The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late. Better than coming too early, I guess.
The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross. So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.
I mean, talk about a first impression.
In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.
Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment. And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins. In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins. And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable. Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.
The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.
Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?
Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it. However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church. Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ. As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”
Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot. The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.
Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace. We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.
This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z. But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross. Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.
The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered. The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.
What, then, is all the fuss about the oil? Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?
Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio. You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio. You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner. The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.” I love that stuff.
So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.
St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps. But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.”
That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make. It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves. They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.
You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil. They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment. They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works. Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable. The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.
Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.” Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit. Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.
Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ. Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.
The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil. They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works. The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.
The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment. But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival. They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.
The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ. The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited. The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.
You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross. To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.
This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins. The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them. They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.” It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.” The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them. They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message.
Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used. The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used. The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.
That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.
I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.