“You don’t know me? How could you not know me? You invited me to the wedding!” This parable is one of the stranger ones Jesus told. There are almost too many issues to wonder about and some of them are puzzling to say the least.
We realize there’s a potential problem when we hear that 10 young women went out to wait for the bridegroom and only five took extra oil. Ah, there’s a problem. This may easily turn out to be a lesson in being prepared. But there are other problems less easy to figure out.
In Jesus’ day, there would, indeed, be a procession in the evening, one in which the bride would be escorted from her father’s house to the wedding, accompanied by young girls carrying torches to light the way. However, Biblical scholar Richard Pervo, in an article in the journal “Tuesday Morning,” brings out the point that in this story there’s absolutely no mention of the bride, and even the bridegroom is unexplainably late in arriving. Were the bride or bridegroom unprepared in some way? We might all remember a wedding or two where the bride was late and people began shuffling their feet in nervous anticipation of a real problem. But this isn’t about the bride.
So, then we might look at the problem of the oil. We might think it wasn’t kind of the five young women not to give some of their oil to the ones who had none. Is this a parable that teaches about sharing? Anyway, where would five young women go at midnight to find a store open that would sell them oil? Another problem!
Finally, the bridegroom arrives, and with great rejoicing, the guests go into the banquet hall, with the exception of the five who are off looking for oil. When they finally arrive, they are not admitted because their host claims not to know them. Strange indeed. How could he not know people he’d invited? They were young girls, probably friends of the bride from the village. At least in this parable, unlike the one about the man who had no wedding garment, the unfortunate women were not bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!
So many questions; where do we start? The most helpful thing is to look at where this passage falls in the whole gospel of Matthew. If we were to back up to Chapter 24, we’d find Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple and the coming of the end times. That whole chapter is couched in eschatological images – the end of time, the Second Coming. We remember that Matthew’s audience was most likely Jews, and it was written around the year 90. A lot had happened to the Jews at that time. The temple had indeed been destroyed by that time. The fledgling church was growing to include the gentiles. The persecutions of the Christians had already begun under Nero, followed by Domitian. So, very likely, this passage is basically a warning to be prepared. Christians of that time believed the second coming of Christ was imminent, so being prepared was very important.
If we look at the very end of Matthew 24 we read: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Today’s reading begins with “At that time” – so we realize that this parable is a continuation of the point Jesus was making in Chapter 24. At that time– when the master returns, whenever that is – you must be ready.
But the end time has not yet come, has it? We’re still waiting; and that’s OK – we need the time. We suddenly realize that what this parable is really telling us is that we must live the way God wants us to live all the time, not just when we think the Second Coming may happen. Jesus often reminds his hearers that we know not the time nor the hour. We must not be like some of the early Christians who put off their baptism until they were on their deathbed so that they could be guaranteed a place in heaven – their souls being cleansed from sin by their last-minute baptism. We can’t play chicken with God. It’s not only juvenile, it’s hypocritical. And we know what Jesus says so often about hypocrites.
Today’s parable is one of the really interesting ones. In one way it’s full of questions on a very human level. What happened to the bride? Why was the bridegroom late? Why did he not recognize the young women? These are questions that would make a Bible study energetic!
On a soul-searching level, it’s very straightforward. Jesus is reminding us that we must live our lives as true children of God. Of course, we are human and we will sin. We will have times when we don’t share our oil, so to speak, whether that’s because of our selfishness or our own unpreparedness. But overall, we must seriously examine our hearts and souls each day and strive to be a witness to God’s love. Perhaps that could be a reason the bridegroom doesn’t recognize the five foolish virgins. Would God recognize us as children of God right now, today? Or would God see that Sunday in church is the only time we think about God or our spiritual lives?
The world today makes it very difficult to keep notice of our spiritual lives. We see entire institutions, governments, even the institutional church exhibiting less than laudable practices. We might wonder if the whole world has turned a blind eye to anything of God. We’re certainly not treating God’s gift of creation as a gift worth caring for. With all the difficulties and horrors we see happening all round us, we might even wonder where God is in all this.
That’s when we have to remember this parable. Every one of us must begin every day with the resolve to live as a child of God. It’s not easy. Those who do, we were reminded in the Beatitudes, often suffer for it. But it’s worth it. We must be the ones who point toward God in everything we do. That’s how we stay prepared. It’s through our daily kindnesses, our willingness to share our oil, whatever that might look like. It’s through our example of what’s important in our lives. With Christmas coming soon, do we find ourselves totally immersed in the consumer side of the holiday, or are we taking some time to pray, to find some quiet time to thank God and ask for God’s strength? Are we afraid to talk about the true meaning of Advent and the coming of our Savior among our own families and friends, because they believe Christmas is really about buying and selling? And yes, stores will be open at midnight, we’d be able to get our oil, but would we be welcome to the feast? Maybe not.
It’s up to us to live in a way so that we are always prepared. Quite honestly, living a life in which we’re always prepared is easy. All we have to do, all we’re asked to do by God is: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.