Fr Martin Henry: The failure of success

Reflecting on the parable of the bridesmaids, Fr Martin Henry asks if the apparent failure of the foolish bridesmaids resonates more truly with real life than the supposed success of the wise

Bride with bridesmaids posing in hotel or fitting room at wedding day
The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids challenges our understanding of success and failure (kkshepel/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

When listening to a parable in the gospels, it can be interesting to speculate on which figure or figures we might like to be identified with. In the case of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, recorded only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13), the choice would presumably be between being identified with either the wise or the foolish bridesmaids.

No doubt, most would spontaneously choose to be thought of as being in the wise rather than the foolish camp. For no-one would probably wish to be considered foolish, despite St Paul’s encouragement to be “fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10, where incidentally the same term for ‘fool’ occurs as in the parable). But when we look a bit more closely at the parable, an awkward enough problem could easily arise.

According to most people’s understanding of Christian values or of Christian morality, it is usually considered a good thing to love your neighbour as yourself, to care for the weak, and to be ready to help those in need.

In recounting this parable, the evangelist can hardly be wanting to recommend that we become hard and selfish and just look out for our own interests. So, how else might it be interpreted?

Yet, when we look at the wise bridesmaids, their attitude does appear, at least at first sight, rather selfish. They are unwilling to share their oil, in case they themselves should ultimately be left short.

They seem only concerned about their own needs, and fob off their less astute companions – without incurring any risk themselves – with almost cynical advice on how to deal with their problem.

In recounting this parable, the evangelist can hardly be wanting to recommend that we become hard and selfish and just look out for our own interests. So, how else might it be interpreted?

Might it be more realistic to approach the parable not from the perspective of which figures we might aspire to be identified with, but rather from the perspective of which figures more accurately reflect the actual human condition?

Could it be that the more credible characters in the parable are not the five wise bridesmaids at all, but the five foolish ones? Perhaps it is their plight that the evangelist is keen to highlight.

The five wise bridesmaids end up safely inside in the wedding hall, while the five foolish ones are left outside, with the door shut on them. And when we ask which of these two situations might correspond more truly or more realistically to the life we experience on earth, is it not plausible to suggest that the situation of the foolish bridesmaids is more like what people often experience in life?

For in life, much remains dark and unfulfilled and often ends in failure. To that extent, life would appear to have a greater resemblance to a desire for, rather than to the possession of, happiness. If life can be viewed in this way, then the possession of happiness would be what the wise bridesmaids represent, whereas the foolish ones would symbolise the desire for happiness. And in that sense, human life might seem to bear a greater resemblance to the disappointment of the foolish bridesmaids than to the success of the wise ones.

So, sharpening the original question, we might ask: ‘Which figures in the parable should we be identified with?’ And the more candid answer may be: ‘With the foolish bridesmaids.’ They desired happiness, but because of human weakness – or fecklessness, some might argue – failed to find it.

The distinguished Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009) contended that “happiness is an escape from reality” (as he writes in his book, Religion). While this contention itself may well be contested, its validity is, nevertheless, often endorsed by human experience.

For while happiness tends to be of relatively short duration in life, what, on the other hand, does seem to be stubbornly long-lasting is the absence of happiness or the failure to find it.

And one might arguably see this failure as dramatically highlighted, to reiterate, in the fate of the foolish bridesmaids. Certainly, their failure may resonate more truly with people than the success of the wise bridesmaids.

To the not unreasonable objection that this reading of the parable represents a wilful distortion of its straightforward meaning and plays down or ignores the sting in the tail — the ominous concluding symbol of the closed door with its dire warning about the importance of choice and timing in life and their potentially catastrophic consequences, might one not still reply: But where, in all these kinds of considerations, is the ‘good news’ that the gospel seeks to communicate? Is Christianity more a threat than a promise? Or can it be both?

If it can, then the ‘good news’ must surely at least include the belief that the possibility of divine happiness that God has promised does not disappear, simply because we cannot – for whatever reason – find or grasp or unravel it conclusively on earth.

The parables speak ultimately about the mystery of God in such a way that they allow us to sense – as in a glass darkly, to use St Paul’s terminology – that this mystery exists and has an unbreakable connection with us, and that God offers us an everlasting share in this mystery, even if we don’t know ‘the day nor the hour’ when the divine promise may become a full reality for us.

This is the good news of the Christian message that can always outwit and outreach and redeem the frequently bad news of the human condition.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor