Robert Capon – Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

We are in the last two weeks of our study of Jesus’s parables using Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. The final parables we will be studying are from all from Matthew 25 – The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Please read chapter 12 – “The End of the Storm (1)” and chapter 13 – “The End of the Storm (2).” Fr. Kimel’s commentary on the Bridesmaids is here (from which I have borrowed heavily).

Of all the parables, this is my least favorite by far. Like Job or the Preacher (in Ecclesiastes), this parable raises questions that simply cannot be answered, and, from my perspective, contradict, or at least challenge, most of the rest of Jesus’ teachings. However, if we believe in the sanctity of the Scriptures, then the challenge is never to ignore a particular passage of Scripture but to wrestle with it as did Jacob.

The Context:

These are the last of Jesus’ parables. At the conclusion of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the courtyard of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.Matt. 26:2-4. This is the end.

Objection to Faith Alone – Quietism:

As an introduction to these last three Parables of Judgment, Capon addresses the two primary objections to his understanding of salvation by faith in Jesus alone where good works and evil deeds have no bearing on salvation.

The first objection is Quietism (do-nothing-ism). This is the teaching that if we are saved solely by our faith in God’s grace then that means that we have no obligations to do right. Or as Capon puts it: “Well, if all the real work of salvation has already been done, and the only thing we have to do is believe it, why should we bother trying to be good, kind, or loving? If the world is saved in spite of its sins, what’s to stop us from going right on doing rotten things?” p.492. This idea, however, is a misunderstanding of what “faith” actually is.

The English word for “faith” is from the Latin “fides” from where we also get the words fidelity or fiduciary. Faith is not an assent to a proposition but is the living out of a trust-relationship with a person. Therefore, faith is not the intellectual assent to the proposition that Jesus’ died and rose again or that his death and resurrection will bring me into heaven. Rather, faith is an ongoing living assent to the question of: “If he has already done it all for me already, why shouldn’t I live as if I trusted him?” If he has made me a member of the Wedding of the Lamb why shouldn’t I act as if I am at the party? If he has already reconciled both my wayward self and my equally difficult brother-in-law, or children, or wife, why shouldn’t I at least try to act as if I trust him to have done just that and to let his reconciliation govern my actions in those relationships? . . . Faith, you see, is simply taking his word about what really is and trying our best to get all the unreal nonsense out of our lives. Strictly speaking, faith does not save us; he does; but because faith, once given, inexorably leads us to try to stop contradicting what he has done, it becomes the only instrument of salvation that we need to lay a hand to. p.492-93.

Objection to Faith Alone – Sin Boldly:

The second objection that good works and evil deeds do not affect salvation is the question of sin. “If the world is already saved in spite of its sins, what’s to stop people from sinning?” p.493. Once more Capon points out that this objection is based on the false assumption that we have any choice about sinning. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Rom. 20:23. We will continue to sin, faith or not, because none of us will ever avoid that trust in ourselves – and that distrust of anyone else – that lies at the root of the world’s problems. Those twin falsities of faith in self and unfaith in others are as irremovable by human effort as they are unpardonable by human goodwill. And therefore if they are ever can be removed or pardoned, it will only be by God’s gift. But that gift, please note, stands in no causal relationship whatsoever to our responses. It will neither force us to be better nor enable us to go on being worse. It is simply a fact, to be trusted or not as we choose. p.493-94.

Or as Martin Luther wrote: Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.  We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.  It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.  Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521.

The Parable:

Then the Kingdom of the heavens shall be likened to ten virgins who, taking their own lamps, went out to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish and five wise. For the foolish, when taking the lamps, did not take oil with them. But the wise took oil in vessels along with their lamps. With the bridegroom taking a long time, however, they all grew drowsy and lay down to sleep. And in the middle of the night there was a cry: “Look, the bride­groom; go out to meet him!” Then all those virgins were roused and trimmed their lamps. But the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones answered by saying, “Surely there would not be enough for us and for you; rather than that, go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” But while they were gone away to make their purchase the bridegroom came, and those who were prepared went in with him to the wedding celebrations, and the door was shut. And afterward the remaining virgins also come, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But in reply he said, “Amen, I tell you, I do not know you.” So be alert, for you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt 25:1-13).

The March of History:

As we have previously looked at, the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is one great event encompassing both the present and the future. As Capon describes these three final parables on the final judgment: Their insistence that the judgment upon faith will be a judgment on faith-in-action, not on faith-with-folded-hands, goes to the heart of the biblical view of history. In the Bible, the course of the world and the course of God’s action in it are like an arrow shot toward a target. . . . The target is where the arrow is going, and every action in the whole of the arrow’s course – the drawing of it from the quiver, the setting of it on the bowstring, the releasing of the bow, and the flight of the arrow through the air – everything, quite literally, is governed by the history-fulfilling judgment of the bull’s-eye at the end: it partakes of the nature of that krisis at every point. . . . What God saves by grace through faith is precisely the dynamic of history, the once-and-never-again quality of a world he was pleased to make that way. He saves history by history; and at the end, it is history that he brings home smack in the center of the target. p.494-95.

