The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
25 ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This parable is a contemplative prayer primer. If you have ever wondered about the purpose and benefits of contemplative prayer this parable opens the door.
I am guessing that we just read this parable of the ten bridesmaids. It was printed here to allow us to read it together. Did it leave us with the impression that we have a lot more work to do to grow in our spiritual relationship with God? “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
Read the parable once again. Sense the urgency of being ready and to know God. What does it mean to be ready? What does it mean, to know God? Readiness and knowing God are different for every person. We must ask ourselves, honestly, did we see ourselves as one of the five foolish bridesmaids?
Contemplative prayer is an introspective discipline that we can each learn to guide our preparation and to move each of us closer to knowing God. Allow me to guide us through the parable, and offer insights.
I would like to explain just a little about reading parables. Years ago, maybe 1986, I saw novelist and storyteller Megan McKenna speak about parables. Megan made it very clear that if we read a parable and are feeling good afterward we did not understand the meaning intended by the Gospel writers.
There are many ways to see ourselves in a parable, which is what makes those stories rich in learning.
To help us better understand the concepts that run through the parable, let us establish a definition of heaven, of knowing, and light.
Some folks desire to have an authoritative voice to reference in matters of faith, such as heaven. Included is a quote and link from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”
“Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”
In Hebrew and Greek the word for knowing includes understanding from experience, an intimate kind of knowledge involving the whole person, not just the mind. Parents warn their children that fire burns, but until a person experiences being burned by fire the knowledge is incomplete. Knowing = experiencing.
In Hebrew and Greek the word for light can be a reference to both natural light and spiritual light. This is very similar to English. It is understood that spiritual light expresses a wisdom or knowledge of God.
Matthew begins the parable with the statement; “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” Some would say that this was intended by the evangelist as an eschatological theme for judgment day. Regardless, this is a wedding banquet that we do not want to miss.
In Matthew’s retelling of this parable there is no actual banquet with actual bridesmaids referenced here. These events and characters are all allegorical. We are clearly intended to identify as a bridesmaid in this parable. God is the bridegroom.
All ten bridesmaids took lamps to dispel the darkness (light from the lamp represents wisdom / knowledge of God).
All ten bridesmaids fell asleep. This can be interpreted many ways. Lulled to sleep is an idiom that is a pertinent in this situation. We are filled with a false sense of security and we feel secure in our situation when we should not.
When the time came for the bridegroom to arrive all ten bridesmaids awoke and trimmed their lamps. Only five of the bridesmaids, however, were truly known by the bridegroom. Only those five had the intimate experience and knowledge of God. Only those five were allowed into the banquet.
The remaining five bridesmaids were told “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” These five bridesmaids desired to attend the banquet. All five asked to be allowed into the wedding banquet, but lacked the intimate kind of knowledge expected from the bridegroom.
We might say to ourselves, why did the five bridesmaids with the flasks of oil not spare some for the others? Each person must experience God for themselves. Intimate knowledge cannot be purchased and it cannot be given, it must be experienced by the person.
If we seek to enjoy the beautiful wedding banquet, that is heaven, we need to truly know God. We need to experience God, in the same way we experience the burn from fire. We need to know God so deeply that if we fall asleep we will have that flask of oil to keep our lamp lit when needed.
Can we say that we know God to that deep level? This is where contemplative prayer can help.
Contemplative prayer traces its roots back to early Christian monasticism and the Desert Fathers. The writings of mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross pushed contemplative prayer along.
It is true that contemplative prayer was perceived as an extraordinary grace reserved to only a few for many years, but St. Gregory the Great explained that “contemplation expands and enlightens the soul with a love that is itself knowledge, for as man draws closer to God in loving union, he grows in the knowledge to reform his life.”
Each individual can learn the discipline of contemplation. This method of prayer seeks to cultivate the capacity to listen to God at ever deeper levels of inward attention. This brings us to a state of resting in the presence of God.
Contemplative prayer, remaining silently and openly in God’s presence, “rewires” our brains to think non-dually with compassion, kindness, and a lack of attachment to the ego’s preferences.
In contemplative prayer we move beyond language to experience God as Mystery. We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate, plugging into the mind of Christ which welcomes paradox and knows its true identity in God.
During contemplation we come to know that there is no separation between sacred and secular. All is one with Divine Reality.
We must be willing to let go and die to our small selves, our false selves, in order to enter this new sacred space. This is our first step toward gaining that experiential knowledge of God.