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The Better Half

As a member of the afflicted sub-population, I may admit freely that the Bible is all about men’s problems. As I observe in The Soul Comes First, Jesus obviously had a rich ministry to women, but there are few writings that address their unique concerns. I consider it a terrible loss that Jesus’ teachings to women are not available to us.

Some might doubt the existence of such teachings, but a number of the encounters in the Bible make it clear that Jesus recognized the oppressed status of women, and Luke records an encounter with two sisters [Luke 10:38-42] in which Martha becomes irate because her sister Mary sits and listens, foregoing her obligations as a hostess.

The recorded parables, however, are mostly about men. In the modern era, the context of business and financial probity is more relevant to women, but I would imagine that in their day they would have been hungry for stories that related more directly to their concerns.

How would they have understood the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids? As related in Matthew [25:1-13], ten bridesmaids await the arrival of the bridegroom to be received at the wedding feast. They bring their lamps, but fall asleep until midnight when the bridegroom is announced. The five foolish bridesmaids depart to by more oil for their depleted lamps, while their wiser peers enter the feast with the vials they thought to bring in advance. Upon their return, the foolish women are turned away by the bridegroom with “I do not know you!”

The imagery of the story is not obvious. The lamps could be souls or wisdom, but I believe the story holds together better if we think of them as virtue. The wise maids store their virtue, conserving it for the afterlife. The foolish maids do not. In their contemporary religious practice, the loss of virtue could be recouped by alms and sacrifice at the temple. What Jesus warns, however, is that that practice carries no weight in the kingdom of heaven.

The last leaves me to consider whether this isn’t just another dig at the priesthood, but in comparison with the parable of the landowner, I do see some special meaning for the women of the era. Masculine personalities are active, dynamic and at times brutal. Feminine personalities express their virtues in merging. I don’t think that it’s an accident that we have two groups of women, for it is in community that women find their strength.

More might be extracted from the parable if I better understood the marital traditions of the era. Clearly, the lamps are carried for some purpose other than to light the way to the celebration. Some sense of the special purpose of women in heaven is suggested in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem [Rev. 21 and 22]. The masculine virtues, represented by the twelve tribes, stand guard at the walls, while the feminine virtues manifest as the tree of life with leaves that heal the nations and twelve crops to feed them. I have an intuition that Jesus also is offering an insight in Matthew 25 that would be revealed by study of the marriage rites.

I once characterized Jesus’ stories as the “WTF parables,” meant to draw sharp contrasts between the retribution expected of men and the forbearance of a loving God. In this case, a literal interpretation of the story leads in the other direction. Why are the wise maids so harsh with their sisters, in contradiction to the practice of Jesus himself on the cross? Why are the lamps necessary at all to enter heaven, when the prodigal son brings nothing but his humbled spirit? It is here that we again see this as a story targeted to women: men were used to lording it over people, and as the prodigal sons they needed to learn humility. Women had different priorities – first and foremost the preservation of their virtue in a society so devoted to their diminution and degradation.

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