“The Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1). With these words Jesus introduces us to a story meant to teach about the nature and working of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this tale these young maidens have the duty to meet the bridegroom who is coming to the wedding. They act as a welcoming party who would light the path as he arrives for the big celebration and feast. So, out they go but the bridegroom is delayed in his arrival. They wait and wait and wait some more. Eventually they begin to nod off. One after another finds a nice comfy spot where they can get in a quick nap while they wait for the bridegroom. Then, when it is all quiet and still, the cry goes out, “Here is the bridegroom!” As they rush to make themselves presentable, we are reminded that some of these ladies are well prepared and some are not.
In fact, when the text begins, we are told five of the virgins are foolish and five are wise. The difference between the foolish and the wise ones are that the wise bring extra oil. They all go out to meet the bridegroom, they all end up falling asleep when he is delayed in his arrival, but they did not all bring extra oil for their lamps. So, when they are abruptly awakened, they all trim their lamps, and some find they are out of oil. The wise ones, of course, begin to fill theirs with the extra they brought along. The foolish though, they do not have any, and they ask the wise to use some of theirs. But the wise say no. They say, “There will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” Now the foolish are in a quite a bind here. Their bridegroom is on his way. Not only are they foolish for not bringing any extra oil but now they will look more foolish for greeting him with no lamps. They must find a solution. The longer they wait, the more they risk looking ridiculous. So, they rush off to buy some more oil in hopes of making it back in time to greet the bridegroom.
What happens while they are gone? What happens when they are off doing everything they can to not look foolish? Why, the bridegroom finally shows up. He shows up and the five wise virgins greet him with their lamps burning. They go with him into the wedding feast. As they enter in the door is firmly shut and locked behind them. This is where the parable takes a dark turn. For remember, this is not just a story about being prepared or planning ahead, this is a story about the Kingdom of Heaven. When the foolish ones finally make it back, they find to their horror they have missed the whole thing. The bridegroom has come and gone. They rush to the wedding hall and begin to pound on the door. “Lord, lord, open to us,” they cry out. But the response from within, the response from those on the inside of the Kingdom of Heaven is brutal. “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).
“The Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” It is a tuff text. It deals with those who find themselves on the inside verses those who are locked out. It is about wise and foolish people, about a separation that comes when the bridegroom arrives. Texts like this are not the ones we usually want to focus on. We want to talk about inclusivity, about welcome and joy and happily ever after. When we take this text and begin to ask the hard questions, it gets uncomfortable. For what does this look like in our life? Where do we see the wise and the foolish? Who are those that will enter the wedding feast and who will be left outside knocking on the door?
Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). This story describes the reality of the Church. We are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. We are waiting for the return of the Son of God. I think we have a habit of forgetting this. Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives and all the many things going on, we forget we are actually waiting for the coming of Christ. This age, this world, this timeline has an expiration date. It will come to an end when Jesus returns. So, we wait. In fact, we have been waiting for a long time. Almost two thousand years have passed since the Savior of mankind returned to the right hand of the Father. We have waited so long that many of the faithful have fallen asleep. But all will be awakened when He comes. All will hear the proclamation of His arrival. The question is: “Will you be ready?’
This gets us back to the wise and the foolish, the ins and the outs. The foolish did not have the oil necessary to keep their lamps burning bright for the bridegroom. We should note here how the text does not say they could not get in without burning lamps. Perhaps the bridegroom would have been fine with them simply accompanying him into the wedding feast as they were. But they wanted to look right, to be presentable, and to have all the proper things lined up. They turn to the wise and want them to provide for them what they need but they cannot do it. So, they seek to find a way to make it all perfect. They rush off to buy the oil themselves. Because they are consumed with their own action, with their own doing, they miss his arrival. They find that no amount of work, no amount of posturing and pleading and promising can gain them entry into the feast. They are too late.
All this concern was because they were foolish and did not have enough oil. So, what is the oil that burns in our lamps. What is the one thing we need if we are to be found ready when the bridegroom comes? Is it our effort, our diligence, or sour righteous deeds? Is it that our light shines brighter than someone else’s? Perhaps we are smarter or more well-read. Maybe we take the time to help others, to lend a hand. Or it could be we spend more time in prayer, more time reading our bibles, and walking the way of the Christian life. Is this how we make sure we always have enough oil so we will be ready when He comes?
It could be. But that does not seem to fit with the rest of Holy Scripture. Though prayer and meditating on the Word of God are wonderful things, though we are to do acts of compassion and love for others, our salvation, our assurance in eternal life, have never been rooted in our own behavior. It is not about what you do but what your Lord has done and continues to do for you. He does not want your hard work and your last-minute effort to look the part. He wants you, all of you.
Your oil is filled up when you receive what He has done, when you are fed and nourished and washed and clothed by Him. You come here into this house of worship. You come not to do a great deed but to receive what He gives to you. He washes you in the water of Holy Baptism and calls you His own. He feeds you with His own body and blood in with and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of all your sins. He embraces you as brothers and sisters as, once again, He repeats His love for you, as He takes your sin as His own and gives you live everlasting.
Here is your bridegroom, in Word and Sacrament, to prepare you to meet Him in the flesh. Here he keeps your oil filled. Here it is pressed down and running over. So, it will not be panic or fear that grips you on that day but joy and a peace that surpasses all understanding when we hear the glorious declaration, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet Him.”