an agreement to be married, but it is not until the ceremony that a binding contract is established between the two people.
In ancient days things were different. The wedding was actually in three parts. The first was the betrothal. This was what we would consider the engagement where an offer of marriage was made and accepted. It was not typically made by the couple, but by their families. Arranged marriages were common and were much more about joining of families for economic reasons than for anything as silly as love. But, unlike our concept of engagement, the betrothal was a binding agreement and the couple were considered to be married at that point, even though they would still live apart. In some cases this was because the couple were children and had to wait to move forward until they had come of age, while in other cases it was to allow the groom time to earn the dowry called the Mohar that had to be paid to the bride’s family. Remember the story of the Virgin Mary and her betrothal to Joseph? Each advent I get asked why Mary would be traveling with him if they were not yet married. Now you understand that as they were betrothed they were in fact considered to be married.
When the time came for the second part of the wedding, the families would agree on an approximate time, but it was not a fixed point in time. The second part is what we would think of as the consummation of the marriage. Remember that the couple was already considered to be legally married, but the consummation would establish the virginity of the bride and the commencement of their life together. It was largely up to the groom to determine the exact date and time. The bride was expected to make herself ready for the groom, attended by her bridesmaids. The bridesmaids would prepare her for the arrival of her husband, but since they did not know when he was coming, they were with her morning, noon and night. Only once the groom had arrived and the marriage had been consummated would the third part of the wedding begin; the celebration.
Remember that we are not talking about a time and place with 9 channels of HBO and a 4G WiFi connection. These were small rural villages in Palestine with extremely little in the way of entertainment. Every wedding in the village was a huge event and all of the family and friends would take part in the celebration; a celebration by the way that would last an entire week. A wedding was the event of the year and after all, who doesn’t want to be part of a week-long party? But there was of course a catch. You had to be there when the party started. If you were not, then you were quite literally shut out. So it was important to be sure you were ready when the groom arrived because you clearly did not want to miss out on the event.
Which brings us to the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Those who were wise had planned ahead and brought enough oil for their lamps, while the foolish had not. I imagine they were very excited for their friend, were flattered to have been chosen to take part in this momentous occasion in her life, and were very much looking forward to the feasting and dancing at the wedding banquet. But in their enthusiasm for the moment, they had let their concern for the present come before their hope for the future; and in so doing they sacrificed their ability to share in the wonder of the event that was to come.
Now I think we are starting to get a taste of the meaning of the gospel. The bridesmaids were called to wait with the bride for the coming of her groom; for the commencement of the life that meant, and the celebration that they had long looked forward to. But they were either too excited about the event to properly prepare themselves for their task, or they were too caught up in their own lives and problems to invest the effort and energy needed for the task at hand. The wise had been just as excited or just as preoccupied, but in their wisdom they knew the importance of preparing for what was to come.
The Wisdom of Solomon tells us “Wisdom is radiant and unfading and is found by those who seek her.” If you seek wisdom, we are told, you will have no difficulty in finding her as she waits for us, graciously appearing in our paths and meeting us in every thought. But that is the catch isn’t it? For while wisdom is always ready for us, we must want to find it in the first place. We must seek wisdom; we must place a value on wisdom and want to open ourselves to what we can learn from it.
If we don’t value wisdom, or if we aren’t willing to accept that we have things we can learn and be willing to invest the time and the energy, then wisdom will elude us. The foolish bridesmaids saw no value in wisdom and found themselves on the outside looking in, but the wise were able to accomplish their task and enjoy the rewards.
But there is another point to be made. This is not just about the good maids vs. the bad or the wise vs. the foolish. For what happened when the foolish asked the wise for some oil? They didn’t tell them, tough luck you should have planned ahead. No, they told them we don’t have enough, but you should go and buy some and return. Instead of deriding them for their lack of preparation, they gave them a helpful suggestion and a path to the wisdom that had eluded them.
If you are not actively seeking wisdom, now would be a good time to consider it. For as Jesus says, you know neither the time nor the hour when the groom will come. If you are wise and are preparing for the coming of the bridegroom, good for you. But remember not to be smug about your preparation. Remember also to offer help to those who need it so that we all may attend the bridegroom when he returns. For the bride is the church and the bridegroom is Jesus Christ the Lord. We know not the day nor the hour when he will return to take possession of his world. But if that day were today, which of the bridesmaids would you be?