The Parable of My Fair Lady

September 02, 2012

by Rev. Beth Perry

In seminary, I heard the best definition of mythology: a myth is something that never happened but always happens. Eliza Doolitte and Henry Higgins may never have lived – but don’t people always try to change the ones they love? My Fair Lady may describe events that never happened, but the relationship it describes… well, that happens all the time.

According to John Dominic Crossan, those never/always happening stories build worlds. We have an interaction or an event or a belief and it is so powerful to us that we begin to view the whole world through the lens of that experience, we create our world around it.

There’s a lot of that going on in My Fair Lady. The characters in the play have a mythology about respectability. In the world they’ve built, respectability comes from the way you speak or the clothes you wear or the money you have – or even whether or not you are married…

So when Eliza’s father acquires some money he decides that he should be more respectable! Which means marrying the woman he’s lived with for years. Money, plus marriage, will, according to their mythology, make him respectable!

But then he sings this song with his quite un-respectable hopes of a wild night of drink and love! The song becomes a parable that, as Crossan defines parable, subverts the myth! Shatters the myth by pointing out its limitations.

It’s a simple song, catchy and fun – but then you recognize: it’s also a subversive song, pointing out the limitations of his respectability – and thus the limitations of the mythology of the entire play.

Parables are usually catchy, deceptively simple - enticing as a bridal veil and shatteringly sledgehammer subtle! You may not get the point right away – but once you do… wow! Parables do what Emily Dickenson wrote: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --

Parables are tools Jesus frequently used to tell the truth slant! He knew people couldn’t take it all at once so he pulled them in with a catchy story and then showed the limits of their mythology – then took a sledgehammer to the limited worlds that human beings had built from their beliefs.

So whenever you read one of Jesus’ parables you should wonder about the mythology waiting to be shattered. What is the truth Jesus wants to tell… a little slant? What is the world that Jesus is trying to subvert through this parable?

So let’s pull apart today’s ancient testimony, that parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids… to figure out what world Jesus was subverting.

First, what is this parable about? That’s easy to see: Jesus tells that in the first sentence: The kingdom of heaven will be like this… this parable is not about a wedding - that belief is subverted right away!

This parable is about the kingdom of heaven. The Greek word for this is Basileia – and in a very over- simplified definition, the baselia is the way in which the community of faith lives together so that God is made manifest in the world.

And what do we know about the basileia from this parable? The answer to that is a little slant but still easy to see! Just read what happens in the parable: the wedding is delayed; the oil runs out; the wise are stingy; the groom isn’t welcoming! Is that what you’d expect from the kingdom of heaven? No! And that’s the truth: The basileia is a place where unexpected things happen! The kingdom of heaven is unpredictable!

So what does Jesus want us to know about how we are supposed to act in this unpredictable kingdom?

That, too, is unexpected! And the slant shows up strongly here! You see, this parable doesn’t tell us many of the typical things we think about when we envision how the Christian community of faith lives together….

For example, good Christians share, right? Not in this parable! The wise were not generous or caring or supportive!
Good Christians welcome strangers, right? Not here! The groom shut out those he didn’t know!
God will provide? No – the oil ran out! Peace on earth? No – there was conflict at the door! Rest for the weary? No – the closing advice was to keep awake!

This parable doesn’t even tell us what a lot of people think it says: that the wise are better than the foolish. Really read what it says! Both wise and foolish were chosen to be bridesmaids. Both fell asleep when the banquet was delayed. Both got up as soon as the groom’s arrival was announced. Both had to trim the wicks that burnt down while they were asleep – which was what wasted the fuel of both wise and foolish alike. In all ways, the wise and foolish acted exactly alike – except for the extra oil!

And Jesus never praised the wise for having extra fuel! He didn’t say to the wise: Good work! Stock up on that oil! Keep a lot of extra just in case!

In fact, his message at the end of the story condemned both the foolish and the wise for falling asleep! He said: Stay awake! Stay awake and keep your wick trimmed all night so you can conserve your fuel! Stay awake so an unexpected delay doesn’t ruin your wedding! Stay awake and avoid the problem all together! Stay awake!

Who is ready to enter into the wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven, the basileia? Those who stay awake! Those willing to meet every unpredictable moment – those who are awake to the unexpected around them – those who at a moment’s notice will embrace an unexpected parabolic God, arriving in the dark of night to shatter all their expectations…

What is the mythological world that this parable is shattering? The comfortable cozy world created by the myth that life will go the way we plan, that events – that God – will always show up on our schedule, that wisdom or preparation or hoarded assets will take care of us … The mythology that faith, that the kingdom of heaven, that God is predictable! The myth that we are supposed to act in safe, cozy, comfortable, predictable ways! The kingdom of heaven is unexpected and unpredictable - and we better be, too!

You and I all build our worlds from a variety of myths – cozy comfortable worlds based on our most precious beliefs. Like Eliza’s father and those bridesmaids, we have myths about ourselves: we believe we’re respectable… or that it’s just within our reach… or that we’d really rather not be respectable at all! We believe we’re wise and prepared… or that it’s possible to be… or that we prefer foolishness and fear!

Like the first followers of Jesus, we have myths about how we are supposed to be a community together. We believe we should be married, like family, good friends, comfortable with each other… or at least pretending to be… or maybe like unhappily married couples, arguing all the time!

And we all have myths about how God will be with us: we believe God will always be dependable, predictable, reliable... just a little boring... never surprising, never unwelcoming, never late…

Whatever we believe about ourselves or each other, most all of us believe that God will never be more or less than we want, we need, we can name…

All of those myths are rooted in some reality – they always happen in some way! But they are also subject to shattering by a good parable once in awhile… the recognition of an unexpected limit on the world we’ve built for ourselves. A flickering flame that says our wick is burnt, our oil is wasted, we slept too long, the abyss is opening around us…

A realization that we haven’t lived in the baselia… we haven’t lived with each other as people who are awake to the unexpected… we haven’t lived with each other as people who manifest in the world the great joy that comes from the very unpredictability of God…

After all, what could be more unpredictable, more unexpected, more uncomfortable, more parabolic, more subverting and shattering of all our mythology… than the unexpected love of God for us? And what could be more unexpected... And more joyful, more truthful, more loving… than God taking on human life for a while… and, on some unpredictable Sunday morning, sitting down to the wedding banquet with us?


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