Last Sunday in the Church Year
Seminarian Paul Norris, Vicar
St. Matthew 25.1-13
21 November 2021
Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Many decades ago, in the early hours of a cold dark winter morning in Iceland under the soft glow of the Aurora Borealis, sailors and aircrew made their way across the frozen snow-blown ramp to prepare their aircraft for flight. The special Lockheed P-3 Orion sub hunter aircraft was being prepared to be called into service at a moment’s notice. All the anti-submarine warfare systems were being checked and prepared for flight. Radar and sonar systems were brought online and checked for operation. Mechanics checked the engines and topped off all the necessary oil levels. Ordinance men loaded the required armament of sonobuoys, torpedoes, mines, and anti-ship missiles. Pilots performed their aircraft readiness checks. When all the preparations were complete the aircraft was powered down in a manner that allowed all the systems to be brought online quickly and be airborne within minutes. The aircrew was sequestered to the barracks to wait. If the siren sounded to launch the “ready-alert,” the aircrew would spring into action and intercept the coming Soviet submarine within minutes. No one knew when the call might come. Sometimes the aircrew was launched after only a few hours, sometimes they were never launched at all. The crucial part is that they were prepared and waited for the call to action.
Likewise, Jesus illustrates this same idea in the parable of the ten virgins. If we were to boil down the message that Jesus is trying to communicate to the disciples, it would be this; “be in a state of constant readiness, be on the alert!” (Matt 25:13) Sure it would be easy to end the sermon here, I’m sure some of you would like that, and say, “There, Jesus has told you all that you need to know about this parable.” And true, this is the kernel meaning that Jesus is communicating to his disciples, but there is more that we can learn from this parable.
Some are let in, and others are shut out is a repeated theme from Jesus’ other parables. This is a parable about what will happen to the believers when Jesus returns on Judgement Day. Also employed here is the familiar theme that Jesus used in other parables of an imminent wedding. However, this parable can be difficult for us as we do not know for certain all the intricacies of the Jewish marriage ceremonies of the time.
In the parable, ten virgins are the ushers, or in this case “usherettes” for the groom. They are waiting for the groom so that they can go pick up the bride and take her into the wedding; then the doors would be shut. During Jesus’ ministry on earth, weddings often started at night and would last 2 -3 days. This wedding is taking place at night and there are no streetlights. Those who are processing with the bridegroom are not only to be alert for his arrival but must also have sufficient oil to provide light for the group.
Five of the virgins were wise and had enough oil, and five others were “foolish” and did not have enough oil. It is interesting to note that the Greek word for foolish in this parable is the same word from which the English word “moron” originated. A more modern way of saying it is that really bad word that my mother would not let my siblings use to describe each other, “stupid.”
This seems a harsh thing for our Lord to say about some people, but it bears some thought about where wisdom comes from. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Wisdom and understanding come from God. All ten virgins were indeed waiting for the bridegroom in faith, but the five foolish virgins possess only a superficial scriptural knowledge of truth like the Pharisees. As evidenced by their lack of enough oil, the five foolish virgins were not expecting the bridegroom to be late, they were expecting him to appear when they thought he should come. Their lack of oil points to their misunderstanding of who the bridegroom truly is. They believe they know the timing of the bridegroom’s arrival and do not prepare accordingly.
The bridegroom is late, and all the virgins, both wise and foolish, fall asleep. This is an important detail: all who were waiting became weary and fell asleep, much like the disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane. But then, suddenly without expectation at midnight, the cry is heard, “the bridegroom is here!” All the virgins who were to honor and accompany the bridegroom adjusted the wicks on their lamps so they would burn brightly. In a moment of panic, the foolish virgins realize they’re unprepared. They don’t have enough oil to properly escort the bridegroom. The foolish virgins ask the wise virgins to share their oil, but they refuse knowing if they share their oil there will not be enough oil for all of them to honor the bridegroom and properly greet him.
