26. November 2023
Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
We like to call this the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. That’s because when we read and hear the parables, we always ask: “Who am I in the parable? And what is my judgment in the parable?” We’re looking for the story’s moral as if a parable is a fable like that of Aesop. We also think that everything in the parable corresponds to something. And so we get lost in the details, ultimately trying to find our way off the riddle and, in this case, not suffer the horrible fate of the foolish virgins.
King David’s pastor, Nathan, used a parable this way to drive his hearer to conviction and despair. You remember how the story’s details, with a rich man, a poor man, and the little ewe lamb, do not correspond in anything but the most general terms to David, Uriah, and Bathsheba. But that’s not why Nathan told the story. David got it, “the man who took the ewe from the poor man should die,” to which Nathan responded, “You are the man!” You could get hung up on all the parable’s details but lose the forest for the trees.
Back to the parable: We collectively are the virgins. And the distinguishing factor is wisdom vs. foolishness. Jesus indicates this as having oil vessels for when the delayed groom comes. Thus, there has been endless debate through the millennia about what and what. The lamps are the capacity to believe, and the oil is faith. Or maybe the lamps are faith, and God fills them with the oil of grace? Answer that question, and you’ll learn what you must do to be ready for Jesus when He comes.
So, yes, you are either wise or foolish. The bridegroom is delayed. All will slumber and sleep. The foolish have no oil for their lamps. You can’t buy it after the fact. Without this oil, the door to the wedding is shut to you. Watch, therefore. No one knows the day or hour the Son of Man is coming. To which you can only respond, “What do I need to do? How, then, can I be saved?” And then you can get all hung up on lamps, oil, and what you must do but miss Jesus altogether. That’s what the foolish get lost in where to buy the oil and how to stay lit for the journey.
This is how it is for the Christian life. We are always looking for ways to live the life Jesus gave us by baptism like Jackson’s this morning. But generally speaking, people come up with their ways. They say I’ll do this, and I’ll do that, and it’s true. We’re given, as Christians, the freedom to choose many of our vocations and how we live in those vocations. But he doesn’t choose, or we don’t choose to be male or female. We don’t choose to have children. God gives children when and where He will. So he puts us in vocations, too, without our choice.
But then again, in those vocations, we can live out that life according to his word in different ways. But does that keep us awake? Does that give us the light to stay with Jesus until he comes? Probably not. We need help finding that satisfactory. So then we’ll look to other gurus. We’ll find people who have given us the kind of rigorous Christian life that we’re looking for. As some have suggested, we need to reclaim the order of Saint Benedict and live in secluded communities separate from the world, taking care of our own and focusing on the world. But to the exclusion of our neighbors. Or maybe there’s some other teacher you’ve found that gives your life meaning and purpose, and you hope that that will be enough for when Jesus comes.
Of course, you can come to the pastor. I have many ideas for how you can best prepare for our Lord’s coming. And hopefully, they’re not just my personal opinion, but they are the appointed means by which God has established to give, sustain, and keep you in the faith until he returns. That is to be persistent in prayer and God’s Word. To confess the faith. To sing the hymns of the church. To be gathered together in liturgy. To remember your baptism, of course, to receive the supper. These are all things you do, but of course, you didn’t appoint them. They’re not self-appointed. They don’t come from gurus. Even pastors are not your guru. Instead, these are the means that Jesus has appointed. But are they sufficient? Do they do what they promise?
The parable is not about what you must do. It is about what God in Christ Jesus has done and is doing for you. It’s a parable of the kingdom of heaven, and thus, it’s about the king and groom. Jesus has warned His disciples and us already that parables are given: “Seeing they may not see and hearing they may not hear.” You can’t read this parable as a moral tale, historical prophecy, or even as parallel to the Christian life. This would put you at the center, rather than the one bringing about the kingdom, marrying you His virgin bride, and inaugurating the marriage feast.
But here’s where the panic sets in. Rather than look to their bridegroom, trusting in what He already gives, they think they need something more. More faith, more grace, more of something. Jesus, the bridegroom, must not have done it all. That’s how many people think about eternal salvation in Christ, that Jesus begins it, but then it’s up to us to make those last few steps, or maybe to make most of them either way.
But Jesus tells these parables not to drive you into despair, worry, or panic about the last day. He wants you to pay attention to what he has given. That he’s made you virgins, forgiven, that he has granted you the light of his word, that he sustains you every day in the faith, that he has made great and glorious promises for you. I’m coming. I’m coming soon. Come out to meet me. These promises are made to us from our baptism, as we heard about Jackson today. They’re made for you. God has promised his spirit, bestowed upon us in baptism, to not only call us into faith but to enlighten and to sanctify and keep us in that faith today and always. He’s already given us all the gifts necessary to preserve us in that faith. Yes, our baptism, the word of forgiveness, and his holy supper, his body and blood, food for the journey. Everything needed for salvation is already yours. That’s the unanimous testimony of the scripture, and it even seems to be at odds with what Jesus says in today’s gospel.
And that’s precisely what Jesus wants us to notice. No, Jesus, it’s not about my oil. It’s about who you are and what you have done for me. You have made me your holy bride. You have kept me in the faith. You’ve prepared a feast for me. Nothing can stand in the way of that. That’s the answer to the parable. Who am I in this parable? I’m the one whom Jesus has redeemed. I might have even been foolish, once thinking it was about me and what I needed to do. And even then, Jesus came along and found me, wandering in the darkness with his light to bring me back to the path and into the feast. Yes, there is an end, finally, when the door is shut. But God grant that you all are guided and led by him into faith and kept in the faith as he is promised today and always.
Again, everything needed for salvation is already yours. Jesus has made you His holy bride. He continues to keep you in the faith. He has prepared the feast. The parable should be called the Parable of the Generous Groom. Everything about the brides is given. They are virgins, holy in the forgiveness of sins. They are given lamps and oil for the time until He comes. They wait and watch for Him, trusting in His promise. They die in faith, laid to rest until “midnight.” He sends heralds to cry, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” They all are awakened to life again. And everything He has already given is all they need: the promised wedding, the bath of water and anointing with oil, the white garments of salvation, the food for the journey, the lamp for their feet, and light for their path.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin