By the Rev. Justin Clemente. Preached September 5, 2021 at New Creation Church (Anglican). Part of our ongoing “Parables of Jesus” series.
Today, we continue in our series on The Parables of Jesus. We’re looking now at our first parable of wisdom and folly: The Parable of the Ten Virgins.
Prayer (of Lancelot Andrewes)
Thou, who with thine own mouth hast told us that at midnight the bridegroom shall come: Grant that the cry, “The bridegroom cometh!” may sound evermore in our ears, that so we be never unprepared to meet him, or forgetful of the souls for whom he died, for whom we watch and pray. And save us, O Lord. Amen.
There is much to unpack in this masterful parable of Jesus, and so we’ll waste no time diving in.
Jesus told this parable in what we know as Tuesday of Holy Week. It comes in the midst of a long section in Matthew about the Last Things and the coming again of Christ.
Today we’re going to walk through the highlights of this parable. As I’ve said before, you don’t want to press the parables too hard. You want to keep the main thing, the main thing. That’s what I’ll try to do this morning.
The Virgins (vs. 1-2)
Let’s start with the virgins in verses 1-2. These are virgins in the sense of unmarried young women, though chastity is certainly implied. They are part of the celebration of a wedding feast that is about to commence.
In the Middle East, a wedding banquet would begin with a long procession through the village catching as many people as possible up into celebration. The bridegroom and bride would meander through the streets, taking the longest route possible (much like parades today) so that everyone could share in greeting the new couple at the groom’s home, where the wedding feast would then begin.
Now, in the midst of this waiting crowd are these ten women. They are without a doubt a personification of the church – God’s people – the bride of the Lamb. So this parable is told to Christians. It is deeply a parable for all of us here this morning.
But the first thing that this parable teaches us is that there is a dividing line in the visible church. Not all who identify with the Body of Christ will be identified with Christ at his coming.
Now, let that not be to our own fear and lack of assurance. Because Jesus tells us exactly how to be ready! What is the defining difference between the wise and foolish virgins? Their resources. One group had the resources to be ready for the bridegroom – the other did not.
The Oil (and Lack Thereof) (vs. 3-4)
That brings us to the oil. What is the oil in this parable? Well there’s a lot of reticence to nail it down, exactly.
But, I don’t think I’m too far afield this morning, when I say the oil is certainly God’s resources for the Christian life. By that I mean the ordinary means of grace. The Christian life is not always easy, but it’s not a puzzle either. How do you persevere in Christian life? You stay ardently, faithfully, regularly in the means God has given you for your perseverance! You stay a Christian the same way you became a Christian.
Oil is, of course, regularly given in Holy Scripture as a sign of Holy Spirit’s power and presence. The Messiah himself is the anointed one. The oily one. We should want that oil to be poured on us daily. That means standing and staying under where it comes out. That means attending to the Word of God, believing it for ourselves, hearing the preached Word, ingesting it for ourselves. It means coming to the Table of the Lord full of faith in him. It means receiving the ministry of Christ’s body to you, persevering in community with those who watching and waiting for Jesus, that you yourself would be full of light.
Go to church regularly. Read your Bible and believe the promises of the Gospel. Love the Sacraments. Serve God and your neighbor in that hope. Be a faithful, awake, and watching Christian.
Author Jeffrey Gibbs widens the meaning of the oil. He says, “The oil in the parable represents whatever it takes for you to be ready to honor the Bridegroom when he comes again in glory.” (Matthew 21:1-28:20, pg. 1323)
What he means by that is some of us will need oil to, by the grace of God, trust the Lord through suffering, through loss, through dashed hopes. Each one of us will encounter trials and tribulations that tempt us to give up “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)
The Wait (v.5)
The next thing that this parable teaches us is that learning to wait well with the right resources is a necessary part of the Christian life. Instant discipleship and maturity in Christ does not happen. Instant glory is not the normal Christian life!
Look at verse 5. The bridegroom is delayed. Jesus tells his church, right from the start, that his appearing will take longer than they think. See, there is tension here: we must be ready to meet Christ this instant (for so it may be), but also have the resources to wait upon him for ages to come. Jesus’ second coming is soon in the sense that is the next thing on God’s calendar and yet…what is even a thousand years to him? For “with the Lord a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
I bring us back to the one thing the foolish women lacked: resources for the night. One of the fascinating bits in the Chronicles of Narnia series is how the character of Susan Pevensie is concluded. You may know that her character is left hanging. By the time of The Last Battle, her family has died in a train wreck, and she has forgotten Narnia. As a young adult, she is preoccupied. Satisfied to wait no longer for Narnia. Jill Pole and Polly Plummer summarize her grown-up life this way:
“Oh, Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed. I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Now this a word to all of us, but perhaps especially to younger adults. Have you given up waiting well for Christ? Have you forgotten that Christian life involves waiting on the wedding feast of the kingdom of God through each season of life?
The Appearance of the Bridegroom (vs. 6-12)
For the Bridegroom will appear! Look at verses 6-12. In the middle of the night, unexpectedly, he appears. Now just note the irony here. Jesus tells us again and again that we will not know the day or the hour of his coming. You can attend all the prophecy conferences you want, and still lack the equality of authentic Christian faith: watching and waiting for Jesus with your lamp lit and oil well supplied.
The foolish virgins rush about, barking orders at the other women and at the bridegroom himself. They try to save face and find something or someone who will help them appear ready to enter the feast. Jeffery Gibbs is helpful again here. He writes “You cannot get ready; you just need to be ready.” Matthew 21:1-28:20, pg. 1322) In other words, you cannot make yourself ready to meet Jesus. You have to be ready with the resources he gives you.
Look at verse 9 and the response of the wise virgins. Don’t miss the main point. This parable also teaches us that, ultimately, although the Christian faith is to be shared, it cannot transferred or borrowed. It is not the faith of your grandparents or parents that will count. It is not the faith of your spouse that will count. It is not the faith of your pastor that will count. Jesus will come looking for faith in you yourself.
Lastly, the appearance of the bridegroom teaches us that the kingdom of God has a door that is graciously open in Jesus and will one day be shut. I am utterly amazed at the lengths some scholars, pastors, theologians will go to say otherwise. But all the words of Scripture, especially these here, run in the opposite direction. Shouldn’t we take Jesus at his word on that? Jesus is the most loving person to ever walk planet earth, and he warns us about this. So, we ought to walk through the door while it is open.
The Marriage Feast (v. 10)
Lastly, let’s look at the Marriage Feast itself. Don’t run too quickly over this.
This is an incredibly “earthy” image. A feast. A bride. A groom. Wine and exceptionally good food. What’s being pictured here isn’t so much heaven as heaven on earth. It’s what the Creeds call “the life of the world to come.” We need to be reminded that Christians don’t just believe in life after death, but life after life after death.
Think of the best wedding you’ve ever been to. If you’re married, then hopefully it was your wedding. Think of that night. Time simply ceased to exist. You caught up with old friends and family. You ate and drank wonderful food. The fun of it could have gone on all night!
Well, can we just be reminded here: that’s what the Christian hope is compared to. We will never be sorry or disappointed that we waited faithfully. We may have to endure every now and again the jabs of those who see no need to have oil in this world. Why are you carrying around that oil? Let it go! Be free of it! It’s weighing you down! Have a little fun!
But what we have in Christ will always be worth the wait. For “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) Unless, of course, we really weren’t waiting on the Feast at all. If something else has grabbed our heart and our trust, then we truly will be disappointed. So to paraphrase Jesus’ words at the end of our parable today: “Y’all stay awake, for you do not know the day or the hour.” Amen.