The Kingdom of Heaven…, “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” Now, you have to admit that is a strange image to use for the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, out of the gate most people who are familiar at all with this parable want to immediately change its focus, subtly shift it so it is not telling us something about the Kingdom of Heaven but about our preparedness to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. In this way, it is not so much about God and what He is doing, but about you and what you need to do in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. But before we follow down that path, let us try and deal with the text as it comes to us. The Kingdom of Heaven is like ten virgins who take their lamps and go out to meet the bridegroom. The image here may seem unusual to us, but they are going out to welcome and bring honor to the bridegroom as he comes into the wedding feast. It is a ceremonial role they are fulfilling.
Next, we learn some critical information about these ten women. Five of them are deemed wise and five are foolish. The wisdom of the wise and the foolishness of the foolish ones is demonstrated in the binging along of extra oil for their lamps. Now, in the parable, they all have lamps. They all go out to meet the bridegroom. They all seem ready and excited to go with him to the wedding feast. But what happens? Well, the bridegroom is late. He is so late, in fact, that they fall asleep. And it is not just the foolish ones, but all of them. They all fall asleep. He did not come when they expected. He did not come when they were all excited and ready for his appearing. No, he was late, and they could not maintain their vigil.
Imagine the panic when suddenly, in the middle of the night, the cry goes out, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Truly these ten women must have jumped up with a surge of adrenaline like one who has overslept an alarm clock on the morning of an important meeting. You know that feeling, where you are both thankful you have not missed it but fearful because you are not really ready either. Not sure what to do first, do they straighten their hair or smooth out their gowns? Are they ready to meet him? The one thing they all do is trim the wicks in their lamps. Upon doing so, they discover their lamps are running out of oil. This is not really a problem for the five wise ones because they have extra oil, but for the foolish, they are in a predicament. “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out,” they say. 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.” There is not enough oil to go around, so the five foolish virgins leave to try and procure some more. And we all know what happens next. It unfolds like a sad story we see coming from a mile away. While they are gone, the bridegroom comes and (notice the language) “those who were ready” go with him into the wedding feast. Then the doors are shut. The foolish ones find themselves locked out. When they knock and cry out, “Lord, lord, open to us.” The answer is brutal. “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” It is too late.
As a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, this is quite a challenge for us. Where do we fit in all of this? What is our Lord intending for us to know? Well, for starters we all know full well what it is like to wait. The Kingdom of Heaven has called us, enlightened us with the gifts of Christ, given us the promise of life everlasting, pulled us together into a community of believers as we sing His praises and call upon His name. But the main thing we do, the one thing we all have in common is we are waiting. We are waiting for the fulfillment of the promises, waiting for the finality of the work of Christ, waiting for His return, His coming, His promised arrival in power and glory.
So, it makes sense that the final exhortation of this parable about the Kingdom of Heaven is, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The Kingdom of Heaven does not fit our timetable. The exhortation is to remain watchful, to be diligent, for we do not know when it will happen. Some of you have been waiting for a long time. You came out early to greet the Bridegroom, excited and full of anticipation. Over time, you began to wonder if He is, indeed, coming soon. And it is difficult to live in that full anticipation all the time. We have a tendency, of course, to fall into routines which are a bit more relaxed and predictable. Some among us have even fallen asleep waiting for Him. There are the countless saints who have died in the faith while they were waiting. But we know when He comes, the cry will go up, the declaration will be made: “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” That call will open even the graves of those who have fallen asleep in their waiting. All will rise, full of excitement and renewed joy as the Bridegroom comes into the wedding hall.
Therefore, we learn the Kingdom of Heaven will indeed come. Time does not simply roll on indefinitely, but there is a goal, an end point, and that point will be the arrival of the Bridegroom. We are called to be ready when the day comes, for if we miss it, we might find ourselves shut out of the feast. We are reminded how we all want to be found among the wise virgins, those who are ready when the Bridegroom comes. All of this leads us to the question we have been wondering about ever since we first heard this parable. Okay, we get it, the Bridegroom is coming, but He is late. We know we are to be ready when He gets here, that no one knows the day or the hour, but what we do not know, what we really want to know is what is the oil? What is the thing we need to be ready?
What we want to do is make this parable a lesson about the procuring of oil, a warning for us all to make sure we have the extra oil. But in order to do that, we need to know what the oil is. What does it represent? We are never told. Jesus never decodes the parable for us. No doubt, you have probably heard many a sermon or Bible study which has ascribed all sorts of things to the image of the oil. It is your acts of faith, your dedication to the Word, and the worship of the people of God. It is your works of service that shape and mold you into the wise ones awaiting the Lord. It could be your prayer life or your service to your brothers and sisters in Christ. It might be penance or obedience. The danger here is that to concern ourselves primarily about the oil is to place ourselves in the same situation as the foolish virgins. They are so concerned with having the oil that they miss the bridegroom. They are focused completely on the oil.
Of course, all parables break down. All metaphors we employ to illustrate the things of God will have their limits and, perhaps, this is one of them. There is not a specific referent for what the oil is. The wise ones had enough, the foolish did not. The wise were found ready, the foolish were not. If the parable is not about us but about the Kingdom of Heaven, then maybe it is simply telling us how not all who set out to greet the Bridegroom will be ready when He comes, and one’s readiness cannot count for the unpreparedness of another. Our challenge then is to remain watchful. To be alert is to have enough oil. So, possibly the best we can say it is the oil for your lamp is whatever it is that keeps you watchful, keeps you on the lookout for the arrival of the Bridegroom.
For some, then, it is the call to repentance. It is the breaking down of pride and arrogance we so easily fall into. It is to be shown your sin, your idolatry, your system of living which is offensive to the commands of God. The confession of sin that leaves you empty handed beggars before your God is to be ready for all the gifts the Bridegroom gives. For others, perhaps, it is to hear the Good News again. It is to hear you are forgiven, you are loved, you are not forsaken by your Lord. That is what it means to be ready, to be watchful, to long for his coming, for the Bridegroom longs to embrace you in the wedding feast. For others, it is acts of love and devotion, the joy of living out your faith in the service of one another. This too is to remain watchful. For our faith is not some dead thing, but living and active. So, we are not called to focus on the oil, but to live in anticipation and longing for the return of our Lord. It is to look outside of ourselves and live in the hope that our Bridegroom comes, and He has invited you to the feast.