Matthew 25:1-13 — (Jesus said), “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 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 others also came. ‘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.”
The ten virgins in this parable are unmarried guests at this wedding. Perhaps they are bridesmaids, as some translations put it. For some reason, it is very important that they have plenty of oil for their lamps. They all perhaps would have had enough, but for some reason, the bridegroom is very late. By the time he finally does arrive it is midnight, and half of these women are out of oil and out of light. They run to get more oil. But when they return, the door to the banquet hall is closed and they are not allowed to enter.
So what does the parable mean? First, look at why Jesus told it. We learn that in the very first words of verse one where Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven will be like…”– and then he tells the story. So, it is heaven he is talking about here; so now we understand that when Jesus is talking in the parable about somebody missing out on something, he is talking about missing out on heaven. And that is a very important matter indeed. We don’t want to be left out of heaven, so we had better pay very close attention. This is not a story in which everybody lives happily ever after, so we want to make sure we understand it correctly.
When Jesus begins by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like…,” we might be thinking, ‘Well, so far, so good.’ We like to think about heaven, that wonderful place where the Bible says there will be no more sorrow, no more tears, no more illness or pain or death. If this is going to be a parable about heaven, we want to hear it. Then Jesus makes a very positive move by comparing heaven to a wedding feast. He does that many times in the Gospels, and that is a happy comparison. Weddings can be a pretty good time even now-days, but in ancient Israel, wedding feasts were the biggest, most enjoyable, most highly anticipated social events of the year. The celebration lasted for days, sometimes even as long as a week. When Jesus wanted to talk about heaven, he never described angels sitting on clouds playing harps. He used the illustration of a party, the biggest and best of all parties in the lives of his listeners.
But then Jesus introduces some unpleasant themes. There is foolishness on the part of some who do not bring enough oil. There is conflict when the others do not share. There is a desperate last minute dash by some of the guests to buy more oil; but they are too late. And then there is the unpleasant rejection. The foolish and unprepared guests are not allowed into the party. It all starts out so nice, but by the time the parable ends, we might be wishing Jesus had not told this parable.
It would have been so easy for this parable to have a happy ending. One only needs to tweak the story a little bit in a couple places, and it could have turned out so much better.
For example, the wise bridesmaids could have shared their oil. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Then this parable would not only be a pleasant parable about heaven, it would also be a nice parable about sharing. There is only one problem. That is not the parable Jesus told.
There is another way we could improve the parable and make it more pleasing. The bridegroom at the end could have simply let the latecomers in. What would be so hard about that? Or, he could have been on time in the first place. These are all simple adjustments, and any one of them would have made for a happier story. But there is the same problem with all of them. Jesus is the one who told this parable, and that is not the way Jesus told it.
So why does Jesus tell this story and why does he tell it in this way? Well, we can assume that Jesus tells this parable because it is true, and because he wants to illustrate for us some truths about life and death and heaven and our destiny. And since Jesus is the one who rose from the dead, you had best listen to his version of the parable, and not any of my ideas (or your own) on possible improvements. If I were able to do miracles and raise myself from the dead, then I could tell true and important parables about life and death and eternity. But I can’t, so I won’t. (continued…)