"...Then 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. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "What if there isn't enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut..." Matthew 25:1-13
As Advent approaches it is inevitable that a reference to this parable of Jesus will show up in our liturgies, either in the gospel lesson, a hymn, some other worship song, or perhaps in the Sunday homily. For some of us raised in a strong evangelical tradition with a hint of fundamentalism there is always a bit of inner turmoil associated with this particular story.
The foolish virgins, we were told, of course, were the unprepared, did not have enough oil in their lamps! They did not pray enough, or did not have enough of the light of the word, or the oil of the Holy Spirit! They took their duty lightly and as a result missed out! They were left in the outside looking in , even as strangers! The wise ones, of course, were the well prepared; lit lamps and extra oil, and when the bridegroom came they went into the feast with him!
I cannot begin to tell you the many ways this lesson was drilled to the young in the church of my childhood, in song, lessons and fiery preaching! Reflecting back to those times, though it is true that Christians should be prayerful, filled with the Spirit and awaiting the coming of the Lord, it was the fear rather than expectancy of the Lord’s coming that made more of a mark in many of us!Today I do not read the parable with the same dread, but it does have valuable lessons for us who live in wait for the revealing, for the coming of the Lord.
I see this parable as…
• A parable of the kingdom- “the kingdom of heaven is like ten virgins…”. Jesus himself speaks of the kingdom of God “among us”, not just the kingdom at the world’s end. Therefore we do not necessarily have to apply the imagery and lessons in the story exclusively to the end of the world or the second coming of Christ. Christ comes to us, in a variety of ways even now; in the gathering of two or three, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the child we welcome, in the poor and needy we help, in the sick we visit; even in the hour of distress and death we have the promise of his coming, his presence. It should be no trouble for Episcopalians to see this dimension in the parable; after all, we proclaim at every Eucharist that God’s kingdom is “now and forever”.
• A parable of waiting- Advent is for us a reminder that we wait, not just for a distant and rather fearful event but the imminent appearance of the bridegroom for a joyful feast. Well it seemed so in this parable, until the delay of course! The groom did not show for quite a while and the girls seemed to have lost some of their pep, got tired, perhaps bored and fell asleep. I have always thought that this could have never been a Latino wedding; no groom would be allowed to upstage the lateness of the bride and her maids! But, whatever the culture the element of delay is a key to understanding the parable’s message. Often the expected takes time, seems longer than what we want to wait, sometimes it seems like the wait is unending and we lose focus. Perhaps learning to live waiting is the hardest lesson to learn in life, specially the life in the spirit. It takes time for new life to mature, for spiritual gifts to flourish, for seeds planted to grow, for that which we expect to occur, all of which requires grace filled patience.
• A parable of opportunities- Opportunities abound at every turn in this parable and sadly some were missed. Five of the virgins in our story
did not take the opportunity to prepare well. They took oil in their lamps but did not take into account that things might be delayed. The other set of five did not avail themselves of the opportunity to be charitable. They had oil and reserves, surely they could have spared even a little for their less prepared friends. There are very few places in Scriptures where this kind of selfish actions would be lauded….get some for yourselves! It certainly sheds a note of caution for people looking for solutions and answers from their friends rather from the bridegroom himself. Not all the advice we are given by those waiting with us yield the best outcomes for us! And finally, at least to me, probably the main reason some of girls were called foolish, the lost opportunity to be present when the bridegroom arrived. The story makes it clear the lamps were not yet empty of oil, they could have stayed put gone into the feast and shone at least for a while. They could have pleaded with the bridegroom, apologized to the bride, maybe bribed the mothers in law and who knows what else. As it was, they left and did not make it back before the doors were already closed and the feast begun! Be present, even if unprepared, do not miss the opportunity for mercy and for grace which these girls unfortunately let pass.
• A parable about us- Sometimes we are very much the prepared virgins, ready for come what may! To be of service to someone in need, to deliver that word of prophecy or hope, to evangelize at the drop of a hat. Other times we are less so! We are tired, down, distracted , sleepy, we miscalculated the moment or the wait, we just cannot find the enthusiasm or the words! This parable gives us a lot to reflect about in our own lives of faith.
So there you have it…its about the kingdom of God here and now, about graciously and patiently waiting, about opportunities we should not let pass by and finally about you and me!
Have a Blessed Advent