The “Wise” and “Foolish” Women, Nov. 12, 2017
The Rev. Debra Slade, BCC, St. Francis Episcopal Church, Stamford, CT
Remember the song – “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman…” well, since the first story broke on Harvey Weinstein and his disgusting behavior, women (and some men) have been hearing about, and revisiting their own “Me too” stories on a daily basis. For a woman of my generation, it means to remember a time when these stories and such behavior were the norm, were something that you not only had to put up with, but that you knew to talk about would only have the net effect to hurt you more, to alienate you from others, and impede any likelihood of success. To put up and shut up was the norm. Over time, because of the work of many brave women and supportive men, laws were put into place to protect women from sexual violations stemming from the abuse of power. Society moved to condemn such behavior, through its laws, its law enforcement and through its cultural norms. Things have gotten better than in my day, when every time I was in a position of vulnerability whether it be working at KFC, being a young woman university student, or a new, lowly female law intern – there was always, always a Harvey Weinstein lurking around making things miserable, as well as fearful. My daughters, now 22 and 25, have thankfully not had the negative experiences that I had had by their ages, and in my mind, that shows some comforting progress. But we know that our work, folks, is far from over from the stories in the media showing how those wielding the most power in their industries — right up to the White House — are still engaged in this despicable abuse of power. And if the “Me too” campaign has shown anything, it has shown that it is not just those in high places who are the predators, it exists at all levels of society where people are vulnerable. And, I really wasn’t planning to talk about this subject in a sermon, and then along comes one of my least favorite ever bible passages this Sunday – the Ten “Wise” and “Foolish” “something or other” women.
And my “something or other” comes from the very title of this parable, and its main characters – the women with the lamps. For a very, very long time, since people could read the bible in English – these ten were called “Virgins” – due to the fact that the Greek translation of the bible written way back when combined two Hebrew words – one meaning a young women or girl (almah), and one meaning a woman who has never had sex (betulah) into just one Greek word (parthenos) that is used to describe our women in the parable. This, then allowed them to be called virgins – when they could just as easily been called young women or girls. Because this is a wedding story, our NRSV version has opted to call them bridesmaids, who presumably were young women, otherwise why weren’t they at home with their children? But in my vain search to find anything encouraging to me about this parable, my research turned up even more annoying interpretations – one that they were ten virginal, young women, probably around 12 years old who were all brides, not bridesmaids – waiting to be united with the one bridegroom, who was allowed apparently to marry ten – 12 year olds. Let us all hear a collective “Ewww.” But most scholars agree on some version of the Jewish marriage customs of Jesus’ day that consists of a man – the groom – bartering with a bride’s family for marriage – and once the deal is made – they are married legally – but he then goes away for a yearish period – the time called the betrothal – and then he comes back.
But the exact time that he comes back may never really be set, and he could be late or early. Once they see him coming (from afar I guess) — his coming is announced – and folks come and great him. This is followed by a wedding type procession to the groom’s home or the wedding site – where they (groom and bride or brides (eww again) “consummate” the marriage amid cheers and hoopla apparently, (more eww’s), and then have a big wedding party for several days. I tell you this because it puts this parable somewhat into the context of “this is sort of the type of story that Jesus’ audience would recognize. “ Hard to believe, but unfortunately, true.
So let’s assume this scenario is legit, and it’s a groom coming late to pick up his bride and the ten bridesmaids. Because he is late and it’s getting late – they all fall asleep. Now, no harm in that, eh? – How many of you fall asleep before midnight? Hands up? When they wake up half of them have enough oil in their lamps, because they brought some spare oil – these are the “wise” ones, and the other half – the “foolish” ones forgot the spare oil. Whoops! No biggie. Have you ever forgotten your cell phone charger – hands up? So then, you say to your friend, who did remember the cell phone charger aka the spare oil – could you spare some charger time – and your friend says “no – there won’t be enough time for my phone to get charged if I give it to you.” Now, what is there “wise” about this friend – “wise?” folks? – No, I say – selfish!! What about all those bible verses about sharing our stuff with others – many, many verses about that – giving to others who don’t have enough – for example Matthew 25: 35 – only 20 verses later – where Jesus tells us to give to the least of us – those hungry, those thirsty, those without clothes – those in prison? Not wise these women, I say, but – selfish! And now, the ones without lamp oil aka cell phone charger – know they need to get some oil/power – otherwise – they can’t use their cell phone to call their parents, use it as a flashlight – or take pictures of the wedding – they do what most of us would do – they go to the open 24 hours CVS and buy a new charger or oil. So this makes them “foolish” – no, I say – resourceful! And, they still show up to the party with their bright re-lit lamps ready to party and take pictures and play music from their phone – and what does the groom say – “Get lost – I don’t know you – too late for you!” And what do I call that guy – I call him inhospitable – unforgiving – hypocritical (after all, he was the one who was late) — not my Jesus. My Jesus knows all of his sheep by their name – and will go and find the one out of a hundred that is missing and in danger. I don’t care about the traditional interpretation that this bridegroom is the Second Coming of Jesus – telling us all to get ready, stay awake and be good folks because you never know when we might get raptured or “Left Behind.” No, this groom is not my Jesus — this bridegroom — he’s just another guy telling a bunch of resourceful, tired women — they can’t belong to his club.
When my great uncle, David Wiens did our family genealogy, he discovered a story about one of our ancestors called Maeyken Wens, who 444 years ago was arrested, had her tongue screwed down so she could not speak, and then was burned at the stake for preaching the gospel of her Anabaptist beliefs where she lived in Antwerp, Belgium. Her preaching was considered heretic both to the Catholic Church and because she was a woman. Her letters from prison are preserved, and it is said that her oldest son of nine children, kept the tongue screw, found in the ashes, as tribute to her and her testimony. Women have only been priests in the Episcopal Church for 44 years – the first time I saw a women celebrate Holy Communion, I was 40. A feminist interpretation of scripture began around the time of the women’s suffragette movement in 1885 when The Women’s Bible was published by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of 26 women. Feminist biblical scholars began publishing more widely only in the late 1970’s and the mid 1980’s. As in so many other fields, the voice and the interpretation of the bible by women has been silenced for too long. Literally silenced when my ancestor tried to preach and had her tongue screwed down, and silenced when the powerful made it impossible for the truth to heard, believed and acted upon. The Jesus I know and love would be with the women who are shut out of the party. The Jesus I know would be with them when they speak the truth, suffer the consequences, and change the world. Amen