Yesterday, we looked at the unexpectedness of Jesus’ return. No one knows the day or hour – not even Jesus himself knew while in human form. It will be sudden, with catastrophic consequences: like people going about their business before being swept away by the flood; like a thief doesn’t phone ahead, but turns up without warning to steal your stuff.
So what should we do? Be ready, keep watch, says Jesus. Despite the delay, act like he could return at any moment, and be found doing what is right. In fact, in today’s story we’re told to make adequate preparation for Jesus’ return.
Matthew 25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
This is using the image of a first century Jewish wedding. The virgins are the bridesmaids (no matrons-of-honour in this culture). The “lamps” were probably wooden sticks with rags on the end doused in oil to make them burn. In this culture, the bridesmaids don’t accompany the bride into the ceremony, but go out to meet the bridegroom to guide him back to the bride’s house, where the wedding would take place. Hence the torches.
Where is the bridegroom coming from? Since the betrothal, he’d have been back at his father’s house building an extra room for him and his bride to live in. (He has to complete it before they can get married – giving him a bit of an incentive.) So when Jesus says this in John 14…
John 14:2-3 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
…he’s using the image of a betrothal. Jesus is currently busy getting our rooms ready.
(Sidenote: this is probably the image behind our being “caught up together… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” in 1 Thess 4:17. We form a procession guiding the bridegroom back to earth – it’s not an image of being zapped up into heaven.)
By this point in Matthew’s gospel, it’s become clear that Jesus uses the image of a bridegroom to represent himself. So in this parable we have the story of Jesus’ followers waiting for him to come back to claim his bride – his people – after going to prepare a place for them. Let’s read the story in that light…
Matthew 25:1 At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
Being wise or foolish is not about one’s intellectual abilities. The background is from OT wisdom writings, in which “wisdom” is the fear of God, and is all about making good moral choices. Let’s see how our bridesmaids do:
Matthew 25:3-4 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.
The torches with rags at the top needed constant dousing with oil to stay alight. So you needed to bring extra oil. The foolish look like they’re unprepared if there’s much of a wait…
Matthew 25:5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
In Middle Eastern culture, time was not as much of an issue. We think it’s poor form if the bride is more than half an hour late. In that culture, it could be hours, as the groom stopped to visit friends and relatives along the way. A delay to make a last-minute show of haggling over the bride price was also expected – displaying the great worth of the bride.
Note that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids fell asleep. That’s not the problem. The issue is whether they have brought enough oil. At any rate, someone finally spots the groom approaching – but by now it’s the middle of the night:
Matthew 25:6-9 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ 9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
Their response might seem a bit mean, but if there was genuinely not enough for everyone to go round, then all ten torches might go out before they reached the wedding feast. And unless it was a bright, moonlit night, someone was going to twist an ankle at the very least. Or maybe lose their way entirely. So they were sent off to get the oil-sellers out of bed to sell them more oil.
Matthew 25:10-11 “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. 11 “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ [could also be translated: Lord! Lord!] they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
Now Jesus’ parables are set firmly in the culture of the day. But there’s usually some kind of twist that shocks his audience – that goes against their expectations. Maybe a rich man who isn’t blessed by God. Or a tax-collector or a Samaritan who’s the good guy. In this story you’d expect the chastened bridesmaids to be let in to the ceremony late – and have a good deal of social shame to live down. But here’s what Jesus, the bridegroom, says when they come knocking:
Matthew 25: 12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
There are some obvious echoes here from earlier in the Gospel – Jesus’ response to those who claim to know him, but don’t bear fruit worthy of repentance. These are the hypocrites, whose actions demonstrate they were never really his followers:
Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Of the ten bridesmaids at the start of the story, you couldn’t tell at first who had come prepared. It was only the coming of the bridegroom that revealed them for the pretenders they were – that they hadn’t made adequate preparation for the coming of the bridegroom.
And the consequences are severe – being shut out of a wedding feast in a first century Jewish village was pretty bad; you wouldn’t live the shame of that down in a hurry. But that’s nothing in comparison to being shut out of the great wedding feast of the Lamb when Jesus returns. So he says:
Matthew 25:13 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Are you ready for Christ’s return? What does having enough oil look like when we step out of the metaphor and into real life?
Jesus’ next parable gives us a bit more of a clue; we’ll look at it tomorrow.