“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. i
We’ve spent this summer on a “flyover” of Jesus’ parables. We haven’t examined each and every one of them; we have looked at only four or five parables in each of three general categories: kingdom parables; grace parables; and, judgment parables. Today, we land on our final judgment parable. It is one of a series of three Jesus tells in Matthew 25.
The kingdom parables taught us that God’s Kingdom grows like a seed. God planted it and it grows of its own power and at its own pace. It requires no intervention from us in the form of direct, right-handed power. The wheat of the Kingdom mysteriously grows on its own among the weeds of the enemy, and God himself will separate the two when he decides the time for harvest.
The grace parables exposed the offensive doctrine that the grace of God has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of do-good-to-earn-good Karma. In fact, the pursuit of a sensible, successful, winning life takes one in the opposite direction from God’s grace – which is only for the least, the last, the little, the lost. It is for those who are willing to die to their reasonable plans for successful living and be resurrected into Messiah Jesus.
The judgment parables Jesus tells begin on or around his entry into Jerusalem. We have seen three spoken parables of judgment and several acted parables: Vineyard Laborers, Matt. 20:1-6; Parabolic actions, Lk. 19:41-46 and Mk. 11:13-14; Two Sons, Matt. 21:28-32; and, Wicked Tenants, Matt. 21:33-46.
Jesus judges the Judean authorities and their interpretations of the Old Covenant as a means to earn righteousness with God. He judges the temple and the sacrificial system because he is about to provide the once-for-all sacrifice of himself as the Lamb of God. He judges the Judean authorities for rejecting and murdering his prophets and for their murder of Jesus just a few days away.
But so far in our look at Jesus’ parables of judgment, the focus of judgment to come has been upon God’s judgment upon sin at the cross of Calvary. We know this because Jesus has been saying, “The Kingdom of God IS like…” using a present tense (Matt. 22:1). But in these final three judgment parable, there is a shift in tense from present to future.
The Ten Virgins parable begins, “THEN the kingdom of heaven WILL BE like….”ii Why the shift from present tense to future? Context. Matthew 22 began with Jesus in the temple telling the judgment parable of the Wedding Feast in which those initially invited not only refuse the gracious invitation but also kill the messengers sent to invite them. The parable ends with an attendee who has refused to dress in the righteous garments of the host being thrown out into the darkness.
Then, still in the temple, Judean authorities begin peppering Jesus with questions about paying taxes, about the resurrection, about the greatest commandment in the Law, and about whose Son is the Messiah. In Matthew 23, Jesus opens up a whole can of prophetic judgment on the scribes and Pharisees that takes up the entire chapter and concludes with Jesus condemning Jerusalem.
In Matthew 24, Jesus leaves the temple mount and tells his disciples the entire temple will be destroyed. That statement prompts them to ask about when the temple will be destroyed and when Jesus’ future return will happen (24:3). The rest of chapter 24 is Jesus instruction on both the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of a final judgment.
Messiah’s return as a judge is the context for Jesus’ final parables of judgment. This is why the tense changes from what the Kingdom IS like (chapter 22) to what the Kingdom WILL BE like (25:1). Each of these three parables in Matt. 25 has two main themes: the apparent absence of the main character until the story’s resolution; and, the readiness of those waiting for the return. “They do not make moral behavior or spiritual achievement the matter of judgment; rather, they base the judgment solely on faith or unfaith in the mystery … of the divine redemption.”iii
Grace and Judgment
Also present in these final parables is the principle we’ve seen over the last three weeks: judgment is a response to the offer of grace. Every character in the parables who becomes an outsider at the end of the parable began as an insider. All 10 virgins were included in the wedding. All three servants were given money to invest. Both sheep and goats lived their entire lives together in the King’s presence represented in the least of his brethren. The only basis of judgment is trust.iv
Acting Out of Trust – Sort of v
Whenever God’s one-way love is held up in a message of “salvation by trust alone,” there is a nagging suspicion in all of us that salvation has been made too easy. If faith/trust is the only means of escaping judgment, then why not keep on sinning that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1)?
