Things that Go Wrong at Weddings

wedding at midnight
Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Matthew 25:1-13

The moment when goal happens is like this:

Ten women, five foolish, five wise, took flashlights and went off to the wedding. The foolish among them brought their flashlights, but failed to bring spare batteries. The wise brought spare batteries along with their flashlights.

As it happened, the groom was late, and everyone fell asleep waiting. But at midnight someone shouted, “Look! The groom is finally here! Everyone come! And the women all woke up and turned on their flashlights.

The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some batteries, our lights are going out.” But the wise women replied, “If we give our batteries to you, we won’t have light ourselves. Go to that convenience store down the street and get some for yourselves.” But while they were gone buying batteries the groom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding behind closed doors.

Later the other women came and said, “Let us in, too.”

But he answered, “I’ve got no idea who you are.”

So, be ready! You never know when it’s going to happen.

First, the word often translated bridesmaids is the same parthenos translated virgins elsewhere. And, while it makes a certain sense, given the wedding context of the story, to call them bridesmaids the early church of Matthew’s community would have also understood this term as referring to that new class of women within the first generation church capable of making their own decisions. One might think of that famous line from the Spiderman movie, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The other details surrounding the wedding make very little sense as weddings go: the delay of the wedding (though I did officiate at a wedding a year ago to which the groom was over 2 hours late), the midnight hour, the need for everyone to bring their own lamp, it’s taking place behind closed doors, and the groom’s sudden amnesia (which may correspond to his being so late and, come to think of it, is no so rare). But this also relates to the point, which is that the wise will be prepared, even when the world seems out of joint.

And that is exactly the situation, as Matthew tells it. Jesus, having staged his teach-in at the temple and having been repudiated by the religious and political authorities there is now having his apocalyptic moment: the moment where the world is coming unhinged and is on the edge of choosing to be remade into another day or plunge into eternal night. It’s the midnight hour.

The situation of Matthew’s community a generation later is similar. Following the desolation of the Temple and with it the whole system of government and social order it represented, they are also in their apocalyptic moment.

In 2011 as the tides of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and unprecedented climate change sweep around the globe, it may be yet another apocalyptic moment.

So, what are people newly capable of making their own decisions to do when the world seems to be coming unhinged?

The wise ones will be prepared.

What About the Virgins?

Madonna: Like a Virgin album jacket, 19841 Corinthians 7:25-26

With regard to independent women, God hasn’t told me anything, but I’ll tell you what my opinion is (and you know my opinions are nearly always right). I think that, since we’re so close to the end of the world, you shouldn’t pressure anybody to get married.

[Credit: What follows is derived from some radical monastic characters I know of second hand, and who would probably be excommunicated if they said it themselves in public.]

If you comb through the writings of the early church fathers you will find a peculiar expression crop up here and there: “widows who are virgins.” It’s such an awkward expression that it sometimes gets mistranslated “widows and virgins,” or some such thing. But there it is. Could there really be that many sexless marriages out there that the first generation church would have had to deal with a whole class of people who are “widows who are virgins”?

Here’s an eye-opener. It’s well documented that the in that provincial Roman society being a woman nearly always required being attached to a man, whether by attachment to a father or brother, or to a husband. When a woman’s husband died, she either returned to a father or a brother, or got remarried. It’s just what you did. Otherwise, you were a kind of societal pariah. Women-as-independent-people was an unthinkable concept.

And yet, as a result of Jesus example, the first-generation church somehow got the idea that women were people too. Imagine! But if women are people, too, on their own, apart from the person-hood of whatever man they were attached to, what do you do about this whole new class of people? What do you even call them in a society that doesn’t have a word for such a person. What about the widow (who certainly has had marital relations) who is now independent, her own person, and who has not gone back to live with her father or brother?

Or could it be that the early church was so egalitarian in its view of women that they had to come up with a word for that class of person? Could it be that they picked a readily available word for a virtuous woman (parthenos) and applied it to this new class of virtuous Jesus-following women? Could it be that’s who the early church fathers were writing about when they had to deal with all these “widows who are virgins”?

What’s a church to do with all these “loose virgins?” Do you make them get married? Paul says, no. What’s the use in conforming the practice to the world’s practice? The old system, where women aren’t really people, sucks. And besides, the whole thing is slated for demolition? Don’t conform! Don’t pressure them to get married!

Too bad that kind of egalitarian practice only lasted a generation. But, hey, it’s not too late to start treating women like real people in the church again now!

[Bonus thought – get ready to have your mind blown: When Luke writes the Christmas story, 30 years after Paul has already written to the Corinthians about what to do about the independent women, and other early church writers had already been talking about “widows who are virgins,” what do you think he really means when he says that Mary was a young “virgin” betrothed to a man named Joseph? Luke’s use of the word has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual status. What he means is that she was her own person. And of course Joseph “knew her not before she had borne a son.” Having sex with a pregnant woman was taboo, and Joseph was “a righteous dude.”]