Last week, we heard Jesus tell a parable about the kingdom of heaven at the world’s end. Instead of a courtroom, where the sheep and the goats are sentenced, this time we hear of a feast, a marriage feast. Wedding festivals then as now were elaborate events, and lasted for up to a week, so it was wise to be well stocked and prepared, as the couple at Cana in Galilee learned. After the initial services and ceremony, the couple would celebrate joyfully among all the community gathered together with them. To be in the feast meant participating in the ongoing life and joy of the couple, while being outside the feast was to suffer, alone with only wailing and gnashing of teeth. In the parable, Jesus is the bridegroom and the holy Christian Church as a whole is the bride. We don’t really hear much about her, as it’s not important for the parable. What’s important is that Jesus is coming back, and that’s when the high feast of heaven starts – the marriage feast of the Lamb, in His kingdom which has no end.
Yet in the parable, the the bride and groom are not there yet. They’re on the way, but it is unknown when they will arrive [, like a couple at a wedding and they’re taking pictures and it takes forever for the reception to really get started]. That’s where Jesus begins the simile, the illustration for what it’s like as we wait, to the effect that we should stay watchful, faithful in hope of our Lord’s return. He says: “1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” These young ladies were part of the wedding procession… maybe something like bridesmaids, and at the time they would be taking part of the procession by carrying the lamps, lit with fire, into the banquet hall.
The gathered group may all look the same, but there are significant differences. Jesus says: “2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” Remember, this is a parable, a story to illustrate. So while some parts are just there to make the story work, others directly show how he kingdom will be in the end of the age. Here we have an illustration of the visible church of Christ. All ten of these young ladies together look more or less the same – they showed up, dressed in purity for the occasion, they have the lamps, they have all the outward appearances of Christians. They all seem like they’re waiting for the bridegroom, that is, waiting for Christ to return. But what use is a lamp without oil? What use is for people who call themselves Christian to do good works of love for others, if they do not have the one thing needful?
Consider how common the temptation is to show off, to signal to everyone all our self-presented qualities or heartfelt intentions, but fail at the one thing needful. There are many ways we can try to show off, but there is only one savior Jesus Christ, and therefore, there is only one holy Christian Church. It is written in 1st Samuel 16:7b “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
The oil in the lamps is the discriminating factor between the wise and the foolish. Only the ones who had this oil are rightly called ‘wise,’ for they sought the one thing needful.1 Why should this be? Oil fuels the fire to light their lamps, so to participate in the procession [, also that their faces be recognized at the door, to be let in the doors]. The oil recalls the work of the Holy Spirit through the holy scriptures, to create and sustain faith. Consider the tongues of fire at Pentecost – fire not to burn, but to illuminate. Consider how the Holy Spirit gives us eyes to see and ears to hear through God’s clear Word by faith. Psalm 119[:105] points out : “105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
It might be said then that the oil for the lamps is faith in Christ Jesus. It is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, at the hearing of God’s promises, poured out in the waters of Holy Baptism. This faith in Christ has to do with trusting His promise to return… we hear from Hebrews 11[:1] “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Without the oil of faith, it does not matter how pure someone looks on the outside. The Christian who waits for the return of the Lord has both an outward confession, as well as a heart that receives God’s promise through faith, as it says in Romans 10:10: “10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
So those five who had this oil of faith, given by the Holy Spirit, they really were expecting the bridegroom to appear, though they didn’t know when. (Acts 15:8; Rom 8:27) The other five thought it didn’t matter, they thought He wasn’t coming at all, and so they didn’t bother to get any of this precious oil, as if outward appearances were enough.
So it is worth noticing that all of them fall asleep. Verse 5 says: “5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” That they fall asleep recalls how Jesus was at prayer and the disciples Peter and James and John fall asleep, so Jesus asks them: “...could you not watch with me one hour?” (Mt 26:40b). So it is that every Christian, no matter how faithful, dies. Unless Christ returns in our generation, this cannot be avoided. We are not perfect in and of ourselves. Even we Christians fail and fall short, beset by the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature. The faithful and the faithless of the wedding party both sleep the sleep of death, and are only awakened when a cry appears.
Verse 6: “6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.” “8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’”
At midnight a cry sounds. The proclamation goes forth: Make straight the way! The bridegroom draws near!2 Even though they sleep like the dead, they are wakened from their sleep. It says that the cry of announcement happens at midnight – the idea being that it is the time least expected, unknown. Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 25[:36] about the specific date chosen by the Father as the Last Day: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
So even though they had been sleeping, the faithful virgins awake and trim the wicks of their lamps, making ready to receive guest of honor. Although they died, yet they who believe in Jesus shall live. On the other hand, the foolish are surprised, realizing too late that the outward appearance is not enough. In the parable, they had no oil, so they couldn’t be in the procession. On the last day, do not be like them, caught without faithful expectation of the arrival of the One Who is to come, to judge the living and the dead.
No person can believe for another. No one gets forgiven or saved because their grandma believes in Jesus. Each person himself or herself is to believe in Jesus. We do not pray to the saints, because they and their faith cannot help us. Neither, in the story, can these foolish borrow oil from the wise. And so it is they are caught unprepared. While they fumble away to find someone to sell them oil at the last minute, the bridegroom arrives, and the faithful are welcomed in glorious procession into the banquet hall. The faithless are the foolish ones, they are shut out. They were not looking for the bridegroom’s advent, nor did they know him. Recall what Jesus says in Matthew 10[:32-33] “31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
So it is that Jesus commands us to watch. “13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The idea is not that we would quarrel and fret over the unknowable, as though we could predict the end of the world. He tells us outright “you know neither the day nor the hour” when the Son of Man will come again. There are far too many groups of sensationalists who fret over that already, looking for signs in every full moon or red cow. The point is that we do not want to be caught without faith. The charge to “watch” is none other than the charge to believe in Jesus. To hear the word of peace He has spoken, to receive the forgiveness He bestows on account of His death and resurrection, to look to Him for help.
We do not need to be watching ourselves, perpetually second guessing whether we’re the wise or the foolish. Look at Jesus. You are wise to listen to the cry, the proclamation, the sound pattern of words that the announce the coming of Christ Jesus. Is what we say in the Creed true? Will Christ come again? Let it be done for you as you believe. Yes, Amen, yes it is so. Your sins are forgiven. As we heard in the epistle: “9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” So it is that the faithful live according to the pattern God gives: faith and love, having the certain hope of salvation at His coming.
We are watchful in that we make use of the means of grace, for by this we have certain forgiveness for our sins, and nourishment for our faith.3 Recall the formula that dismisses us from the Lord’s Supper: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith. Depart in Peace.” In the Lord’s Supper we have a foretaste of that heavenly high feast to come. We look joyfully to the return of Christ Jesus, who will return to bring you, the faithful, into the marriage feast of the Lamb, in His kingdom, which has no end. In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
1 Recall what happened in Luke chapter 10[:42]: No matter how excellently Martha worked at serving, it was Mary (who sat at Jesus’ feet to hear the gospel) who had the “one thing needful.”
2 We sang about this in the hymn. This reminds us of the Last Day, as its written in 1st Thessalonians 4: “16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
3 The oil might remind us of the ‘sealing’ or ‘anointing’ that traditionally went along with Baptism. Oil isn’t the same as baptism, but it is a mark of being put into an office – Baptism gives us new birth from above by water and the Word, and the oil used in ancient times was a human-custom mark of that new birth – that the baptized are heirs and citizens of the kingdom of God.