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.’

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.’

Waiting for the angels, perhaps.

I remember those days and I think of the huge throng that dragged around behind us. A great train, men and women, young lads. People you felt honoured to meet and people you would not introduce to – well, never mind you would not introduce them to your aunt. You would not introduce them to your street-wise uncle.

Several of us tried to warn him. I am tempted, now, to say: ‘Judas tried to warn him,’ but that would be a lie, or rather, I am sure Judas DID warn him, but so did I, and several others, and I can imagine the cool, funny, witty rebuke that would have followed, if Jesus heard me just blame Judas. So I won’t.

Jesus has taken us twelve off out of the press. I know, to my shame, that that particular day it was me who tried to warn him. He was sitting with his back to an olive tree, not very comfortably, but cool in the shade.
‘Um,’ he replied, ‘so let me get this clear. You are – well you USED to be – a fisherman.’ He stopped and looked at me. I nodded, no idea where this was going. ‘Right, so you used to throw out a net, and you caught just the fish you could sell, right?’

I grinned ruefully. I am no fool, and now I was second-guessing him. But I played along. It was best to. He liked that. And well, he had that way with him, that somehow you wanted to make it easy for him. ‘No Rabbi, all sorts got caught in the net.’

‘Ah, so once the net came near the surface, you could see what was what, and only bothered to haul in the good.’
‘No, we just hauled the whole lot in. You cannot open the net under water without losing the whole catch. Well, really you can’t open it at all.’

‘So as soon as you got them in the boat, then you sort them?’
‘No, in the boat you just had a great flapping confusion. We took them to the land, and sorted them there, into baskets. Valuable, saleable but not valuable, worthless.’
‘Where you could take time, and judge what you had?’
‘Yes, where we could make a good calm decision.’

And then he confounded me. I thought he was going to say some of the people were good and some worthless –but no. He said: ‘Each time I meet somebody, their lives are a huge mix, a bundle of fish in a net. Some of the things in their lives are good, valuable. Some are run-of-the-mill, needing a lot of work to make much of. And some parts of their lives are worthless, and some are utterly poisonous, deadly. One day, maybe, they can throw away the parts which are poisoning them, and dispose of the boring parts to some good use, and take the exciting valuable bits and build on them. But asking them to do that too soon just means that everything gets muddled and lost. We have to wait, and perhaps for a lot of it, we have to wait until the angels come and do it for them. Perhaps. Meanwhile, we take the struggling bundle along with us.’