Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.(Matthew 25:1–13)
You can imagine the excitement. There is a wedding in the air, and the bride has asked ten young girls to help out. Traditionally they would have helped the bride to get dressed, and taken part in the ceremony as her attendants. They would have nervously waited with the bride, wondering when the groom would come and knock on the door.
Oh, this was a something which was a joyous occasion in the ancient world. The village would be stirred, waiting for the spectacle of the procession. Lamps would be filled with olive oil and lit. The groom would lead a torchlit procession bringing his bride to his home, and the festivities would begin. In an era of ink black nights scattered with flickering stars, here would be a thing worth waiting for. Something to stay awake for and watch.
So the girls waited for the knock, and waited. Time-keeping was not a pressing matter in the ancient world, and in any case the groom was delayed. Perhaps he’s finalising the feast? Where is he? The excitement fades into tiredness, eyelids droop, and after a time the anticipation is replaced by the gentle breathing of the ten maids. You can’t blame them.
Then came the cry: “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him”. Here, too, is the time when we begin to see that these ten virgins were not all the same. Half were wise, and five were foolish. All ten had been invited, and all ten were part of the bridal party. All ten had waited, and all had dropped off to sleep. All had been woken up by the cry, and all had trimmed their lamps ready for the procession. You could not tell the difference between them, until the time came to fill their lamps with oil. At that moment the foolish were revealed.
Perhaps beginning to panic, the five asked the wise if they could share their oil but there simply wasn’t enough. They had to find their way to the local dealer, wake him up (if he too had dropped off) and buy their own. So off they trudged into the night, lamps flickering as they slowly ran out of what little oil was left in them. It was then that the knock came, and only the wise five were to be found. The others were somewhere in the dark.
The marriage feast began, the bride having been processed to the house. The torchlit parade had weaved its way through the darkness, and now the party was in full swing in the safety of the groom’s house, the door closed against the night. The foolish five come, maybe with oil or maybe not, and knock at the door. “Lord, lord” they cry “open to us”, to which they get the devastating response: “truly, I say to you, I do not know you”.
Jesus then goes on to give the lesson of this parable: “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.
So what is all this about? Surely Jesus isn’t in the business of wedding planning, or issuing advice to bridesmaids. What is the point of the parable? The sobering answer is that this it to do with the church. In fact, the more sobering answer is that it is to do with individuals in the church. They are the ones who are to “watch therefore, for you know nether the day not the hour”.
What Jesus is doing here is drawing a distinction between our outward appearance, and our inward reality. All of the women in the parable would have looked the same from the outside: invited to the wedding; asked to carry the lamps; drowsy with waiting. In the same way, we can find Christians and non-Christians looking the same from the outside: kind; generous; involved with charitable works. Although we really are not a Christian society any more, it was commonly thought that simply to be born in this nation was to be Christian, because we were a Christian country. What people had in mind wasn’t so much a detailed set of beliefs, but more a shared set of values and principles. If we all look the same, and do the same things, sure we are all the same.
This is to make a mistake. Back in the eighteenth century John Wesley used to preach a sermon called “The Almost Christian”. He would first describe a sincere person, who acted kindly and was concerned for justice and truth. This person would even go to church, and be seen as an upstanding member of their community. Here was one who is “almost a Christian”. He would then discuss someone who is “altogether a Christian”. This person might look the same outwardly, but they are filled with a love of God and have a living faith.
What is this living faith? It is not only believing in Christ, but also believing that this affects you. It is not having a general belief that Jesus came to save, but that he came to save you. It means not simply believing that the law of God exists, but that it applies to you. In other words, it is personal and not general.
That is the oil of the parable, and that is what separated the wise and foolish virgins. Don’t put off getting the oil to another day, or thinking that someone else’s oil will do for you too. You cannot cash in a future promise of faith, or rely on someone else’s faith.
When the bridegroom comes, the question is a simple one. Where is your oil?
Picture of a 2nd Century Israeli lamp