Jesus’ final judgment parables offer an answer to that age-old allegation of what one pietist writer called “cheap grace.” The answer is: if I trust a proposition is true, I will live according to that truth. If I trust I have been invited into the Wedding Party of the Lamb, why should I NOT act as if I am at the party?
If I believe I’m at a party on Friday night with my friends, I will act accordingly. If I trust that I am at work way too early on a Monday morning, I will act accordingly. We act according to what we trust.
“Do-nothingism” is not an option because Jesus’ reconciliation of man to God is the ONLY reality there is. I either live in that reality or I reject it in favor of my own created fantasy version of a winning life by self-effort. That is the point of these three parables in Matthew 25 – the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and Goats.
But you cannot, in this earthly life, EVER live completely in the one eternal reality of Christ. We often misunderstand the nature of sin. Sin is not something about which the human race has any choice. We might manage to stop the occasional sin (the little “s” sin) — avoiding telling some lie (that has already sprung to mind), not committing adultery (though you still lust), not stealing my neighbor’s car (which I still might covet in my heart).
Not one of us, in this life, will ever completely avoid acting out of trust in ourselves and distrust of anyone else. It is that distrust of everyone else, especially God’s sovereign plans, that was the root of Adam and Eve’s problems; and is the root of your problems and my problems.
Self-effort and trust/distrust are as irremovable by human effort as they are unpardonable by human good works. They can ONLY be removed by a judgment that someone else’s perfect trust has been reckoned (imputed) to us and that now-resurrected One has paid the death penalty our self-trust deserves.
Those are the governing principles that bring us to Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins.
TEN PURITY RINGS
Fine Night for a Party
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”vi
Jesus paints us this charming picture of 10 girls headed to a wedding party (c.f. Matt 24:38). For the sake of our story, let’s say their all between about 16 to 19 years old. They have successfully negotiated the moral challenges of life so far. They’re all still wearing their purity rings from that abstinence rally they attended with their middle school youth group.
They are the perfect picture of innocence and giddiness. As they float along to the party, they gossip and giggle about which one of them will be next to marry. They all agree that as long as none of them has to marry that smelly old butcher, Lazar Wolf, they’ll be happy with whoever Yente the Matchmaker picks for them.vii
“Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match,” they sing with visions of tea and cakes dancing in their heads as they waltz along secure in their invitations to the great wedding party, their horrible lime-green poufy wedding dresses rustling in time to the music. “…Find me a find, catch me a catch.” What could spoil such a perfect Spring evening?
Well, Jesus spoils it. He stops the music at this point and begins tossing cow pies at half the lovely young ladies. “2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”ix
Foolish? How were they foolish? They were pretty and giddy and everyone was dancing and now half of them are covered in cow pies! Those five foolish girls are all invited to the wedding. They are all wearing their purity rings and poufy dresses just like the other five girls.
Their problem is they have acted according to the live-by-what-you-see wisdom of the world that God had made foolish (1 Cor. 1:20). They only brought a reasonable amount of kerosene. While the wise girls represent the wisdom of trusting into the upside-down foolishness of God in Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:21-25) and the all-governing reality of the party to which the Bridegroom has invited them.x
20 Where is the one who is wise? …Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. xi
As all the girls set out for the party, each one has all they need, for now, just as Jesus followers and non-believers have identical shares of this world’s good and ill. But only the wise have the trust they need to be known by the presently-unseen Bridegroom. The foolish girls are life’s “winners” who assume their luck will always hold and have no need for extra kerosene to prepare for the implausible, distant future.xii
What could be more sensible than to take a full lantern along for the evening’s procession? But five of the girls insist on taking along a can of kerosene. They have complicated their lives by preparing for some upside-down, completely unexpected ending that no reasonable winning person could possibly imagine. How foolish they look with a lantern in one hand and a can of kerosene in the other.
If Jesus was telling an allegory (where everything must have a higher meaning), then we would have to wrack our brains to figure out what the oil represented. Oil is often a type or symbol of the Holy Spirit. So do all 10 girls have the Holy Spirit, but five have worked harder to get a saving amount of Spirit-presence?
