Mary of Bethany remembers the parable of the bridesmaids

The thing I liked most about him was that he did not make me feel like a woman. He did not make me feel like a man, either. He made me feel like myself. When I took my place among the disciples, the male disciples, sitting there to learn from him, he treated me just like them. Hopeful of me, exasperated with me. But never by a look or a word did he suggest I was – well I was just another disciple.

In a way, that was odd, because he told so many stories that were about women, or where his Father was like a woman, or his Kingdom was like a woman. Like the bridesmaids story, where the only thing that mattered was having oil.

We got his mother back, somehow. Between us. We got her to drink a little water. We got her to bed. I made some food, and some of them pretended to eat some of it.

Now they are in bed, and are pretending to sleep. And I am sitting here, alone. Grief is not a stranger to me. I have buried both my parents, and my brother. Remembering that, remembering how – I am shaking as I sit here, now that I can be alone, and nobody is depending on me any more. This is beyond normal grief, because this is not just his death but the death of every hope, every expectation for my life and the lives of us all.

I run through the bridesmaids story again. I think I have it word perfect. Once he has worked his stories up, he did not change them much. I am filled with fury. Against the Jewish establishment, against the Romans, against him. There is a little lamp burning. I put out the light. I drain the lamp. I take the week’s supply of oil, needed for al sorts of things, and I drain it in the corner of the courtyard. Then, I pick up the lamp and smash it.

Despite all of this, there is a great aching desire to see his dear face just once more. On Sunday, in the first light of morning, I will go and anoint his body – again. He will smell by then, but I do not care. I must see him just once again, and say good-bye properly. although the world is dark, and I will not do a single thing he ever suggested, although I am furious that he raised and dashed so many hopes, I must see him just once more.

Learning to judge

The flocks were headed back to the fold for the night, straggling though they followed their leader, quite a young lad. It was rather different to the eager way they bounced out in the morning, after having been milked. All of them lop eared, with pronounced noses.

We were sitting out in the cool of evening, catching our breath after a hard day of it. I loved these quiet evenings when it was just us best, though the days were more exciting. But in the evenings, when it was cool, and Jesus was unwinding – that was when he would teach us most, I thought.

‘The sheep and goats know which is which,’ said Jesus lazily, watching them peel off into the right fold. The shepherds separated the lambs out, keeping them apart so they could milk the adults in the mornings. They knew the routine and went with few protests. The adults plodded into their folds. At a distance, it was no always obvious to us which the goats were, which the sheep, but they all knew.

‘There you go,’ said Jesus, the lashes once again sweeping down, ‘the judgement you have always wanted. Sheep and goats divided. It seems they judge themselves.’

We shot each other glances. Jesus had been having a bash at ‘not judging others’ and ‘being forgiving’ that day and we were not as convinced as we might have been. We said little but he knew of course. He always knew.

‘So do we judge ourselves?’ asked Andrew, ‘Because I think the shepherd is really the one who decides.’

‘Um,’ said Jesus, ‘Right, you lot, all jump up. Go on, go on!’

Somewhat reluctantly we heaved ourselves up and stood there looking, well looking sheepish.

‘Right,’ he said, ‘All of you who have ever given a thirsty friend, or a beggar, a cup of water, go to the right. You are, lets see, you are the sheep.’

That was easy, we all straggled off to the right. ‘O.K.,’ said Jesus, ‘All of you who ever at any time passed by a beggar who looked thirsty and did not buy a drink, go to the left. You are goats.’ We eyed each other. Of course we had all, at some time, gone past a beggar and given nothing. We all straggled embarrassed to the left.

‘OK,’ says Jesus, ‘Now let us try with the sick. Who has gone to help a sick friend? Who has avoided helping.’ He kept us at it for ages, straggling right, straggling left. Remarkable, Judas once made it as simply a good sheep. He had had friends banged up on suspicion of insurrection, and never failed to visit despite the risk to himself. Every other category we always found ourselves both sheep and goats.

In the end he let us sink down and rest. By now the flocks were settling down for the night safe in pens.

‘People are not quite so easily categorised,’ said Jesus, ‘I do believe in judgement, but you have to learn to judge yourselves. Really, what matters is not simply getting it right (well done Judas, by the way! The only one to be just a sheep in any category).’ Judas gave an ironic little bow. ‘No, what matters is – learning what matters. Seeing clearly what needs to be done, and trying to do it. Keeping your priorities. Because, really sheep and goats are very alike. But what to do, how to live, that is where the difference is.’

Keeping it safe

‘So you do not blame them for sleeping?’ asked John. Jesus had worked the Ten Bridesmaids up into a good story and had been telling it during the day.

Those days, with the crowds, the only time we really got to talk was the night. I looked at Jesus. He looked fit to drop. Here, in private, and in the house with just the little light flickering he let himself look worn out. I knew that in the day, with the crowds, he would sparkle as bright as ever.

