[Jesus said] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1–13 ESV)
Jesus’ parable of the ten maidens or virgins – part of a wedding party waiting for the groom rather than associated with the bride – and possibly part of a festive procession to the feast – first century Jewish wedding etiquette guides are very hard to come by! – is not totally foreign to us. In this case it is the groom who is late and while the women or girls wait they do, we assume, whatever we would do – chat, wonder, discuss things, twiddle their thumbs, check their dress, and finally doze and sleep – the groom is definitely late! – but what 5 of them don’t do – already described as foolish – is check their lamps. Are they able to do the tasks they have to do?
We know what happens. The groom finally comes and there’s the panic of preparation and the scrambling for oil, even asking to share and thus potentially putting the whole task in darkness, and finally rushing off to get more oil and thus missing out on the wedding feast. Then they turn up at the door and get the groom out of the party (!) asking to be let in. This picture of unpreparedness and being left in the darkness was a specific image or message Jesus gave to his disciples about the end times and in particular the kingdom of heaven. In what we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
In the last week of his life before his crucifixion, Jesus spoke at considerable length about the end times – the signs that will herald it – wars and rumours of wars and so on, the parable of the fig tree, calls to watchfulness and faithfulness, the parables of the ten maidens, the talents, the sheep and the goats and the final judgement. Many hits of the hammer on the nail to get the point home; not because he was a dull teacher; not because the message was only for the very clever; but in recognition that the followers of Jesus live in dangerous territory in which our enemies – sin, death, the devil, the world’s allure, and our own sinful desires – all conspire to make us dull students, rebellious students, and particularly slack students who know the quick answers but who in one’s heart have no intention of trusting those answers.
Whether you view the 10 maidens as representative of the whole world waiting for Jesus to return or just the church waiting for his return, the outcome is the same – heaven will not have everyone in it – and some of those people ‘outside’ I suspect in their stubbornness will keep to their rejection of Jesus even when he’s in front of them. However I think – with no justification really just my imagination – that many of those in the darkness will be sad, wailing, crying out because they missed out – not because Jesus didn’t care and definitely not because God chose some to be damned but because they didn’t believe or trust Jesus even though they knew about him – and it’s that truth that this consequence is their stupid fault that causes the despair and sorrow.
These teachings of Jesus draw a line in time after which some people are in darkness. It is not that salvation has a use by date but that this rescue of Planet Earth does have an end and the new heaven and new earth has a fulfilment. Unless you believe in circular time – cycles of life – then your time
line is a straight line and this line, Jesus says here on Earth, has an end point. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Working together with him [Jesus], then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:1,2)
Jesus took on the forces that enslave and entrap and kill us – including our secret desires to be in control, to be gods of our universes with everyone orbiting us – and he rescued us on the cross against our will. He didn’t ask our permission first because by nature we view God as our enemy to be placated, ignored, or controlled but not to be worshipped and obeyed. This attack again sin, death, and the demonic was most public on the cross but was happening the moment Jesus set foot on the planet as part of the rescue plan the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – set in motion when sin first contaminated and ruined us and all creation; when we in Adam and Eve rebelled. And Jesus attacked those forces through his words (parables and teachings) and gave signs (also known as miracles) for us to notice him and his words. And it is still the same today for now is the time of our salvation – as Jesus through his Words – spoken and read and studied and preached in and from the Bible and felt in Baptism and tasted in Holy Communion comes to us … now.
I can’t take chapter 25 of Matthew out of the Bible – we’re going to be hearing more of it in the next two Sundays. This chapter for many people is like the Wicked Witch in Sleeping Beauty, the taxman, even the undertaker – a reminder that living has prices to pay and end points and consequences. We all want a ‘happy ever after’. And the whole of Matthew – all 28 chapters – and the whole of the New Testament – and the whole of the Bible (!) – declares that God wants the same for us! He wants us to live with him with meaning and hope and joy – no matter what we’re going through – and most importantly, God has done something about it to make this happen! That’s why Jesus came among us! That’s why Jesus comes among us! In Baptism God brings us into his kingdom, and through his Word he teaches us to keep our flasks of oil ready, and through his Holy Communion he encourages and strengthens us not to fall asleep.
We are living in the waiting time. We don’t see Jesus but he is present with us. And we live, according to the world, rather strangely – following and trusting someone we don’t see – and encouraging the world to do the same.
It’s all about Jesus and his cross and empty tomb. That truth changes everything!
- Matthew 25:1 - 13