The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ 9 ‘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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ 12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ 13 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (NASB)
Several years back a mad man went into a theater in Aurora, CO and shot a bunch of people. Theaters across the country were called on to implement defensive measures and we, the theater going public, heard experts on TV tell us that when entering a theater we need to have “situational awareness” in our seat selection and readiness plan in the event of a repeat attack.
Recently, a terrorist drove a small truck down a bike path in Manhattan and killed a number of people and a cry went up to put barriers on bike routes all over the country and urged users of such paths to be aware of their situation and be ready to seek safety in the event it happens again.
A week ago, on All Saints Sunday, a mad man entered a Baptist Church in Texas and shot nearly everyone in the place, killing 26 people. Experts spent the week talking about how badly designed and dangerous church buildings are and urged “situational awareness” and pre-plan escape routes so church goers can be ready to flee the building in event of such a situation. (Just what we need, instructions on how more people can leave the church)
We all know how things work in the world. Something terrible happens, then a big cry goes out that we need to change something or modify something to eliminate the danger, but two months later life is back to normal. Readiness plans, changes to our behavior, and the rest fade away, until the next terrible unforeseen event.
This morning, we enter the last three Sundays of the Church Year. If there is one and one phrase that summarizes what the readings for these last three weeks of the Church Year it is “readiness” and “situational readiness.” Jesus said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
As Jesus got closer and closer to His crucifixion and resurrection, He began to focus His teaching on two specific aspects of His work. First, and closest in time was the teaching that He (Jesus) would be rejected by the religious leaders, beaten, mocked, crucified, and rise again on the third day.
Second, He taught that Christians and the Christian church needed to be prepared for the long haul, while at the same time be ready for His Second Coming.
Thus, the Parable of the Five Foolish and Five Wise Virgins. Speaking of His Second Coming 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. 2 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, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.” The wise were prepared for both the haul (they had extra oil) and for the wedding banquet. As it turned out the foolish were ready for neither.
To fully appreciate the parable, it is helpful to know a little about the wedding customs of the day. In the 1st century marriages were arranged by the parents. While it sounds rather cold to people of the modern era, marriages were approached like a business transaction. The parents, usually the papa, would broker a deal for a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The son or daughter ended up with was what they ended up with. They were expected to make the best of it and to grow to love one another. It was not uncommon for the bride and groom to see each other for the first time at the wedding.
This system also included a period of betrothal. The couple would technically be married, but live together, not yet. There were preparations to be made and sometimes it could be some time before they lived under the same roof, depending on the circumstances.
This, of course, is the exact opposite of today. Pre-marital sex and living together is first and then after a period of time, sometimes a very long time, marriage . . . maybe. And you think the old system is problematic? How well has the modern system of “courtship,” non-marriage, and living together worked out for children, for poverty, and our culture worked out?
Up until recently, betrothal and marriage were legal and essentially the same thing. That was the case in Jesus’s day. Betrothal was a sub-category of marriage. It was the time when the two were married, but, but lived apart.
We see how this system worked in the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph were betrothed to be married. They were legally married, thus some English translations say that Joseph was planning to secretly divorce Mary.
Joseph and Mary were in the “betrothal period” when Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and became pregnant and when Joseph was visited by the angel and told him not to divorce Mary.
Matthew 1:18 “Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.”
During the betrothal, the bride and the groom were busy preparing for married life. The groom prepared or built a house for his bride. The bride gathered up the things she needed to run the house. Everyone was looking forward to the day when the two would consummate the marriage and begin as a new family under one roof.
Eventually, everyone would be told that the groom had finished the house and was ready to come for his bride. He gathered his friends together and they’d march off to get the bride. If the groom came during the night, the watchmen who watched over the town would wake the town and announce the coming of the groom. The people in the village would join the procession, the groom would collect his bride, and they’d all head back to the bride and groom’s house. That was the beginning of a week long celebration.
What Jesus said to His disciples on Maundy Thursday, the night in which He was betrayed, matches the image of the groom going to prepare a place for the bride. “In my Father s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2)
In this morning’s parable all ten women wanted to be a pat of the celebration. All ten had prepared for the groom’s arrival. At the beginning of the evening they all thought they had enough oil, Jesus included an element in the parable that separates the wise from the foolish. He said, “the bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’”
We have no idea when Jesus will return or when we might leave this world. The Christians who entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas last week, had no idea that many of them would find themselves standing in the midst of the angels and archangels and all the company in heaven on All Saints Day, singing praises to their Lord Jesus Christ, but 26 of them did.
As for the parable itself, for centuries theologians have debated what the oil in the lamp refers to. The most common view is that it refers to faith. Five of the women had faith that carried them all the way to the wedding feast and five did not. The problem with equating the oil to faith is that one Christian cannot give a measure of faith to another person. Faith can’t be shared in that sense. We can’t believe on behalf of another. Although I am not going to fault anyone for taking the more widely accepted view.
A Christian’s faith is a gift of God which is created and sustained by the Word and Sacrament ministry of the church. If we are going to dissect the parable in this way, then it would be better to think of the flame, the light of the lamp as Christian faith.
It would be better to think of the oil as that which keeps the flame of faith alive and burning. And what keeps faith alive? The means of grace, the Word and Sacrament ministry of the church. The lamp is the vessel for the oil and flame, thus the lamp is the church. The oil is the Word and Sacrament ministry in the church. And the flame is Christian faith, faith in the heart that is created and fed by the Word and sacraments. That, it seems to me, to be the best way of seeing this parable.
Now the primary point of the parable is that we be ready for the long haul of history and that we be in a constant state of readiness and situational awareness.
But we have already seen by the examples cited at the start of this sermon, people aren’t very good about maintaining a heightened states of readiness. Normality returns rather quickly. Water seeks its own level.
Even in the parable the virgins all ten “became drowsy and fell asleep.” But it was the five foolish who were unprepared. The five wise were prepared. Why? Because the five wise were in a state of readiness for both the long haul and the coming of the groom.
The foolish are all those people who once attended church services, availed themselves of the Word and Sacraments of Jesus Christ, but then did not make use of the church’s oil-Word and Sacrament.
These are the ones who stopped coming to church. They stopped offering their confession of sin and their confession of faith. They neglected the means of grace. As a result they heard the most terrible words that the Lord could utter to a person. “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
The wise virgins are wise because they tended to the flame of faith. They let their faith feed on the means of grace all the days of their lives. They made use of the oil of faith, the Word of God, Baptism, the Divine service, availed themselves of the pastoral comfort of the Word and received the forgiveness of sins throughout their wait.
That is what faith is finally and ultimately about–receiving the remission of all our sins and being made worthy, by God’s grace, through the Word and Sacraments, and thus being included in the wedding party and the heavenly banquet.
In this parable Jesus is teaching us that as we wait for either our departure from this vale of tears through the normal course of nature–death or as a result of Christ’s Second Coming, we are to be in the “oil business,” the business feeding faith with Word and Sacrament.
You who go about your daily business, fulfilling your respective vocations, and who come to the various church services offered here, are the wise ones in the parable because God has given you “situational awareness.” You are aware of your situation. God Himself has made you ready for your departure from this world and for the life of the world to come.
You are a sinner in need of a Savior and He has been given to you. You are already in a constant state of readiness because He has made you ready by the remissions of your sins.
May the peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.