And here is where the most devastating demonstration of foolishness happens. The five foolish virgins leave to buy more oil. Not only do they not have enough oil, but they leave, and when the bridegroom arrives, they’re not included in the wedding party. “…and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.” Just like the door to the ark was shut when the wicked people in Noah’s time were also not prepared. We do not know from the parable if the five foolish virgins were able to obtain the required oil, but they return and demand to be let into the wedding feast. They even call out to the bridegroom using the proper title to show their honor “Lord, lord,” but it is in vain. The bridegroom denies them entry and says to them, “I do not know you.”
I know many of you are thinking, “well I want to be sure I have oil; what is the oil?” This was certainly a thought I had. Is the oil something we need, is the oil faith, or God’s Word, or maybe it is the Holy Spirit? The hotly contested definitive theological answer is yes. Don’t get lost in the details of the parable. To focus solely on the oil will cause you to miss the main point Jesus is making here.
Oil is something you cannot buy or supply yourself. The oil is not a good work, it’s not something you do, but it is supplied by the bridegroom. It is freely given. The main point of this parable is that you watch and be prepared, for no one knows when our Lord will appear on the last day. If you are worried or concerned that you don’t have enough oil, you’re in good company and you’re probably prepared. The ones who aren’t prepared are those who don’t care, reject the bridegroom and persist in unbelief.
Here is what we should be looking at in this parable. All the virgins were invited to the wedding feast. But all the virgins failed in their task, the five foolish and the five wise virgins all fell asleep. Sleeping is not the problem, even the disciples fell asleep. It is not about what they did nor did not do. By the bridegroom’s grace, even the five wise virgins who failed to stay awake and watch were received graciously by the bridegroom. Perhaps the five foolish virgins should have stayed to see if the bridegroom would still accept them instead of leaving. The foolish virgins reject the invitation of the bridegroom by leaving and fail to understand the grace of the bridegroom.
Jesus ends the parable by explaining the meaning with the exhortation, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Do not become like the foolish virgins who thought that bringing an extra bottle of oil would burden them and hinder their fun at the feast. When the time came to meet the bridegroom, they wandered off. They think they can produce what is needed on their own. They do not rely on the goodness and grace of the bridegroom. They think that the oil is what will get them into the wedding feast. But the result of their unpreparedness and rejection of the bridegroom is to be shut out.
Rejoice in the Lord that he has told us how to be prepared and watchful for his return by abiding in God’s Word through personal devotion, catechetical instruction, and bible study. In holy baptism, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and with daily contrition and repentance we drown and die with all sins and evil desires, and the new Adam arises. We also prepare and watch by participating in the Divine Service with the bride of Christ, the Church. This is where we hear God’s Word and receive the life-giving gifts of the sacraments. From his grace, he speaks to us, loves us, feeds us, and cleanses us. The invitation to celebrate in the eternal Marriage Feast of the Lamb is from Christ himself who was crucified on the cross for our sins and conquered sin, death, and the Devil by his resurrection to save the life of his bride.
Like the five foolish virgins, many false prophets have tried to predict the return of our Lord Jesus, and they all have failed. The founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, measured the dimensions and corridors of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt to predict the return of Christ in 1873. When that year passed without the appearance of Jesus, he admitted his mathematical error and changed it to 1874. When this too did not happen, he later said that Jesus had returned but he was “invisible.” In more contemporary times, Hal Lindsey, author of the popular book ‘The Late Great Planet Earth,’ believed the generation that saw the 1948 rebirth of Israel as a nation would see the return of Jesus Christ within 40 years. 1988 came and went but Jesus did not return. All failed to predict the return of our Lord Jesus. Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matt 24:36)
The bridegroom may be a long time coming and the Church so far has been waiting for Jesus’ glorious return for over 2000 years. Jesus will return when the time is right according to his will. He will return at the perfect time, and we are to be prepared and watchful. Be ready! The Holy Spirit is preparing us. Trust in the goodness and grace of our bridegroom Jesus, for he comes to receive his bride the Church, apart from your own abilities. We will all become weary and even fall asleep, but on that Day of Judgement, Christ will awaken all, and by his death and resurrection, the faithful shall be joined with him in the everlasting celebration of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.