“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
I recently heard a story from former pastor Francis Chan about his grandmother. Francis said that his grandmother was one of those dear women with a heart of gold, a real saint in the church. She was one of those women who was there any time the doors of the church were unlocked. If someone was in the hospital, she baked the casserole. If there was quilting group, Gram-gram’s fingers had helped to stich it. But outside of church, Gram-gram didn’t have much of a social life. And since Chan’s grandfather had passed away, Gram-gram wasn’t getting out much at all. So Chan made plans to take his wife, children, and Gram-gram out to a play at the local community theater. I don’t recall what play they went to see, but it was a common play, and while it wasn’t a “Christian” play, it wasn’t an offensive or heathenistic play. I’m thinking “Oklahoma!” or something along those lines.
The night of the big show comes and the Chan family dresses up and heads to the community theater. It seems to be going pretty well, the whole crowd seems into it, laughing, singing along. At intermission Chan turns to his Gram-gram and asks how she likes the play.
Gram-gram turns to Francis and says, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.”
Not sure if he heard her correctly, he asks, “What’s that?” and Gram-gram repeats herself, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.”
It’s a Friday night at 7:00, what else do you have going on? What, are you missing Wheel of Fortune? So Chan asks, “What do you mean, Gram-gram?”
She says, “What if Jesus comes back and I’m here. I should be somewhere praying or helping someone.” (This is as best as I can recall the story. I may miss a few details, but you get the point.)
There is nothing wrong with going to see Oklahoma! at the local community theater. But in Gram-gram’s mind, there was more that she should be doing, more that she could be doing. So Francis Chan said that he told his Gram-gram that he would join her and pray through the second half of the play.
I tell this story for two reasons: 1. I think I can do more. I don’t know when, how, or if I’ll ever see Jesus come back, and I’m not sure that’s what our passage is all about. But I can do more. And 2. We cannot allow these questions to dominate our life, because this life was meant to be lived, not just the next one. And let’s be honest, Gram-gram was a bit of a downer and probably spoiled the play for both her and her grandson. J
Let’s look at this passage for a bit because there is a lot going on here and we need to sort through it all to make some sense of it. The first thing that I want to note is that there are ten young women in this story. We are told that these young women go out to meet the bridegroom, and that five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. We need to break this down a bit more.
It was common practice in Hebrew rhetoric to draw strong boundaries between two groups to make a point. These groups are binary; you are either one or another. One common binary was between the foolish and the wise. Think of the Proverbs, such as 10:1, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” And my favorite, Proverbs 10:21, “A good person’s words will benefit many people, but you can kill yourself with stupidity.”
Jesus, being a Hebrew, carries this tradition into the New Testament era. We can think of examples such as the wise and foolish builders. The foolish man built his house upon the sand while the wise man built his house upon the rock.
All of this reminds me of the Highlights for Children magazine and the comic strip Goofus and Gallant. Goofus and Gallant is a comic strip, which I believe is still running in Highlights, with two scenes depicting the lives of the two characters. There is no ethical pronouncement made about the actions of the characters, but we can pretty well guess what the artist is suggesting. Usually we find a picture with captions like, “Goofus doesn’t make his bed,” and an accompanying picture that says, “Gallant always makes his bed.”
So in our parable, we have five Goofuses and five Gallants.
That’s the easy part. But there is still a lot of confusion on my side, in large part because I am separated by a couple thousand years and a couple thousand miles from Jesus’s culture. First of all, the language used to describe these women isn’t helpful. Is their sexual history really necessary to understand the parable, because we are told that they are virgins. Other translations call them bridesmaids, which just makes me think of Melissa McCarthy movies. The word simply means an unmarried woman who is of the age when she could be married. The word in Greek is the same word that is used to describe Mary the mother of Jesus, Parthenos (like the Parthenon, the temple built for Athena, the maiden goddess). It is simply a reference to their age and stage in life. These ten women are at the age and stage of life that they could be getting married.
Now here is where I have misunderstood this passage for my entire life. These women are not looking to get married to the same man. All my life I have assumed that these were ten young women looking to get married to the same groom and enter into a polygamous marriage. But they aren’t looking to get married to the man, they are simply there to celebrate the marriage between the man and a woman, who is presumably a friend of theirs. I believe that this is why some translations call them bridesmaids.
So these ten women are contemporaries of the bride. They are there to celebrate the wedding of their friend!
I’m one that would not survive in some cultures. I need to know when to be somewhere, and I value punctuality. If we receive a wedding invitation that says the wedding will begin at 1:00, I’ll be there at 12:30. But in Jesus’s day, and in much of the world today, weddings started whenever all the necessary people got there and the celebration could go on for days, and one could only attend if they were invited (drawing from William Barclay’s commentary). Because, you know, there’s only so much cake to go around.