That would fit nicely with some pietistic teachings that distinguish justification by faith from salvation at a final judgment that assesses the quality and quantity of our good works or the quality and quantity of our passion. But, fortunately for us, this is a parable and not an allegory. So we don’t need to find a higher meaning for lamp oil. The oil is a MacGuffin.
Not by Works
The 10 girls arrive at their destination, awaiting the groom to kick off the party. But as the groom is delayed until midnight, the wedding party becomes a slumber party. Why then did the five silly girls miss the feast? It was not that five slept and five stayed awake: v. 5 says explicitly that they all slept and all had to be awakened by the midnight shout.xiii
It can’t be because the five wise girls had more good works than the five silly girls. They all wore their purity rings; they all dressed in their lime green poufy bridesmaid dresses; they all brought filled lamps. Jesus speaks these very same words of rejection in Matt. 7:21-23 to people offering him their very impressive good works (and crying out “Lord, lord”) at the final judgment:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ xiv
The ones who enter the Party are the ones whom Jesus knows. Those who stand outside the closed door are those whom Jesus judges as unknown. Those whom Jesus knows are those who trust into Jesus. They alone have come to understand something of his left-handedness, his upside-downess – like showing up on his own schedule.
The five silly girls assume the Bridegroom works in perfectly right-handed ways. He will show up at a “reasonable” time and let everybody into his party. He grades on a curve. He wants everybody to be happy and have their best eternal life now. “What I want must be what God wants. How I do things must be how God does things. God judges the way I judge. He thinks the way I think.”
In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) that follows, the losing servant is the one who doesn’t know his master and assumes him to be ungracious. In the Sheep and Goats parable (25:31-46) it is again those who do not recognize God in the last, lost, least, and little who are cast out of the party – those who fail to see the upside downess, the left-handedness because they fail to trust Messiah as a left-handed “loser” of a Bridegroom who does things his own way.
Jesus says about the five silly girls and five savvy girls, “13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”xv But all 10 girls were asleep when the Bridegroom came. Not one of them is really “on watch” at midnight. Their watchfulness doesn’t save them. But the five savvy girls bring something to the party the five silly girls do not: they trust Messiah, so they are known by Messiah.
Five show up with their reasonable, winning, “this is how the world works” ways. Five show up with their trust in a Bridegroom who works how he pleases when he pleases in contrary-to-ordinary ways – like making his cruel death upon a Roman cross the high point of human history.
No Last Chance
The ultimate point of the 10 Virgins parable is not about purity rings, or poufy dresses, or even about the amount of lamp oil. The point is this: there will come a day when the door to the party will be shut. There will be no second chances. There will be no chance to borrow someone else’s invitation and slip through the door.
When the door is shut, no wisdom of the world will work. “Unless there is something other than the wisdom of the world to help it, there is nothing for the world to do but to lie down and die.”xvi
Someday, late or soon, it will be too late even to believe, to trust into Jesus the Bridegroom. When he appears for the party, there will no longer be any need for trust because, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”xvii When we see him face to face, the time for faith will be over. You will either enter into his party or stay outside grumbling.
What we watch for is a party, and that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding up in the attack, thumping on the ceiling and laughing its way down the stairs.xviii
The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and dancing its way through the entire house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see if her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is the joyful Uncle with a giant bag of tacos in one hand and a case of cold beer in the other.xix
The wise watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
The wise trust into the Bridegroom to bring them to the party because HE is wisdom:
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” xx
i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:1–13.
ii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:1.
iii Capon, 491.
iv Id. 492.
v Id. 492-94.
vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:1. Emphasis added.
vii In case the reference goes over your head, you can read about it here, accessed 8/25/16 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiddler_on_the_Roof#Principal_characters
viii Do I really have to explain everything to you? Okay, here you are: the lamp oil is a MacGuffin; it has no allegorical meaning. Accessed 8/25/16 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin
ix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:2–4.
x Capon, 496.
xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Cor. 1:20–25.
xii Capon, 496-97.
xiii R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 947.
xiv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 7:21–23.
xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:13.
xvi Capon, 499.
xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Jn 3:1–2.
xviii Capon, 500.
xx The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Co 1:30–31.