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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Representation—Matthew 25: 1-13 (Raj Bharat Patta)

The Parable of the Ten Virgins, a rare example of women appearing in the parables and sayings of the gospel, invites us to consider challenging questions of representation.

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But 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.” 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

As a child I remember the Parable of the Ten Virgins enacted as a musical play by the moms in our local Bethany Lutheran Church in India, where all the ten women were dressed in white, holding lanterns in their hands and journeying to meet the bridegroom. On the journey they were tired and, lowering the flame of their lanterns, they all fell asleep.

Suddenly, at repeated loud shouts, they woke up one after the other, and started to adjust the flame for more light. Five of the women carried a bottle of oil and were filling their lanterns to increase the flame; the other five did not have sufficient oil and were struggling to trim their lanterns. These five women with no extra oil requested their friends to lend some oil, at which the others replied that it wouldn’t be sufficient for both of them and directed them to a dealer to buy for oil at that night.

The groom arrived and took the five women who had their lanterns burning with him and entered the wedding banquet. When the other five women came and knocked upon the door, calling him ‘Lord, Lord,’ the reply that came was that he did not know them. The facial expressions of the five women who made it into the wedding banquet were gloomy, as their five other friends couldn’t make it inside. The woman narrating the play concluded by charging the audience to keep awake and be prepared to meet the returning groom, for he can come at any time of the day or night.

The play was written, directed, sung, and enacted by the mothers of the Women’s fellowship in our local Church. This enacted parable has stayed in my memory ever since, and now, when I am reading Matthew 25:1-13, it comes alive, making me nostalgic for my local congregation.

As we reflect upon this parable this week, we should first discuss the role of women in parables, which provides a political hermeneutical key for understanding this parable. Nicola Slee, in her article “Parables and Women’s Experience,” observes the male dominance in the parables of the New Testament, which is explained by the dominant presence of male characters and their roles in the parables.

She notes that in the Gospel of Matthew alone there are a collection of 104 parables and sayings, out of which there are 85 characters mentioned, 73 of them being men and only 12 women. Even among the 12 women, 10 are the bridesmaids, which makes for a total of only three instances where women are mentioned in all the 104 parables and sayings. This calls us to recognise the underrepresentation of women and their relative ‘invisibility’ in the Scriptures, challenging readers to read this parable by ‘hearing to speech’ the voices of women from this text.

The parable exposes the politics of recording a parable, for as male writers and narrators they hardly mentioned any women in the parables, and it exposes the politics of male dominant language in it. In verse 2, five among the ten are introduced to us as ‘foolish’ and the other five as ‘wise.’ The male writer begins with a prejudice against the first five by calling them ‘foolish.’

In the moms’ church play, all the ten women entered the stage as friends with lanterns in their hands, all of them were dressed in white, the first five were trying to help the other five by showing them the way towards dealers in buying the oil, and they had gloomy faces towards the end when they did not make it to the banquet. This enactment suggests that, if it were women recording their own stories, representing their own experience and narrating it in their own language, the parable may have had a totally different meaning to it.

This, therefore, calls us to confess the politics of patriarchy in the text, and invites us to a subversive reading of the narratives of the parables from invisible, decolonized, and underrepresented communities. The politics of representation must be addressed in any hermeneutical engagement with Biblical texts, and this parable of the ten women challenges us towards that.

Secondly, this is a parable of ten unnamed women. Most translations have recorded the women in this parable as virgins, some others as bridesmaids. However, the politics of representation challenges us not to define anyone’s identity by their role, status, or occupation. Caste systems in India and elsewhere have operated on notions of purity and pollution, for people are divided into dominant castes and outcastes based on descent and occupation. To recognise people as people, irrespective of their roles, statuses, or occupations is an important marker for a just and equal society.

This parable, then, is a recognition of the fact that the divine in Jesus communicates the eschatological message of final judgment through these unnamed, underrepresented, and unduly presented women, whom Christians from the first century until our own think are incapable of being the bearers of the Gospel. This parable of the ten unnamed women, therefore, is an affirmation of the strength of women as bearers, instruments, agencies, and resources of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our church’s play, entirely written and performed by women, one could feel the dancing of the Gospel coming alive, for the Spirit of God through our moms gripped us all to turn towards God. It made a lasting impact and impression in the lives of the audience there.

Thirdly, this parable is about keeping us awake and waiting in hope on God, for none of us knows the day nor the hour of the Son of Man’s return (verse 13). This parable is a wakeup call to any of us who have fallen into the deep slumber of falsehood, seduced by the false saviours of modernity. Today, secularism, the market, globalisation, the state, etc. have been sedating communities with their false hopes and even obstructing an encounter with the divine.

This parable, along with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that follows shortly after it, invites us to recognise that the divine in Christ has been visiting us daily at odd hours in different forms: in the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, etc. We have been busy going around to trim our lanterns and meeting market dealers, missing opportunities to meet and eat with the divine. This parable of ten women is challenging us to stay awake to recognise God who in Christ is coming to us in unexpected people, inviting to meet and dine with them.

In our moms’ play, there was a shout from the background, declaring in a loud repeated voice that the bridegroom was returning. The sound was so loud that no one could miss hearing the shout. Five women got up at that shout, and other five took time to wake up. When they were trimming their lanterns, the other five woke up and discussed oil. We must stay awake by waiting on God’s hope. The message that reverberates from this parable is to be prepared for the visitation of the divine in our localities.

Finally, this parable of ten women develops a theology of unpredictability, for no one knows the day nor the hour of the return of the Son of Man. This parable contests all kinds of predictions of God’s action, calling us to recognise that God does not act on the terms and conditions of human predictions. Rather, God acts on God’s own terms and times.

Unpredictability is an important theological category, for the God of the Bible has always chosen to be a God associated with calling people, sending people, encountering people, incarnating as human, and pouring out the Holy Spirit on communities who are on the margins, all of this happening in the fullness of God’s own time. God in Christ has been returning in the unpredictability of our times, for the call is to keep awake and be prepared to meet God at God’s time and God’s place, which confound human predictions and expectations.

In our moms’ play, after the shout from the background that the groom was coming, a woman dressed as the bridegroom suddenly stood up from the audience to walk up to the stage to meet the women. No one noticed during the play that the bridegroom was seated among us, for we were all so immersed in the play to recognize that the groom was one among us. None of us could predict in the play that the bridegroom would come from within the community of the audience.

To rekindle in us the spirit of the Reformation which was initiated 500 years ago, allow me to conclude this reflection by quoting a sermon that Martin Luther preached in 1522 on this same text, where he said,

Therefore, let each one see to it that he has these two together: the oil, which is true faith and trust in Christ; and the lamps, the vessel, which is the outward service toward your neighbour. The whole Christian life consists in these two things: Believe God. Help your neighbour. The whole Gospel teaches this. Parents should tell it to their children at home and everywhere. Children too, should constantly foster this Word among themselves.

Rev. Raj Bharat Patta is a minister of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India, and is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Manchester, UK. He also now serves as an authorized minister to serve the Methodist Church at Stockport Circuit in the UK.

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