The Wise and Foolish Virgins

Scriptures: Proverbs 31:26-31; Matthew 25:1-13

Now before I get into my main sermon, I have been struck by something that I kind of took for granted, but I think will be helpful to you. That is the way this translation words the beginning of the passage. “At that time, the kingdom of God…”

That’s kind of like of a “therefore,” and I always have taught and I learned myself that whenever there’s a “therefore” you need to look for a “before.” Or what my wife likes to say is, whenever there’s a “therefore” you need to find out what it’s there for.

And so we have to understand that this parable is in the context of another parable, what came before it, which was the wise and foolish servant. There was also the story about Noah and the ark. All about things where the Master went away and he came unexpectedly, and some people were prepared and some people weren’t.

So we need to know that, to the people who are listening, Jesus is referring to a specific future event when he says “at that time.” And that’s important for us today, because we’re still waiting for that day.

There’s no doubt that this parable is one of the tougher ones. Unlike the previous couple of weeks, where the meanings were pretty clear and the flow of the story straightforward, this one is tot so.

Commentators disagree as to what the various symbols in the story mean: the virgin, the oil, the bride, the responses of both the wise and foolish virgins to each other, and that of the groom to the foolish ones, or even who the groom was.

They all agree that this was not to be taken literally. That’s about the only thing that they agree on. Now in context for us, it is no doubt a reference to Christ coming again, or the coming of the Messiah as king (since he hadn’t died yet he was giving the story). He was speaking of the Day of the Lord with a capital D and a capital L, which is the final day of judgment.

There is no doubt, in context, that it is linked to the previous parables on the kingdom, and refers to both watchfulness and preparedness. It is a story that utilizes a very well-known cultural event, and we need to be certain we understand the cultural assumptions that underlie a lot of it.

In first century Jewish wedding ceremonies, the families would gather and await the arrival of the bridegroom, which, because of his standing in the family, he had the option of showing up when he desired. It was customary for the wedding party to remain “on hold,” and waiting for the bridegroom for hours and even days.

So we know that these ten bridesmaids, or virgins, knew of their responsibilities beforehand. This was well planned out. It usually came after the harvest, for instance. There was a big parade that went through town that was part of it as well, because it was a celebration for everyone, so you didn’t really know how long it is.

Anyone listening to this story would have known about these responsibilities and the need to be prepared. That is why this story was so effective among those Jesus was teaching.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the inversion of what we have today. That is, these days the wedding tends to center around the bride, and the poor groom has to stand up there waiting in front of everyone until the bride is good and ready, sweating in his suit.

So we have these bridesmaids. And there are five wise ones and five foolish ones. They have defined roles and tasks. Before I touch on that, I have another side note that I think is important to understand. That is, when it talks about them having lamps but not bringing oil, there was oil in the lamps to start with.

The way they did things was they had almost like a bowl, if you will, filled with oil and a floating wick that would be lit, and maybe a shielding around it to block the wind a little bit. So they started out with oil, all of them. What the wise virgins had done was bring extra oil, because they didn’t know when the groom was coming.

And as we all know, from those of us that light the candles here at the front of the church, you need to have the oil soaking the wick pretty thoroughly for it to continue to burn. When the oil gets low, the wick doesn’t burn very well, and it smokes a lot.

So we have these bridesmaids, five wise ones and five foolish ones. The word foolish, that’s in the Greek, is none other than the Greek word moros, which is the root word for the politically incorrect English word moron.

So these five foolish virgins were morons. This is not foolish behavior caused by ignorance. Or incompetency as from age – they say you act foolish in your old age. Or overwhelming impulse, like most teenagers.

This was foolish behavior caused by careless, thoughtless, and selfish desire. They knew what they needed to do They had plenty of time to prepare. They have the resources available at the time of preparation.

But they were so focused on their desires, their assumptions about what should occur, and their needs, that they took actions that ended up breaking their relationship with the one they were supposed to be caring about – the groom, and even more so, the bride They brought shame to her by what they did.

