by Raj Bharat Patta.
As a child I remember the ‘parable of the ten virgins’ (Matthew 25: 1-13) enacted as a musical play by the moms in our local Bethany Lutheran Church in India. Ten women dressed in white, holding lanterns in their hands journeyed to meet the bridegroom. Tired and lowering the flame of their lanterns, they all fell asleep. Suddenly at repeated loud shouts, they woke one after the other, and started adjusting the flame for more light. Five carried a bottle of oil and filled their lanterns, but the others did not have sufficient oil and were struggling to trim their lanterns. These five women requested their friends to lend some oil; but the others did not have sufficient to share and directed them to a dealer to buy more. The groom arrives and enters the wedding banquet with the five women whose lanterns are burning. When the other five knock, calling him, ‘Lord, Lord,’ the reply comes that he does not know them. The facial expressions of the five women who made it inside are gloomy that their five other friends could not join them. The woman narrator of the play concludes: ‘Keep awake, be prepared to meet the returning groom, for he can come at any time of the day or night.’ The play was written, directed, sung and performed by the moms of the Women’s Fellowship in our local Church. This enacted parable has stayed in my memory, and now when I am reading Matthew 25: 1-13, it comes alive, making me nostalgic for my local congregation.
The role of women in parables provides a political hermeneutical key in understanding this gospel passage. Nicola Slee observes the male dominance in New Testament parables with the preponderance of male characters and roles.[i] She notes that in the Gospel of Matthew alone out of a total of 85 characters, as mentioned in 104 parables and sayings, 73 are men and 12 are women. Even among the 12 women, 10 are these bridesmaids, which makes only 3 instances where women are mentioned in the whole 104 parables. We are called to recognise the under-representation of women and their ‘invisibility’ in the Scriptures, challenging readers to ‘hear to speech’ the voices of women in the text. This example exposes the politics of recording a parable; not only do male writers and narrators hardly mention any women, when they do, they use male dominant language. In v.2, he introduces five as ‘foolish’ and five as ‘wise.’ The male writer begins with a prejudice against the first five by calling them ‘foolish.’ In our mom’s church play, all ten women entered the stage as friends with lanterns in their hands, all of them were dressed in white. The first five were trying to help the other five by directing them to oil dealers, and they had gloomy faces when their friends did not make it to the banquet. This enactment demonstrates that if women were recording their own stories, representing their own experience and narrating it in their own language, the parable would have had a totally different perspective. This therefore calls us to confess the politics of patriarchy in the text, and such a confession invites us to a subversive reading of the narratives of the parables from the context of invisible, colonised and under-represented communities. The politics of re-presentation must be addressed in any hermeneutical engagement of Biblical texts – this parable of the ten women challenges us towards that.
This is a parable of the ten unnamed women. Most translations have recorded the women in this parable as virgins, some others as bridesmaids; however, the politics of re-presentation challenges us not to define any one’s identity by their role or status or occupation. The caste system in India and elsewhere has been operating on the notions of purity and pollution, for people are divided into dominant castes and outcastes based on descent and occupation. To recognise people as people and not through any of their roles or status or occupation is an important marker for a just and equal society.
The parable then is a recognition of the fact that the divine in Jesus communicates the eschatological message of last judgement through these unnamed, under-represented women, who at times in Christian history and, from some perspectives still in the Christian present, are seen as incapable of being the bearers of the Gospel. This parable therefore is an affirmation of the strength of women as bearers, instruments, agencies, and resources of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our moms’ play, when it was written and performed by all women, one could feel the dancing of the Gospel coming alive, for the Spirit of God through our moms gripped us all to turn towards God, and made a lasting impact and impression in the lives of the audience there.
This parable challenges us to discuss who represents whom today in our churches and societies. It is time that the Church starts hearing to speech those on the margins and giving a listening ear to the voice of the divine which has been groaning to be heard. Representation is aligned deeply with identity, and identity is a sum total of who we are as a person and the groups to which we belong to. In the multicultural post-secular British context today, the identity of those on the margins matters, and their representation is imperative in nurturing faith for our times.
[i] Slee, Nicola, “Parables and women’s experience,” in Modern Churchman, 26 no 2 1984, p 20-31.