It’s around this time every year when the church calendar begins to include end-times themes into the Sunday readings.
And depending on how you count them, the Gospel writers document around 40 parables that Jesus told.
In some – like the parable of the mustard seed – the message is clear: the Kingdom of God grows from the tiniest of beginnings.
In others, the message is not so clear. These parables can be tricky to navigate. Sometimes we struggle with a parable because we’re not sure where to focus. A good example of this is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Here, Jesus offers a parable about the great reversal that’s coming at the end of the age. If we’re not careful, though, we can assume that Jesus is teaching us exactly what the afterlife looks like.
The parable of the ten virgins is another tricky parable. The message is so simple that readers tend to get bogged down in the details. Let’s take a look at this significant teaching:
The Parable of the 10 Virgins
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”
“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some more oil for yourselves.”
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Later the other bridesmaids also arrived at the banquet. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”
But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matthew 25:1–13)
Listeners and readers are probably familiar with the background of this parable. The bride and her bridesmaids waited at the bride’s home for the groom to arrive, which usually occurred after dark followed by a long procession of dancing and celebration leading up to the main event.
For some reason, the groom was running late, and the wedding procession fell asleep. When the herald announced at midnight that the groom was on his way, it caught many of the bridesmaids off guard. Those who were caught unprepared discovered that they lacked enough oil to keep their small lamps burning. When they asked the more prudent bridesmaids if they could borrow some of their oil, they were refused.
Lacking oil, the unprepared bridesmaids were then sent to purchase more oil. While they were gone, the groom arrived, and the wedding procession was forced to go on with five bridesmaids instead of 10— a considerable embarrassment to the wedding party!
Typically, everyone in the village would have been invited to the wedding feast. But, Jesus tells us that they barred the door and refused entrance to the foolish virgins. In fact, the groom denies that he even knows them.
Keeping Ourselves Ready
One of the main ways that people lose this parable’s thread is in attempting to attach too much significance to the details. For instance, people often focus on what the oil is supposed to represent. Is the oil supposed to represent the Spirit? Purity? Faith? Sometimes these elements become a sort of Rorschach test that reveals more about the interpreter than the Scripture.
Thankfully, Jesus sums up the parable’s meaning for us clearly. He says:
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
The simple message of this parable is one that Jesus touched on repeatedly:
“So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matthew 24:44, see also Luke 12:40).
We should take this parable to heart. We are the bridesmaids waiting for our Groom to appear and lead us to a royal wedding. When He— Jesus, our Groom—arrives, will He find our lamps trimmed and burning? Or, will He find that we’ve fallen asleep, assuming He wouldn’t come during our watch?
Pray today that Jesus finds us awake and ready for Him, striving to do the work He’s commissioned us to do.
The parable is simple: Jesus is inviting us, heeding us, to be ready for when He comes again. Reminding us we do not know the day or hour, so it’s good to always be ready.
Whether we die first and meet Jesus Face to Face in heaven
Jesus comes back to earth in the Second Coming and then we meet Him. Either way we’d be wise to be prepared, for death will come to us all.
However, being ready is easier said than done. It forces us to confront painful truths about the mortality of others and ourselves. Being ready can be a painful, strength sapping exercise that requires vigilance and fortitude, making it easy for us to ignore Jesus’ advice and take for granted our lives and those around us.
A year or so ago someone passed on to me this story about surviving the loss of a loved one. The voice you’ll hear in the story is a self-professed “old guy.” He’s someone who is loved and has lost a lot of people in his long life. His wisdom from a lifetime of experiences is shared in the words below:
“Alright, here goes.” He says, “I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents:
“I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances; but I don’t want it to “not matter.” I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.
“As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
“In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out; but in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a particular cup of coffee. It can be just about anything … and the wave comes crashing; but in between waves, there is life.
“Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them too; but you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.“
My take away from the parable of the ten virgins, followed by the wisdom of this “old guy” is to not take for granted the lives of those around me and my own life.
Life is short.
The time we have together is precious.
Elections will come and go.
Stock markets will rise and fall.
Life will some days be hard and other days will be less hard.
Some night’s we’ll be in utter shock – and grateful – about how wonderful a day has been.
I only have this one precious life to live.
So do you only have your one precious life to live. So …
Live life well.
Live life full.
Full of love,
Full of joy,
Full of forgiveness,
Full of compassion.
Don’t find yourselves unprepared. Remember the words of the Savior today. Be ready.
Be ready to meet the One Who made you and holds you in the palm of His hand.
Be ready to meet the One Who laid His one life down for you – so you could live the life you have.
Let’s All … Be Ready.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog