Parable of the Wise and Foolish virgins
Have you ever been really late to a wedding? Perhaps your own wedding? I won’t ask for a show of hands! I have been married twice. The first time I was 28. I arrived at the church in good time, but my bride did not. This was long before we all had cell phones, so we didn’t know exactly what was happening second to second. The minister was shooting me that look – “this isn’t the only wedding we’re holding here this afternoon.” What neither of us knew was that my friend had accidentally locked the keys in the car the bride was supposed to be driving in. For a few minutes they debated going in the photographer’s car. He was a surfer dude, with a surfboard on his roof. But the inside of his car was a disaster, sure to stain her white dress. She briefly considered hitchhiking in her wedding dress; it got that tense. Fortunately, they broke into the car, got the keys, and arrived at the church in the knick of time.
Back in Jesus’ day, there were no cars to get brides and bridegrooms to weddings, it was all done on foot. The usual procedure was that after the workday was done and night had fallen, the bridegroom would walk to the bride’s family home to pick her up. Then they would walk back together to the house where the wedding would take place. Everyone in the village was invited, so people like unmarried virgin women would wait to join the procession to the wedding. Then as now, things went wrong, and bridegrooms could be running late. In this parable, the 10 virgins wait so long they fall asleep. When they awake at midnight, half of them have too little oil for their lamps to make the journey in the dark to the wedding. They go off to buy some more, but when they arrive at the party, they are denied entry. The bridegroom says, I don’t know you. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus says. Which is very strange, shouldn’t they be let in?
This story is strange because it is steeped in symbolism and does not ask to be understood literally. Our first clue that it has deeper meanings is that it contains an impossible detail. When the 5 foolish virgins run out of oil, they are told to go buy some, at midnight. Where should they go? There are no 7/11s back then, staffed by drowsy grumpy teenagers pulling the graveyard shift. The instruction to go buy oil is impossible; this is our clue this is story is about something else.
The parable contains several rich Christian symbols. The first is the wedding. Throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as a wedding party. We are all invited to this party, not as guests, but as the bride. You may recall that the Gospel of John’s first miracle story is of Jesus turning water into wine – at a wedding. There’s no mention of a bride in that story, either, just as there isn’t in this story today. Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding to say that being joined to me forever will be the best party you ever had – dancing, singing, celebrating – what are you waiting for?
But how do we get to this eternal state of union with Jesus? That’s where the second symbol comes in – sleep. In Christian stories, sleep refers to death. Death is like sleep because Christianity promises that death is not final. We will wake up. These ten virgins represent believers who die and then wake up in the afterlife. The question is whether they will enter the kingdom of heaven, whether the Bridegroom, Jesus, will let them into that eternal feast after they wake up.
It appears that their fate depends on a third symbol: the oil in their lamps. Half the virgins have too little to make the journey in the dark. So, what is this oil that makes such a difference? What does it represent?
On an obvious level, oil is what allows their light to burn brightly. The wise have more oil than the foolish. It appears at first that the issue is the quantity of oil. Perhaps wise people are just more prepared than others, better at planning ahead. But if it was the quantity of the oil which was the issue, then why were the virgins turned back at the door once they bought their oil? They have the right amount of oil to reach the door of the wedding party, so shouldn’t they get in? The story suggests it is not just a question of the quantity of oil, but its quality, too. There is something different about the oil the wise possess.
When the foolish virgins wake up and discover their lamps have gone out, they immediately start making demands. “Give us some of your oil, our lamps are running out.” It’s the first note of selfishness in the story. I don’t have what I need, you fix it for me. The wise women have lots of oil, but they don’t know if it is enough. They don’t boast about how much oil they have. And they don’t berate the foolish virgins, either. Instead, they say, we’re not sure if we have enough, so why don’t you go buy some. Now, we might wish they had said sure, have some of ours. But keep in mind this is a spiritual parable about getting into communion with God. So, if the wise ones say we’re not sure that even we have enough, they are showing humility, not cruelty. They are not assuming they will get into the wedding banquet, either. But they do give advice about how the foolish women can get some oil.