Verse five, in one of the translations I read, says “as the bridegroom was delayed, ” and notes that this delay was not at all uncommon. There might have been any number of reasons for this. The parable does not give us one.

But the bridegroom, although delayed, would not have been considered “late” in the sense that we now use that word. For one thing, there was no exact time set for his arrival. Even if there were the attitude of that culture was that events simply did not start until the important persons, the persons of honor, had arrived.

I understand about the concept of late for weddings. My wife’s parents (and she’s told me I can use this story), and many of you that know me may have heard this before, but her parents lived in Connecticut. We were getting married in Pennsylvania. It was a four-hour drive. And on the day of our Friday night wedding in June, they left two hours before the wedding. So they were, needless to say, two hours late and so we were holding up the wedding for them.

Because we got married rather quickly, because we didn’t intend on it being “the big shindig,” it was one of those things that kind of grew out of hand. We were just going to have a couple of witnesses and ourselves, because we wanted to move in together into an apartment, and Pauline’s lease was up.

But then we had felt like we had to inform parents and some family members. So then my sister said she was coming from Lancaster and my grandmother said she was coming with her, and then Pauline’s parents said that they were coming, and then they apparently called a bunch of other relatives, and so they said they were coming.

And suddenly we had thirty or forty people, and one of Pauline’s uncles sent us a check for for a hundred dollars “for the reception.” So that suddenly we had to have a reception too.

But we had another ceremony the following May, a renewal of vows for us, but for my family, who had not come, except for my sister and grandmother, because they were in North Carolina and such, and needed time to get the plane tickets and things, we had another service and ceremony.

For that one, Pauline’s parents were there the day before, and they were in a hotel overnight. They were probably five minutes away from the church. They arrived forty-five minutes late.

And we have no tape of the wedding, because my aunt didn’t think to plug the camcorder in. She was using the battery, and she was filming everybody who was there beforehand. But you get about ten minutes into the service, and then the battery died Anyway, we understand what it means about being late for the wedding.

But in the Middle East they did not have that. And this understanding of time, that things simply didn’t start until important persons, the persons of honor, arrived, still exists in parts of the Middle East. There was an article that I read that speaks of this.

She says, “I heard a story about a professor who was visiting with a family in Egypt. The husband did not arrive home from work when the clock showed that he should be there. But the rest of the family was not perturbed by this. The wife and the children waited patiently for him. The family’s attitude was that nothing important, such as dinner, would start until the head of the household was home. To call someone late in that culture is to imply that your time is more valuable than that of the person for whom your waiting.”

We’ve all felt that in doctors’ offices, I’m sure. From that standpoint, and in that male-dominated culture, with an impending wedding, whose time would be considered more important than that of the bridegroom?

The foolish bridesmaids were unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom. They desired to be there when the groom turned up, but did not take into account the possibility of him being delayed. They had prepared for his immediate return to the house. Their focus was on their own sense of timing: “he will not be late.”

They had no alternative plans. This reflected badly, not just on them, but on their relationship with the bride and groom. Their lack of preparation for the long haul could actually be considered a type of insult in that culture. They were indicating that the bridegroom would have to return within the limits they had set by their lack of extra oil.

Their inaction spoke volumes. Better come soon if you want any light for the processional. This placed their importance above that of the groom. And looked at from this perspective, it’s no wonder they got shut out of the wedding banquet.

You see, they were absolutely convinced that they knew the mind of the groom. You might say they were absolutely convinced they knew the mind of God. And they were wrong. They thought they knew the time things were to end. And they were wrong again.

Matthew is content to stress the theme of preparedness, and the tragic results that come about when this is not carried out. From his perspective the groom was not late. He was only late from the perspective of those invited to join the party.

The bridesmaids in the story not the only ones to make this kind of mistake. Here are a few better-known examples from Wikipedia.