‘I do not blame anybody for yearning for sleep, no. But the point is, they have forgotten what they are there to do. Like the bridesmaids who have forgotten to get oil, or just not bothered to get it, I see people every day who have simply forgotten what this people of God are actually supposed to be doing. They have totally lost track of what they are here to do. It is such a waste.

‘Let me try it another way. There were three slaves, all belonging to a rather rich, grand master. He was pushing off to visit some estates and these slaves were to be left alone. So he gave them all money, silver. He told them he wanted them to do something with it. Big sums of money, you realise. One got over a million pounds, and another half a million. The third chap only got a quarter of a million.’

‘Only!’ said Matthew.

‘Only,’ said Jesus, ‘Well off went the rich man, and the slaves considered their course of action. The man with the million went into business and in a year, doubled it. So did the bloke with half a million.’

Matthew, who understood the currents and swirls and eddies of money, frowned. ‘It is pretty good going to do that. My reckoning is you would be lucky to put say twenty per cent on to your money. If you were being at all honest.’

Jesus lowered his eyes, and looked out under his lashes. ‘Whoever said anything about honest?’ he replied, almost flirtatiously ‘Because the slave owner comes back, and he summons his possessions, and asks for an account. He gets back two million, and a million, and then the third chap comes in. Grubby. He hands his master back the same quarter million he started with. He did not want to trade dishonestly, and he was afraid to trade honestly. He dug a hole and buried it. Now he has dug it up. His master told him he should at least have lent it to the money lenders at a good rate of interest’

‘But that is against the law,’ protested Judas, horrified.

‘Oh yes,’ said Jesus, happily, ‘But burying it? He had not made a penny. He was afraid. Afraid of loss, and wanting to keep himself pure. Of course the master took the whole sum off him, demoted him. Poor guy went back to ploughing the fields.’

We looked back, horrified. ‘But he was the only honest one!’

‘He was the only one who forgot what he was supposed to be doing,’ said Jesus.

Sleeping

They were young and beautiful, in the simply way the very young are. They did not realise this, the most of them anyhow, and by the time they did, the beauty would have drawn back a little. They were also, to a bridesmaid, asleep. It was late and they were young. Even excitement could not hold them awake.

The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, delayed by the ceremonies and excitements, and the tediums of politeness at her old home. Her new one awaited. Probably with a difficult mother-in-law, but today nobody was thinking of that.

One small lamp burned. ‘Keeping the oil for the big moment,’ said Jesus, ‘but I hope they have plenty.’

‘Perhaps they should have stayed awake,’ said John, rather piously.

‘Perhaps,’ said Jesus, ‘But it can be a long wait. No the important thing is to have oil. I mean, to have what you need, to be ready when the moment comes. Because the wait is long, agonising. Justice? Love? How long a wait. It would make a good story, I think. Twelve young girls. The ones with enough oil, and the ones without. The point is, sleep, but then be ready – when the moment comes where you CAN make a difference, then be ready… I shall work on that story. It would be a good funny one.’

Blaming an enemy

He wriggled his back against the tree a bit, and narrowed his eyes. ‘A better story,’ he said, ‘There was a rich farmer – rich enough to have slaves to work the fields.’ We nodded, envious. Imagine that. Not working under the hot sun. ‘And he had his field sowed with corn seed. And it came up, nice green, and so so thick. Then, horrors. A servant, walking by the field, realised the horrible truth. Darnel! Looks just like wheat when it is young. Good for nothing, though, and once it is far enough up to tell it from the wheat – well!’

We paused to consider. Horrible situation. Try to weed it out, and you would grub out a lot of wheat too. Leave it in, and it was shading out the wheat. ‘So nothing for it, but tell the master. And you tell me, what do you think is going on?’

‘Well, they do say that sometimes your enemies will sow darnel in a field, just to do you down.’

‘Um, and when do you think they would do it? At dead of night when nobody would see?’

‘Not in my village,’ laughed Matthew, ‘What, creeping out at night? Listen, if his wife did not beat him round the head with a cooking pot for looking for a fancy woman, it would be all round the village the next day that he had been up to some kind of mischief, and just what would be the subject of wild rumours for weeks. Once the darnel came up, he would get the blame, whether or not it was his fault.’

‘In the daytime?’

‘Then everybody would see!’

‘So?’ invited Jesus.

‘Teacher, everybody knows weeds do not need sown. Weeds just happen. That is farming. We wish it was not, but it is.’

‘What can you do?’

‘You are best to wait. Wait till harvest, I reckon. Pull out the darnel then, and use if for kindling. Beat the seed out of the wheat.’

‘Well,’ said Jesus, ‘I think I will tell the story and have the rich man blame his enemies. that will get a laugh. Get it remembered. But you – you remember you simply cannot go through life blaming other people and trying to pull out all the faults and inconveniences of the world. You do more harm than good.’