It is often said, but bears repeating, that we have a tendency to tame Jesus’ parables. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least complacency. When we stop hearing them as stories, and instead hear only the interpretation and allegorization and reenactment and sheer boredom that we lay over them, we miss the essence of story, the essential ingredient of sheer absurdity, that Jesus brings to his idiosyncratic teaching.
Consider this Sunday’s parable: wise and foolish bridesmaids, all of whom drift off to sleep, some of whom stay with their lamps lit for the bridegroom, some of whom get anxious about their oil levels, leave, and miss the party. What if he had told it like this:
The kingdom of heaven will be like this: Two friends were watching Match of the Day on tv. At half time, the score was nil-nil, and they were both getting a little restless. During the break, they milled around, mumbling and moaning and stretching. One went to the loo. The other got a beer from the fridge in the next room. “Get me one,” said the one. “Get your own,” said the other, “the game’s about to restart.” So they both sat down, and fifteen minutes into the second half, the second friend said, “It’s no good, I’ve got to go,” and went into the bathroom. As soon as he turned the lock in the door, a cheer went up from the one on the sofa, who was jumping up and down on the furniture fit to break the springs – the one and only, winning goal of the match slipped past the keeper by a tantalizing hair, and thudded into the back of the net. By the time the friend returned, the replay was over and the match had resumed, but no more goals were scored: he had missed it.
There are many interpretations you may make of this parable: beer is bad for you (should have shared it with the friend); you should have gone before you sat down; the international rules of football (soccer to some) need to be changed to accommodate our desire for instant gratification in the form of more frequent goals; people with small bladders shouldn’t watch live sports events;
– they make about as much sense as the many interpretations that claim that the parable that Jesus told was a warning that the kingdom of heaven would be a blink-and-you-miss-it event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the party, or be shut out forever.
The only instruction that Jesus gives out of this parable is to keep awake. But all of the bridesmaids fell asleep: the wise and the foolish.
Jesus, who promises at the end of this gospel, “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” is not, I think, about to hedge that promise with, “But you should have gone before you came.”