Jeane Dixon, who previously predicted that the world would end on February 4, 1962, decided to hedge her bets by making her next prediction for after her death. She has 2020 as the date of Armageddon, and Jesus returning between 2020 and 2037. She died in 1997 of a heart attack, supposedly after speaking these words: “I knew this would happen.”

Kenton Beshore, pastor to the Mariners church in Irvine, California, has a wide spread of dates for the return of Jesus, based on the reestablishment of Israel. While he originally predicted 1988 for the return of Christ )he wasn’t the only one that did that), he has revised it to between 2018 and 2028, based on the meaning of the word generation.

He is now using seventy to eighty years for each generation I suppose if Jesus does not return within that time frame, he might want to add Methuselah as a generation, and give himself a wider timeline.

Messiah Foundation International has predicted the end of the world as 2026, when an asteroid will collide with the earth, destroying it.

The thing is, no one knows when Jesus will be coming back. As he himself said in Matthew 24, “But about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

People use these ideas, of the end of the world and time, to try and set up what’s called their eschatology. That’s your fancy two-dollar seminary word for the day. It means “end times.” In terms of the kingdom of Christ, referred to as the Millennium, which is Christ’s thousand-year reign, you have folks that are pre-millennial, post-millennial, or amillennial (which means that it’s already occurring).

You may have them argue about (and if you’ve read Left Behind you understand this) the tribulation, when does the tribulation occur, and are they pre-Trib, post-Trib, or mid-Trib, as to when the Christians will be taken up. Well, I like to tell people I’m null-millennial. Because I don’t care. I just want to be ready.

Because that’s what Christ tells us to do. The point is that Jesus will come again, no matter how long it takes. I can’t prove the fact that Jesus will return, anymore than I can prove that the world will come to end on a specific day, or that Jesus won’t return at all, as many have declared.

But I can remind you of this. The disciples of Jesus believed that these parables Jesus spoke were important enough to write them down and share them with us. And if we believe in Scripture and the authority of Scripture, and if we believe in Jesus, we need to believe that Jesus will come for us.

He will be the king, returning. It is an essential part of our belief in who Jesus is and why Jesus came. And we just need to be ready.

Now we’ve covered that no one knows the hour Jesus will come, and that Jesus will return for us, but we need to talk about being ready for his return. If I keep saying we need to be ready, well, how do we do that?

A lot of denominations get huge crowds by talking about the signs of Jesus’ return, that you look for these signs, and that’s part of getting ready. We Presbyterians, by and large, don’t do that. We believe that we need to focus, not on the signs, but upon our behavior.

All of us know one thing (unless, of course, we’re Jeane Dixon, who claimed to know she was going to die). We understand that we do not know the day and hour we will fly into the arms of Jesus, if he does not return before that date. As I like to say, the Day of Judgment will come either globally, or personally at your own death.

So how do we prevent being the foolish bridesmaid? How do we prevent being morons? How do we prepare for Christ the King and his coming? Well, it seems from this parable that we need to have enough oil in our lamps.

R. C. Sproul, in a commentary on the parable, notes that “Many Catholics have identified the oil with good works. Many Protestants have identified the oil with the Holy Spirit.”

I don’t often disagree with R.C. Sproul. But in this case, I have to go more with the Catholics. If the oil were the Holy Spirit, we would never run out. Jesus promises the Spirit will be a wellspring within us, giving guidance, power, comfort, understanding, and wisdom.

I’m not sure it’s “good works” either. But certainly being prepared and having enough oil means having certain attitudes, habits, and practices in our lives.

The biggest, most important thing is our relationship with Christ. Do we confess Him? “If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ as Lord, you shall be saved.” Do we believe in Him?

Do we trust in Him? I like the word “trust” better than “believe,” because when we have faith, we trust. Do you trust in Him, significantly and strongly enough, to stand up for Him when people start to say things that are not true about Christ and the way we are called to live?

As some songs and sermons I’ve heard ask, if we were in a court of law, could I be found guilty of believing in Christ?

