Wisdom is bright and unfading. She readily appears to those who love her. She’s found by those who seek after her. – Wisdom 6: 12
Wisdom of Solomon 6: 12 – 16
Matthew 25: 1 – 13
I was putting the washing out at Sister Eveleen earlier this week. It was a beautiful, still, sunny day – the sort of day you would ideally spend at the beach with a book. I could have been taking my time, stopping to look out at the ocean perhaps, or slowly pulling some weeds out of the garden. Instead, I was putting out the washing as fast as I could and planning what I had to do in the afternoon. I had a whole lot of monkeys on my back – admin, a report to write, emails to return. I have an ongoing list that always seems to have at least ten things on it. So despite the contemplative ethos of the house I often feel rushed and frazzled. It is a problem that I am aware of yet struggle to solve. I was just about to put the last peg on the line when I saw a familiar black blur rush past me. It was the neighbour’s dog, Indy. She had managed to escape from her yard and had come to find me. I take Indy for a walk once a week and I suspect she had come by to see if I might take her for another. Indy is about 6 months old, young enough to still be like a puppy but old enough to escape from back yards. She is one of my favourite dogs. She is, like her name suggests, fiercely independent. Take Indy to the beach and she’ll have a great time chasing balls and digging holes. But put her on a lead and she’ll pull as hard as she can and zig-zag herself into knots that I have to undo. Indy and I sometimes get into arguments when I walk her, but secretly I admire her determination to explore outside the confines of my expectations.
I’m delivering the sermon this week at my church in Lyttleton. When the vicar gave me the readings for the week (see above) he added the caveat that they were quite strange and that I could do different ones if I wanted to. I’m new to taking sermons and I suspect he was allowing me the opportunity to take on something a bit more straightforward, but me being me I took it as a challenge and duly started reading. At first glance I can see what he is saying – the Matthew reading, in particular, has some very strange imagery of a group of bridesmaids (other translations say 'virgins') all waiting for a single bridegroom to return. There is no denying the romantic, almost erotic imagery in this parable – particularly the fact it appears that the ten women are to share one man. In verse ten Jesus talks about the five wise bridesmaids going into the wedding banquet and the door being shut. One wonders what we’re supposed to imagine is happening behind this closed door. I suspect the night doesn’t end with a cup of tea and a game of cards.
Romance is not something we like talking about in church all that much, and I suspect the vicar’s suggestion that I do different readings mirrors a common sentiment in the Christian world around readings like this. We all are happy to sing songs about a man being tortured to death but if we talk about the romantic elements of the spiritual journey we all start squirming in our chairs and thinking of other things. It would be very easy for me to focus on the returning bridegroom element of this story, and turn it into a lesson about how we must all be good Christians because Jesus might turn up at any moment and if we’re not prepared we might be called out. But because, like Indy, I hate to do what is expected of me, I’m going to look instead at the bridesmaids in this story, and see what they might mean to us.
The real question for me is: how should we understand the role of women and femininity in scripture? And how does this relate to us in our spiritual lives? Entire books have been written on this subject so I’ll turn to the reading from the Wisdom of Solomon for part of the answer. What immediately stands out in this reading is that wisdom is not referred to in the masculine or neutral, but the feminine: ‘Wisdom is bright and unfading. She readily appears to those who love her. She’s found by those who keep seeking after her.’ This is not a one-off anomaly. In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is called Sophia and she speaks in the first person. In chapter 8, for instance, we find this:
I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, and delighting in mankind.
Proverbs 8: 27 - 31
And if we continue on in the Wisdom of Solomon reading we see this wisdom – this Sophia – described as a spirit that Solomon prays for and receives. Wisdom, he tells us, is more precious to him than priceless jewels, that ‘all the gold in the world would be nothing more than sand before her.’ This is not a man telling us about wisdom in the abstract - this is a man in love.
And so how does this relate to the parable from Matthew? What are we to take from the image of the bridesmaids (or virgins), the lamps, the oil, the returning bridegroom, and the banquet? As I mentioned earlier, the easiest interpretation focuses on being prepared to meet Jesus, lest we be caught out - and this is certainly an important component of the parable. But I would like to make a case for something more than this. I think that a crucial element missing from modern Christianity is this idea of wisdom being more than just a vague, abstract concept, but a very real, and very feminine part of our spirituality. What (or who) is wisdom? The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon describes her as ‘bright and unyielding’, that ‘she graciously makes herself known to [people] as they travel.’ And that ‘she comes to them in each of the ideas that they think’. We are told that wisdom begins in a desire for instruction, not through work or striving. Instruction is given to the person willing to sit and listen and learn. In a world that has almost fetishized the need to be busy, this is certainly a counter-cultural message.
When I read the Wisdom of Solomon passage, I can’t help but think of Indy blurring past me as I try to rush through all my tasks for the day. Indy will never have a to-do list in her life. Every day is a good day to go and chase a ball on the beach. No day is a good day to be on a lead. When I take Indy for a walk I feel like she is teaching me the simple joy of enjoying each moment for what it is. Indy, I think, can teach us a good deal about wisdom.
So my challenge to all of you today is to ask yourself: ‘where is wisdom in my life? How might I seek her out?’ One thing we see in the parable is that there is only one bridegroom but multiple bridesmaids and I suggest that this points to the fact that there is no one wisdom – wisdom is going to be different for every one of us and each one of you will find her in a different way. The only thing I know will be the same for everyone is that wisdom will not come to those who do not seek her out, who instead fill their lives with pointless busyness and goal-driven behaviour. She will come to those who take the time to travel, to wonder, to read, to pray, and listen and learn. She will come to you not with jobs to do or challenges to confront, but ideas - new things to bring into the world. When a bride and groom spend their first night together they usually engage in activity conducive to creating new life, and I suggest the parable in Matthew points to the fact that our spiritual lives aren’t all about death and suffering. Let us never forget that Christ’s remarkable journey may have ended with his death and resurrection but started with a woman saying yes and a child being born.