This sets up a subtle but important dichotomy between the two sets of believers. Both want to be with bridegroom. But one group, the wise, isn’t sure they will get in, but they appear willing to just see what happens. The other group, the fools, want the oil to make sure they can get in. This is what the oil is for, and they had this much of it, and now theirs is gone. And the way they get more is presumably the way they got it during life: by trying for it, by buying it for this purpose. They are like the two stepsisters in the Cinderella story: they want to marry a prince, so they must get to the ball, whether they deserve to go or not. I want what I want, and I want to get into heaven. But, when they arrive at the door, having bought their oil for the express purpose of getting into the heavenly wedding banquet, Christ the bridegroom turns them away. It appears that why you collect that oil matters. Are you scoring points for your own welfare? Is this all about you? Are you convinced you’re a sure thing to get into this banquet? Here’s the news ladies: that’s not how you get into this party.
But what should they have done? What did the wise souls do to have so much of the right kind of oil? That question is not answered in this parable. This story appears at the beginning of chapter 25. The solution comes in another parable we have all heard, later in the chapter. Christ tells his followers that any time they cared for the hungry, the sick, the poor, the naked, the prisoner – every time they did that, they were caring for Christ. Especially when they had no idea, they were doing it to Jesus. Jesus is saying that when we tend to the vulnerable, we are tending to God, especially when we don’t give it much thought.
Every once in a while, there is a story in the news about someone who saved another person’s life. On the spur of the moment. They may see them trapped in a crashed car, or at risk of being whisked away in river. The press asks the rescuer if they were scared since they would be in danger, too. The reply if often a sheepish, “I don’t know, I just acted. I didn’t give it any thought at all.” That kind of heroism is the result of a life of having helped others many times before this. Just like shooting hoops for years as a kid can help prepare one for the high school basketball team, good actions need to be practiced so that they become second nature. You don’t do them to score points in heaven, you just do them because they are so obviously the appropriate thing to do. It becomes second nature. I see that in this congregation all the time. Just basic simple goodness at work, in kind words, in dropping off clothes for the poor, donating to refugees, treating strangers who walk in our door like they are neighbours. You don’t think about this too much, you just do it, because it feels right.
Being able to help others without trying to score points is important for our spiritual development and for the health of society as a whole. Doing good things because they just feel right is how we fill our lamps with oil supplied by God. We don’t earn this oil; it is given as we give back to God through our help to others. You may wonder why Jesus is so specific by stating that it is the sick, the poor, the naked, the prisoner, the stranger. Why not give us credit for helping our friends and family? Or making donations to our favourite arts charities? Because this comes naturally, we do this almost by instinct. Jesus puts it this way earlier in Matthew’s Gospel:
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-7)
When we help friends and families, we can expect some kind of appreciation in return. They will love us back, invite us back to dinner, put us up at their cottage, show reciprocity. That’s how close relationships work, a virtuous circle. But Jesus is saying something more is needed. It matters that we take care of the poor, especially when we are not trying to make points by doing it. Can we give out of a genuine sense of care for the other, with no expectation of return? That is the way to the kingdom of God. When the foolish virgins arrive at the door of the wedding, the Bridegroom, Jesus, says, I don’t know you. We’ve never met. You never helped me, although you may have spent your entire life helping yourself. You had only enough oil for yourself, but not for the extra journey it takes to reach the kingdom of heaven. To get to this eternal party means travelling through some darkness. Where the needy people are, where my hurting children are. Where I am. Jesus asks us to share our light with others who have been forced to dwell in that darkness.
This story could have ended in a different way. What if the foolish ones had shared their remaining oil with each other, so one of them could have reached the wedding? Or, what if they had donated what little oil, they had to the wise virgins so they could be sure to reach the wedding? Or, knowing they had no oil at all, what if the foolish virgins had simply waited to catch a glimpse of the bridegroom? To simply see him, to be in His presence, a blazing light in the darkness? I suspect he might have invited them to the banquet, once they realized this was never all about them.
It is never too late to change our story. There is still time to get to know Jesus, He would dearly like to meet you in an outstretched hand to a stranger. His invitation is waiting to a banquet where there is singing and dancing, and oh, so much light. May we see each other there.