Do we truly know him? In the Biblical sense that doesn’t just mean with your mind. Usually, in the Biblical sense, it means physically intimate as well. But what it is talking about is that intimacy and vulnerability and closeness. Do we truly know Christ?

Which begs the question, how do we know God or have a relationship with God? Well, there are some things we can do, and attitude is important. Do we do these because we think we have to, or do we do these because we want to and because of the effect they will have?

For instance, do you pray enough? In today’s world of texts, emails, and cell phones, we can reach out to family at any moment in time, and we do. But how often do we reach out to God, who is only a thought away?

We are not meant to live our lives alone. And when we are pray, it allows us to do many things. So do you maintain a steady life of prayer and conversation with God?

Do you read your Bible enough? In today’s world of the internet, Facebook, instant news, and instant answers, it is easy to seek wisdom in other sources. But there’s nothing more foundational than reaching out to hear what God has said on the subject. The steady reading of even the hard passages of Scripture makes us wise in new ways.

Now there are a lot of plans out there, such as read your Bible in a year, and all these kind of things. But probably the easiest one is to start with the New Testament, and read that. It’s shorter, for one thing.

You start with the New Testament. You read that. Then you might read it again. And then, when you think that you’ve got a good solid grasp of the Gospel and the message of Christ that’s in the New Testament, then maybe you go back to the Old Testament.

And when you’re reading through Genesis and Exodus, I know that most people get bogged down at Leviticus and Numbers, because Leviticus is all about the cultural/ritual law, and Numbers is … well, it’s numbers, it’s about the census.

But as we discovered in our Bible study, there are nuggets that are inside the book of Numbers that are just very precious, stories and prayers. The Aaronic blessing is in Numbers, for instance. The prayer of Jabez, which was a big fad for a while, is in Numbers. So in those cases, I guess, you just have to slog through the boring parts, looking for those gems. Kind of like a miner up in Alaska, sifting for gold from the river.

Thirdly, do you act in faith enough? Just as we have all worked hard together for the election supper, for the Fourth of July, and all those other mission projects to our community and at large,] [Wapello: Just as we all worked hard together for the Fall Festival, Vacation Bible School, the rummage sale, and the various mission projects to our community,] our every day life is a ripe field for harvest.

There’s a story that I heard some time ago, about a pastor in a large town who went to a used clothing store and bought some very old clothing. He used it a few times while gardening until the clothing was tattered and dirty. He had a hat too, by the way. To be honest it smelled.

Covering his head with this well-worn hat, he said on the front steps of the church one Sunday morning. All of his parishioners walked by. Not a single one invited him in. As the service began, he walked in, still wearing the clothing, and began a service preaching on the book of James.

It’s easy to work hard when others are watching, and when we are in our comfort zone. The rubber meets the road when we continue to do good when no one knows what we do. And every time we give love in the name of Jesus, we store up oil for the uncertain days while we wait.

And I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t say beware the trap of legalism, or checklists, because there are those, particularly Evangelical churches and denominations, who seem to live in a state of anxiety regarding what I talked about, do you do this enough, do you pray enough, do you read enough, do you act in faith enough. They want to make sure that they’ve basically got this stockpile up, and that doesn’t speak very much of their faith in the grace of God covering their sins.

We don’t want checklists. WWJD – does anybody know what that means? “What would Jesus do,” and it’s a good reminder, yes. But we should not be asking that question out of fear that we’re going to be doing wrong, or because we think we have to. We should do that “what would Jesus do” because we want to emulate him, because we love him, and we want to be like him, and we want to follow him.

The problems with most mainline denominations and their members today, though, is not overanxiousness about what God requires, but an apathetic, carefree attitude of procrastination that leads to not placing God at the center and forefront of our lives and desires, but instead using our own, much like the foolish – dare I even say moronic – bridesmaids in the story today.

Let me challenge you. Don’t put it off. Don’t put off the prayer. Don’t put off the reading. Don’t put off the sharing God’s love. Don’t put off the sharing of the Gospel with other. Their lives, and apparently yours, eternally, could depend on it, as you show the world just what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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