The betrothal ceremony was often followed by a long period of time where the groom went to prepare a home for his new family. Often this involved building an addition onto mom and dad’s home. When the home was ready, the groom led a great processional through the city, where the groom was met by the townspeople, who stopped him and congratulated him. They gave gifts, blessings, food, advice, etc. And as you can imagine, this took a long time. You never knew when the groom was going to show up, and you aren’t going to start a party without the guest of honor!
So the bridesmaids would wait in the street to usher the groom into the wedding celebration. And according to Barclay, it was not lawful to be in the streets of Palestine after dark without a lighted lamp, which I assume is to help prevent crime. So the bridesmaids have their oil lamps, and they wait. And they wait some more. And they fall asleep. Finally, at midnight, they hear a commotion in the street. The groom is coming and this party is going to get started!
Five of the bridesmaids had extra oil to replenish their low-burning lamps. The other five didn’t think this one through. If their lamps went out, they couldn’t be in the street. But if they left, they might miss this by-invitation-only party.
With that background let’s look at the actual text a bit and try to figure out what is going on here. Verses 7-9, “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’”
Guess what happens when they go to buy more oil? The groom shows up, the party begins, and the door is locked to keep uninvited people out.
But here is the interesting part of this story. Remember, this isn’t just Jesus telling some random story, it is a parable. There is a point to the story, and some of the elements in the story represent something else altogether. So this is where things really start to get confusing because when the foolish women ask the wise women to share their oil, the wise women say no.
This does not sound like Jesus to me. Jesus was always talking about sharing. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by saying that if you have two coats you should give one to someone who has none. Jesus made a little boy share his lunch of loaves and fishes. Jesus praised a widow who shared her last mite. How did that Golden Rule go again? What’s with this parable, Jesus?
This is where we get into trouble because people start to guess at what these things stand for. What do the lamps and the oil represent? Some have said that the oil shows us that there are some things that cannot be transferred from one person to the next, so the oil must represent things like our good deeds, our prayers, and our piety. Someone else them comes along and says, It sounds like you are saying that it is our good deeds, prayers, and piety that get us into the party. That sounds a lot like works righteousness.
I’ve even heard a rather anti-Semitic sermon that attempted to demonstrate who the wise and foolish virgins were, saying that the Jews were the foolish virgins, missing their opportunity to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. I think that person was missing something, too. To all those who are trying to figure out what the oil or the lamps or the virgins stand for, I’d just like to say that you are missing the point.
Recall that a parable is different than an allegory. In an allegory everything represents something. Plato’s character, Socrates, used a lot of allegory. But in a parable, the point is the point, and a lot of the rest of the story is just setting up the main plot. The oil and the lamps and the number of virgins, all of these things could represent something, but if they do, Jesus did a really poor job of explaining it to us! We can guess and hypothesize all day long, but the point of the parable is found in verse 13: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
Keep watch, because you don’t know when to expect the bridegroom. And you don’t want to miss this party.
Let me say a word about redaction criticism. Redaction criticism is the practice of looking at scripture and asking the question, “Why did the author put this story there?” Or, “Why did they phrase that in this way rather than that way?”
I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it is also clear that different authors tell the story of Jesus differently. Even Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what we call “The Synoptic Gospels” because of their similarities differ. Some include some stories, others leave them out. Luke tells Jesus’s birth narrative in the most detail, Mark starts with Jesus as a grown man.
To understand why one author, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, chose to include or leave out the story, we often look at who their audience was and when they wrote their book of the Bible. Mark is believed to have been written around 70 AD, about the time when the first followers of Jesus were passing away, to preserve these stories. This is also when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusaelm.
Matthew was probably written about 10-20 years later, and it was written to a Gentile audience. And in the chapter preceding our text for this morning, we find Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple. He nailed that one. Then Jesus says in 30b-31, “And they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angles with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Then in verse 44, “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
That’s all in Mark 13 as well. But do you know what is not in Mark? The parable of the Ten Virgins. Why does Matthew include this parable and Mark doesn’t? Because in Matthew, they are still waiting. Matthew is writing during times of persecution, and people are wondering when things will be made right. Matthew says, keep some oil on hand. It’s going to be a long night. But the party is worth it.
And here we are, 2,000 years later. We are reading the same texts, asking the same questions, praying for things to be set right. I turn on the news, and I hear stories that break my heart, and I pray, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Fix this!
My friends, God is always with us. He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. But sometimes he really feels distant. Just like a 1st century groom had to leave his betrothed, Jesus left his followers. And at times the anticipation is crazy. And at times our oil and our flames just burns low. But that’s when we need faith. Faith is how we respond to the invitation to this great party, even when it seems like it is too far away, or too far out of our reach.
What Francis Chan’s Gram-gram seemed to forget was that this party starts now. When the bridegroom does show up, we aren’t supposed to be ready to start the party, he is supposed to be able to join in the party that has been happening in his absence. So we need oil. And we need forgiveness. And we need love. And we need grace. And we need celebration. And we need to kill the fattened calf. The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet, and Jesus tells us the kingdom of God is among us.
Yes, we can be doing more. We can be living into this party right now. What are you waiting for?