One of Jesus' parables that has given me fits for years is the "Parable of the Ten Virgins" in Matthew 25. For more than two decades now, I have knocked my head against that parable to no avail. But finally, I think I am beginning to get a handle on what Jesus was trying to say. If I am right, then the message is really quite simple. My problem over the years resulted, in part, from my trying to make it more complicated than it really is.***
Now the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps.
Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, "Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." Then all these virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. Now the foolish said to the prudent, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the prudent answered saying, "No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves."
Now while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Later the other virgins also came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open up for us." But he answered them and said, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you." Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
Although many things need to be said about how best to understand the meaning of this parable, four brief observations adequately suggest to us what Jesus was trying to say:
(1) The delay of the bridegroom plays a critical role in the story. Had the bridegroom not delayed, all of the virgins would have been ready and waiting when the marriage procession arrived, and they all would have accompanied the bridegroom to the feast. Only because the bridegroom was delayed were half of the virgins caught unprepared and not able to accompany him to the feast.
(2) The wisdom of the wise virgins consisted in their understanding that the bridegroom might be delayed. Why did the wise virgins take the flask of extra oil with them? Was it not because they had the foresight to anticipate that they might have to wait? Had they thought there would be no delay, it would have been completely unnecessary for them to carry extra oil.
(3) In the end, the only crime of the foolish virgins was not being ready to follow the bridegroom to the feast when finally he came.
(4) The bridegroom's response to the crime of these foolish virgins is severe: he bars them from entering the marriage feast altogether; and, more severely, he makes the astounding claim that he does not know them.
At this point I must speculate. Although my knowledge of first-century Palestinian culture is not adequate for certainty, my common sense tells me that this last feature of Jesus' story would have seemed startling and outlandish to his listeners. Is it likely in the everyday Palestinian life of those days that a bridegroom would say to such foolish virgins, "I do not know you"? Would he not rather have opened the door and said, "Oh, Martha, it's you! You finally made it. I wondered what happened to you." Conceivably, their marriage customs would have barred these late-comers' entrance to the feast, but the bridegroom saying "I do not know you" seems highly unlikely.
Here, I think, is the real "point" of this parable. Jesus makes this point by contrast, not by comparison; by disanalogy, not by analogy: In the world of everyday wedding feasts, not being ready when the bridegroom comes, though socially awkward, does not ultimately exclude you from the joy of the celebration. But not so if we are talking about the eternal wedding feast to come. When that bridegroom finally comes to take you to that ultimate wedding feast, which will be the occasion of all true joy and celebration for all eternity, if you are not ready to follow him, then you will never be allowed into that feast at all. That's how it is in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is saying. So you have got to be ready. You dare not risk not being ready; the stakes are too high. You could lose out completely.
Why is Jesus issuing such a warning? Because he knows that his coming will be delayed. It is easy to be ready if the bridegroom comes quickly. It is so much harder to be ready if he is delayed. And he will be delayed.
If we are wise, we will know and understand the nature of God's promise. God will inevitably keep His promise, but He will not keep it quickly. The Kingdom of God will come in all of its glory, but it probably will not be soon. Knowing that, we who are wise will do what we must do to be and to remain ready to follow the bridegroom to the feast when finally he does come.
Notice that both the wise and the foolish virgins fell asleep as they waited for the long overdue bridegroom, but there is a critical difference between the two. While the foolish virgins slept, their readiness to follow the bridegroom was depleted, consumed by time and the flame. The wise virgins' lamps burned, too, but their readiness to follow was not depleted, for they had a whole other flask of oil that had not yet been consumed by their vigilant flame.
What is the analogy in our lives today? What does it mean for us to have oil in reserve, for us to be ready to follow the bridegroom? God requires one and only one thing of us: He wants us to want the coming of His Kingdom more than we want anything else in this life. It's little to ask, and it's a lot to ask. But it's the only thing He asks. At the end of this age, when nothing of this world remains, if He finds that we want--from the core of our being--the Kingdom He intends to establish, then citizenship in that Kingdom is ours. But if He finds our eyes, our desires, and our affections fixed on the stuff that is passing away, then we are unworthy of His Kingdom, and His words to us will be, "I do not know you."
The oil that the foolish virgins found depleted when the bridegroom came is analogous to our desire for, belief in, and commitment to the eternal Life which God has promised. Many people will desire it; many will believe God's promise; many will commit themselves to wait for its realization. But only a few will find their desire, their belief, and their commitment in ample supply. Time and the flame of the weary, mundane ordinariness of life will try to lick dry our desire for the Kingdom and our belief in God's promise. For those of us who are foolish--in whom the desire does not run deep, the belief is not profound, and the commitment is only superficial and very fragile--our supply will soon run out. When the bridegroom comes, no longer do we really believe, no longer do we really want his Kingdom; long before, we had shifted our commitment to something else this world had to offer. But for those of us who are wise, our desire runs deep, our belief is profound and unshakable, and our commitment is more than superficial. So, our supply outlasts the bridegroom's delay. Though he does not come, his delay does not consume our readiness. We remain ever ready to follow him; for still we desire, still we believe, and still we remain committed to that which He has promised.
Jesus said once, "Many are called, but few are chosen." He is saying something very similar to that in this parable: "Many are invited and will join in wait for the bridegroom, but few will actually remain to follow him to the feast when he comes."
I would suggest that this parable sheds some light on what we at McKenzie Study Center understand ourselves to be about. I sincerely hope that we are like the oil dealers mentioned in Jesus' parable: the ones that the foolish virgins went looking for (although it was too late for them). Our desire is to persuade anyone and everyone who will listen of the surpassing value of God's coming Kingdom in order that we might fill the flask of their desire with a hunger and thirst for that Kingdom. We study a lot of different things; we talk about a lot of different things; our interests are wide and varied; but one thing--I hope--underlies everything that we do: we want to persuade those who have been foolish to get a little oil for their flask. In other words, we want to persuade them to trade in a faith that is fragile and tentative for a faith that can endure anything; to trade in a weak and fading love for God's kingdom for a love that runs deep and strong; to trade in a casual interest in the eternal Life which God has promised for a raging hunger; and to trade in a commitment that is divided and distracted for one that is single-minded and focused. By God's grace, that is what McKenzie Study Center is and will continue to be about.
(Jack Crabtree, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a tutor at Gutenberg College and has been a teacher at McKenzie Study Center since 1981. His teaching at MSC focuses on interpretation of the biblical texts and biblical philosophy, the history of philosophy and theology, religious epistemology, and hermeneutics.)
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Watercolour: William Blake (1822)