Parable of the Ten Virgins, Explained…. mostly

The Great Wisdom literature of the Bible talks about the way of wisdom and discernment and the way of foolishness as being like two separate paths that a person can follow or like two different people whose ways of living are proved as wise or foolish when a trial or crisis occurs.

To live a wise and discerning kind of life begins with the fear and instruction of the Lord but foolishness despises instruction and thinks they always know what’s best and refuses to learn from others, especially from the God who loves them and people who care for them.

Wisdom looks towards the good of others and fulfills its duty and honors its promises. Foolishness looks only to its own good and considers duty and promises negotiable at best.

Wisdom recognizes the love of God and responds in faith and in a kind of life, though never perfect, seeks God’s will and his righteousness. Foolishness put’s off God’s gift of love till tomorrow and lives for self and what is best for me.

The wisdom literature of the Bible is always challenging people to examine their own lives and see how they are living and reminds them of the consequences that comes from each way of life. Are you living in the Fear and knowledge of the Lord, learning to live in wisdom that leads to life and friendship with God or are you living in foolishness believing you alone know what it is best and spurning the instruction and teaching of God, that kind of life that leads only ultimately to spiritual death?

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, Jesus tells this parable of the Ten Virgins in the same tradition of the great wisdom literature of the Old Testament. A parable that was meant as a judgment during his lifetime and a challenge for anyone today who hears these words to examine our own lives and see if we are living in wisdom or foolishness.

In the middle eastern culture of that time, somewhat like today with the bachelor or and bachelorette parties, these weddings took place in stages that looked like: 1) preparation of the bride, 2) transfer of the bride from her father’s house to that of the groom by the groomsmen, 3) the bride’s introduction into the home of the groom, and 4) blessings and festivities within the husband’s home.”[1] But in this parable Jesus quite intentionally chooses different characters to fill these roles, instead of the bride being prepared and then brought by the groomsmen into the husband’s home it is the bridesmaids who are to meet the groom in the desert and escort Him to the wedding feast. This great reversal was typical for Jesus, throwing societal prejudices and norms upsidedown, bringing women into a place of prominence and importance in the story that would have been typically filled by men. This small change alone would have been enough to perk up everyone’s ears to hear what Jesus was getting at but it also filled a more subtle motif that was common in scripture talking about the kind of relationship that God had with His people. In Isaiah 45 God calls himself both Israel’s creator and husband and in the prophecies of Hosea God the faithful husband laments over his unfaithful wife the house of Israel. In the New Testament it is described as the marriage feast of the Lamb to His bride the church and how the church is arrayed in fine linen, clean and white like a bride prepared, prepared because of how her husband died for her and cleansed her from all sins. Already here Jesus is telling a much different story of how God in Jesus is coming to be with His people, like a bridegroom coming to be with his beloved bride whom he sacrificed everything he had to be with her.

Now these very special ten bridesmaids, they had a very particular job to do, one that if not done, the wedding feast, the husband coming to his bride, none of it would work how it should without them fulfilling their role. Now just so we don’t get into trying to think of this passage as salvation being dependent upon what we do alone, notice that all of these bridesmaids were called and chosen already, foolish and wise alike. It’s not a question of whether they will be called by God, they already have been, it’s a question of what do they do with that calling given to them. Their faithful response to their calling was to be the light-bearers for the bridegroom, escorting him through the wilderness to be with his bride on their wedding night. I can’t think of a more important role given to someone, so much trust willingly put in their hands on such an important night, trusting that they will do their jobs and bear the torches faithfully.

But this seems to be the place where so many people get really upset with this parable. I can’t tell you how many sermons and commentaries I read about this that condemn the actions of the wise bridesmaids who would not share their oil with the foolish ones who were not prepared. I struggled to come up with a modern analogy that would help this make sense, so here goes…

Imagine you’re part of a wedding party in one of those remote, exotic “destination wedding” kind of places. You’re with a whole bunch of guys and gals in the wedding party but you only got two cars. The wedding party’s job is to get the groom to the remote location and meet his beautiful bride, the only problem is that the location is so remote and exotic there are absolutely no gas stations along the way. So you did you’re homework, you know it’s going to take almost the whole tank of gas just to get to the wedding, so knowing that you filled up and topped it off before you picked up the groom and your ready to go with a full tank of gas. Unfortunately some of the wedding party didn’t think ahead and they came to pick up the groom and escort him with the tank blinking on empty. Of course they want to go to the party too, so they start begging you to siphon some of your gas out of your tank and put it in their car. Remember there are no gas stations between there and the wedding, so you say ___________. Why do you say that? Is it because you’re being a big meany and you don’t want them to go to the party? Of course not, (though at this point you might be thinking something like that) the reason you say no is because if you give them your gas then nobody will make it to the wedding, but more importantly nobody will be able to fill that really important role that the bride and the groom placed so much trust in you to accomplish, getting the groom to the wedding so he can marry his bride. The foolish people in the bridal party, they don’t care, they just want to go to the party for themselves, they don’t seem to care about the promises they made or the obligations placed upon them, they’re only thinking about themselves. The wise ones honor their promises and respond faithfully to the responsibility given to them.

That’s how it was working in the parable. The Ten Virgins had this very important role to be bear the light in the darkness and bring the groom to his bride. If they had agreed to give up their oil then no one could accomplish the good work they were supposed to do and the wedding party would be lost in the dark wilderness the groom never making it to his bride.

When Jesus told this parable it was meant as a judgment upon the ruling religious authorities of the day who were suppose to respond to God’s calling upon their lives and faithfully be the torch bearers, bringing light to the world by bringing the messiah to a world lost in the darkness of sin. But instead of being faithful to that calling they misused their position and authority only for their own gain, not caring if others were lost in the darkness.

But there are still some really important points that we can take from this parable today in our own lives. In faith, God has called you to be his torchbearer, to bring the light of God’s love through the darkness of this world by bringing Jesus to your world. God has already called you, you already have a job to do, there are people in your life right now who need the light of God’s love in Jesus and you’re holding the torch. The question the parable asks is how are you going to respond to God’s love and calling in your life?

The parable teaches us that no one can do this work for you, no one can believe for you, no one can respond in faith back to God for you. I can’t do it, your loved ones can’t do it, the church can’t do it for you. Each of them have their own calling they are responsible back to God for. Yes, faith is always lived out in a family of faith but that family cannot do the believing for you. Again, this is not about being saved by what we do. We are saved by the grace of God alone. But the question comes up again and again, what have you done with that grace and how have you responded to that Grace given. Have you put it off till tomorrow, or said that I’m a member of a church that must count, or I believe I just don’t do anything about it. Because you are always doing something with your life and living and chasing after something or someone; is it God you are chasing after, and if its not who or what are you really worshipping and can that save you?

Because, as the parable reminds us, time is short. No one can tell you on what day or moment you will be called to account for your life and if you responded in faith to the gift of grace God gave you. Instead, this is parable wants us to honestly evaluate the life we are living, are we being wise, living in the fear and love of God and faithfully responding to calling God has placed upon our lives or are we live foolishly and forgetting about God and not responding to the claim he has placed on our lives? By the grace of God live as those who are wise and not as those who are foolish. Amen.

footnote [1]            The Jewish People in the First Century, II, 757. from The Parable Of The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) The Integrity Of Identity And Activity Herman C. Waetjen
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