“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten maidens.” The word then refers clearly enough to the end, the climactic manifestation of the [second-coming] . . . . At the beginning of his ministry, in the parables of the kingdom, he proclaimed the mystery of a kingdom already present in this world. In the parables of grace that followed, he proclaimed the device by which that mystery operates, namely, grace working through death and resurrection. Now though, he comes full circle and gives, in the concluding parables of judgment, a series of pictures of how it ultimately triumphs, separating those who accept the mystery in faith from those who, by unfaith, reject his freely given acceptance of them in the resurrection of the dead. p.495-96

Man Proposes . . . :

For Capon, the two classes of Bridesmaids represent two classes of people. The “foolish” bridesmaids represent the wisdom of this world. 1 Cor. 1:20. They are the ones who live life on an ordinary prudential basis. The parable tells us that the bridegroom was delayed or tarried (v.5) – so much so that the bridesmaids tired and went to sleep. The foolish bridesmaids did not believe that they needed to complicate their lives by lugging around extra oil because they erroneously anticipated the bridegroom would be on time. The foolish planned out the day perfectly. But the day did not run perfectly.

. . .  But God Disposes:

The day did not run perfectly, because God was late. The bridesmaids anticipated and trusted that the bridegroom would show up on time, and he did not. In an echo of Job’s laments, Capon tells us that this verse bears witness to the complicity of God not only in the slapstick way the world is run, but in the failures of those who counted on its being run in a more respectable fashion. For whose fault is it, ultimately, that the prudentially correct amount of oil in the foolish girls’ lamps ran out? The bridegroom’s, that’s whose. And whose fault is it, finally, that Peter denied Jesus or that Judas betrayed him? It is God’s. p.498.

Like the writer of Job or Ecclesiastes, Capon’s theology admittedly takes a dark turn. I said before that God is not an honest man. Well, he is not an innocent man either. Capon laments,  Why he couldn’t have figured out a way of getting rid of sin without creating more sinners in the process is a big question. And the big answer is that there is no answer. No answer except Job’s, “Though he slays me, yet will I trust him.” (Job 13:15). No answer except Jesus’, “Take this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” (Mark 14:36). p.498. God’s intentional tarrying damns the bridesmaids who trusted that God would show up on time. Why? The only answer that we receive from the parable is the same that Job receives from the whirlwind: Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant, empty words? Job 38:2.

The Shut Door:

For Capon, the shutting of the door on the prudent bridesmaids who followed the wisdom and reason of this world is truly shut. The judgment pronounced on those who thought that history could be brought home by something neater and more plausible than the mystery. “Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.” They all take the ordinary, prudential steps that life in this world dictates as necessary. But then they discover something. All the wick trimming in the world—all the brilliant steps that might be taken to make a properly designed operation run right—are irrelevant. p.499

It is that something, therefore, that becomes the only matter of judgment in the parable. Now that all of the girls, wise or foolish, have found out there is no way of going on from here simply by going on from here, faith comes to the fore as the sole criterion for distinguishing between them. . . . But the parable does seem to say that since faith is a relationship with God, there will inevitably be a point at which he will say that the relationship does or does not exist. He will tell us whether we said yes or no. No one will get away with saying maybe forever. p.499-500.

That closure is the note on which the parable ends. . . . The shut door is God’s final answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. In the death of Jesus, he closes forever the way of winning – the right-handed, prudential road to the kingdom, the path of living as the path of life. All the silly little girls with their Clorox bottles – all the neurotics of faith, all the wise fools who were willing to trust him in their lastness, lostness, leastness, and death – have gone into the party. And all the bright, savvy types who thought they had it figured are outside in the dark – with no oil and even less fun. The dreadful sentence, “Amen, I say to you, I never knew you,” is simply the truth of their condition. p.500

In other words, when the foolish for this reason: They run out of oil. Instead of trusting in the goodness of the bridegroom to let them in anyway, they run off in search of more oil so that they can meet their obligation. The bridegroom comes in their absence. They are too busy trying to do right that they miss the door being opened.

The Questions:

For me, the parable and Capon’s admittedly dark interpretation open up more questions than they answer.

  • Why did God intentionally delay? And why would God allow his delay to bring damnation to others?
  • Why didn’t the wise bridesmaids share their oil and trust/hope that it would last for all?
  • Where is the presence of any grace within this parable? The wise bridesmaids did extra work and thereby escaped judgment. The foolish bridesmaids relied on God and were punished.
  • If the Kingdom invites in the least, the lost, and the last, don’t the foolish bridesmaids clearly fall within this category?
  • We all sin, including the sin of lacking a proper faith (see above). If being sinful is part of our nature on this side of the Resurrection, then how can the foolish bridesmaids’ sins be held against them?
  • Are the two classes of bridesmaids, two classes of individuals or simply different aspects of our fallen humanity that are present in each of us?
  • Or maybe, the condemnation of the bridesmaids is not because they ran out of oil, but they ran out on the bridegroom in search of oil. Could their condemnation be simply their lack of faith in the grace of the bridegroom himself who would have let them in without any oil?

Again, this is my least favorite parable and Capon’s explanation simply adds to my dislike of the same. But then maybe my ears do not hear and my eyes do not see.

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Meatloaf. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, And again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God! Through the Theotokos have mercy on us! Orthodox

Collect for Holy Monday

Ed. Note:

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