We return to wedding imagery in this parable, where ten virgins go to meet the bridegroom, five wisely with oil for their lamps and five, foolishly without. When the five virgins without oil realized they didn’t have enough to keep their lamps burning during the wait for the bridegroom, they asked to borrow some from the other five. But the other five said there wouldn’t be enough and that they’d need to get go buy some for themselves. While the first five were away at the store, the bridegroom came, took the five waiting for him to the marriage feast and shut the door, saying that he “did not know” the five returning from the store when they came and knocked, leaving them out in the dark.
A little backstory: in 1st-century Jewish weddings feasts, the bridegroom processes with some close friends to the bride’s house where there are various rituals and ceremonies. The ten virgins may be bridesmaids who are supposed to receive the bridegroom upon his arrival and everyone was expected carry their own light or torch. If you didn’t have one, you were assumed to be a party crasher or a gang member and would not be let into the festivities. So when the bridegroom is Jesus and the marriage feast is His return, those who do not have their own lanterns are considered weeds among wheat, so to speak.
So again we see that the kingdom of heaven is about prepardness. If you don’t come dressed for a wedding, you’ll be escorted out. Since we don’t know the day or the hour of the return of Christ despite centuries of predictions, we must be ever watchful (perhaps this is why we are to “pray without ceasing” 1 Thessalonians 5:17). One of the ways that we remain ready for the return of Christ is by taking this parable literally – that is, by living in the light. We don’t like to hear this in our postmodern, anything-goes rejection of being told what to do to even if it is by someone who might know better. The suggestion that there are better and worse ways to live is difficult enough for us; that there might be right and wrong ways to live is increasingly intolerable to us. But “prepardness” for the kingdom of heaven is about how we live now – our values, our standards, our focus, our love now (Rich Nathan from the Columbus Vineyard has a great sermon on this). It is no coincidence that the five virgins who did not have oil in their lamps when the bridegroom arrived for the wedding feast were left out in the dark…where there will, to mix my parables a bit here, be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Wheat will be parsed from weed, good fish kept but bad fish burned up at the end of the age. And might it not also be a coincidence that the five without enough oil were away shopping when the bridegroom returns?
Now, I’m not exactly sure what to make of the fact that the parable says that the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1). It could mean the same thing that is found in the parable of the sower: that both weed and wheat are allowed to grow up together for now but the whole parable of the ten virgins is about the return of Christ (hence the “will be like”). How can the kingdom of heaven be like both the virgins that had enough oil and those that did not at the same time? For now, this is going to remain in the “I don’t know” box even as I pray for oil.