I’m just going to go right ahead and say it, here in front of God and everybody: This parable makes no sense. Every interpretation I have read of it doesn’t fully hold up. After struggling and studying this passage I am not embarrassed to say that I can make no sense of it.
Jesus introduces the parable by saying that it is an example of how the kingdom of heaven will be. But as the story unfolds we are left with a very unChristian view of heaven. For instance, is heaven really only for the wise? The wise here are not wise as much as they are conniving and selfish.
The story is of ten bridesmaids, or as the Greek says, virgins. All the attendants waiting for the groom are pure. Five are not the brightest virgins. The Greek text uses the roots of our word moron to describe them and the term seems fair enough. After all, they bring along oil lamps but no oil. What good are oil lamps with no oil?
The issue of purity is not a concern in this parable. All ten bridesmaids are pure, they are all virgins. The issue of diligence isn’t the real issue either. All ten bridesmaids fall asleep. Whether wise or foolish, they were each exhausted from waiting for a delayed groom and they all dozed and slept.
But once the groom arrives the foolish ones discovered their mistake in bringing along empty lamps. The wise bridesmaids refuse their pleas for help. Is that what heaven will be like? Are we really to believe that heaven will be filled with self-concerned, selfish pure people?
They send the foolish virgins out to get their own oil. They do not offer to lead them or to share their oil. How much light would they have needed to follow the groom? Besides, what oil merchant would be open in the middle of the night and how would they have been able to find their way to a merchant without oil in their lamps? It is almost as if the wise bridesmaids sent the dull bridesmaids on the New Testament version of a snipe hunt. Are we to believe that heaven will be filled with self-concerned, selfish, conniving pure people?
Later the foolish bridesmaids show up at the door asking to be let into the feast. We are not told whether they had oil in their lamps or not. We are only told that they are refused entry because their Lord does not know them. Were the wise ones inside comfortably feasting, unconcerned about their sisters? Are we to believe that heaven will be filled with self-concerned, selfish, conniving and gloating pure people?
The kingdom of heaven doesn’t look so great in this parable. But maybe the focus of this reading shouldn’t be on the parable at all. Maybe Jesus’ most pivotal statement about the kingdom of heaven is the final words from our passage this morning: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This passage is taken from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. The 24th chapter tells us of Jesus’ description of the apocalypse as well as other parables about being ready. Twice in that chapter he admonishes his disciples to remain awake and aware.
The chapter following our reading, the twenty-sixth chapter, is the story of the Last Supper and the beginning of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Perhaps that is what our passage this morning is really about.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us several times that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Here in chapter 25, between speaking of the apocalypse and facing his own sacrificial death and rebirth he tells us to keep awake, to be aware.
It is as if our Lord is telling us, “I have told you time and again the kingdom of heaven is near. It is so near it is breaking forth into your life, right in front of you. You must stay alert, do not miss it. Engage your life with the eyes of faith and see God doing a new thing.”
Maybe our puzzling parable this morning really isn’t about virgins, wise ones or morons. Maybe it isn’t about oil lamps and preparedness. Maybe it isn’t about who will be in heaven and who won’t. Maybe it is about heaven being right in front of you, ready to break out and into your life.
Maybe Jesus was trying to tell us that the kingdom of heaven will come upon us in the middle of the night, or in the checkout line of the grocery store, or across the kitchen table from our family. The kingdom of heaven is near and it can arrive at any moment in any place. Be ready to see it and be ready to embrace it.