8th November 2020
The parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
1At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
7Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8The 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 m to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11‘Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”
12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”
13‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
This Gospel passage is a story about five foolish and five wise bridesmaids. It is a story about choices and their consequences, and challenges us to examine how we live.
When we look around our churches we see plaques commemorating the lives of all sorts of people. Often the older the building the more there appears to be. Some plaques are easily missed; some are tucked away out of sight because the church has been re-ordered. Rickinghall has a plaque behind the organ. It hasn’t been read for decades. Who is it commemorating?
Tucked behind the kitchen door of a parish church is a plaque commemorating the life of a young man called William. An only child, he died in Italy in 1918 at the age of twenty-one. He had been on active service since his seventeenth birthday. The plaque is easily missed. It has never been moved, but the church has been re-ordered with a kitchen integrated into the porch. So there it is, looking down on all the cups and saucers as they pile up in the sink. It is only the elderly members of the church who can remember how the building looked before – and there is no one who remembers William. We can only imagine the love and grief that gathered in his parents’ hearts and led them to commission the plaque. They wanted him to be remembered.
We have to remember. It is good to remember. We are in a season of remembrance, last week we had All Saints and All Souls’, today we have Remembrance Sunday, and in a couple of Sundays we celebrate Christ the King.
This is all about remembering, but what is remembering?
To remember is to re-member: have in or be able to bring to one’s mind an awareness of someone or something from the past. In other words, it is about bringing the past into the present. And we have to do this, because if we don’t, people who have been too young to see what has gone on before, particularly the destruction, pain, suffering and death caused by war, will have no knowledge of what can happen. They will not understand the value of life and the freedom that they have.
The Kohima epitaph is carved on the memorial of the Second British Division in the cemetery of Kohima in northern India. It reads:
When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
The remembrance of many, happening in hundreds of places today, and the telling of their stories, is important.
The Gospel we are given for today is about being ready. It tells of ten bridesmaids – young women, who have the whole of the rest of their lives ahead of them. They have oil lamps to keep alight when the bridegroom arrives. And although they are initially ready, as time goes by half of them become ill equipped and run out of oil. When the moment comes for them to stand up and welcome the bridegroom, their lamps go out. They ask the others for help, but are refused. So they run off to the shops to buy more oil, but they are too late. When the bridegroom arrives, they are nowhere to be found, but have gone to buy what they think they need.
Perhaps, like the ill-equipped bridesmaids, we only partially attend to our spiritual life. We could think of the oil in their lamps as prayer, meditation on God’s word and other spiritual practices. We may be developing an excellent relationship with God by these methods, but at some point we become distracted and lose focus. The oil has run out and we put off going to buy some more. It’s very easy to do, and it may be just at the wrong moment, when we are on the verge of moving on to something deeper, or when something happens that requires a depth of spiritual maturity to cope, or to make the most of an opportunity.
Each of the wise bridesmaids, however, has made her preparation and has made sure she is spiritually prepared. But being prepared is something we cannot transfer to others. Their refusal to give oil to the foolish bridesmaids is not an act of selfishness but a lesson in how each of us is expected to make his or her own preparations. We have to take responsibility for our own actions.
The surprise created by the early arrival of the bridegroom is followed by two further developments in the story: the door is shut against those who arrive late (verse 10); and the groom refuses to recognise the foolish bridesmaids: “I do not know you” (verse 12). Those who are not prepared, or are too late in their preparation, are refused entry to the Kingdom.
This seems shocking when we think that this is the same Jesus who taught, healed, and broke bread with anyone who would join him, and who has particular compassion for the poor and outcast. Why is Christ now portrayed as someone who would shut the door on half of those who are waiting for His arrival?
But what are the expectations of the majority of people in our society today? What would they prefer most? The values of this world’s kingdoms … or the demands and expectations of the Kingdom of God?
The exhortation to “Keep awake” (verse 13) is a call to be prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God, for the Second Coming of Christ. How ought we to do this?
Think back to the readings of the three previous Sundays, about rendering on to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22: 15-22); about living by the two great commandments – loving God and loving our neighbour (Matthew 22: 34-36); and about living by the spirit and not merely by the letter of the Law of God when it comes to discipleship (Matthew 23: 1-12).
The one person the foolish bridesmaids really need is the bridegroom Himself. If they were to stay put and confess their lack, perhaps they could put their hand in His and walk in His light. But they have missed Him. One of the things this parable shows us is that, when we know we don’t have what we need for salvation – when we know we’re not ready to meet Christ – then, rather than running off in some other direction, it would be best to swallow our pride and come to Jesus. Christ has all we need. He took all our un-readiness to the cross, and made it possible for us to step into the new life that only He can give.
“Keep watch,” says Jesus, “because you do not know the day or the hour.” It is as true for us now as it was for the bridesmaids, and as it was for William in 1918. And we will never have enough oil. We cannot do this waiting, this readiness, through our own strength. If this parable says anything to us, it says that how we live, and what we do, and who we are with – and where we are looking – are important. And this time of year says that too.
So how can we honour those who, like William, gave their lives for others? And how can we honour his parents, who placed a plaque so that others would remember? Most of all, we can do it by how we live: by living well; by loving one another, putting others first, making peace where peace is in our power to make. Are we making good choices in our life – really good choices?
But there is a deeper question for today as well; how can we truly be ready to meet Christ? Perhaps today calls us to hold out our burnt-out lamps, and own up to our lack of oil, and trust ourselves to the God who, in infinite mercy, calls us, always and everywhere, to life in all its fullness, for He is the way, the truth and the life, and no one can come to the Father except through Him.
As Christ followers, our role is to go and live this out, showing all around us that all can only find God through the person of His Son Jesus.
Despite the terror, destruction and death caused by war, Jesus has been there and continues to be there in the midst of the fiercest fighting, holding out His nail-scared hands to all. And those who put their hands into His find the way to salvation as they walk in His light.
Are you making good choices in your life – really good choices?
Time to think
Read Matthew 25:1-13. With pen and paper (maybe your journal) to hand consider the following questions. Perhaps you could share your reflections with others.
Digging into God’s Word
- Has there been a time when you anticipated the return of a loved one? If so what was that like?
- How did the anticipation of a person’s return change your everyday life leading up to the return?
- What does this passage teach us about God?
- What does this passage teach us about humanity?
- What is a command to obey in this passage? What has God revealed in your life that needs changing? What truth can be applied to your life about the gospel?
Digging Deeper into God’s Word
- What is this passage saying about the kingdom of heaven?
- What keeps people today from being prepared for Christ’s return?
- How can we help people be prepared for one of the most important days they will ever face?
- If this parable is true, how should it change the way we live? How should it change the way we relate to our neighbour, co-worker, family, etc.?
- What is one thing that you can change that will better prepare you for Jesus’ return?
Father, keep me from being distracted by busyness, the cares of this world, and a heart of unbelief. Thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Help me to “keep in step” with the Spirit as I keep watch. Father give me a longing for the return of Christ and keep my eyes focused on the prize that is set before me.
Read Paul’s charge to Timothy and the testimony of his life in 2 Timothy 4:6-8