When I used to meet with an engaged couple prior to their wedding, and certainly at some point during the wedding rehearsal the evening before the big day, I always made a point to tell people, “Now don’t forget to enjoy yourselves! It goes fast so have fun!” Typically I remind them just to relax and to savor the moment. Too often the bride, groom, and others get so uptight about the choreography of the ceremony that they make themselves miserable instead of joyful. There seems to be a kind of nervous belief that if things don’t go perfectly, it will be a disaster. But aside from the rare fainting spell, and despite some of the zanier wedding clips that you can find on YouTube, the average wedding ceremony sails along quite nicely.
But then came the day when my own daughter got married. I conducted the ceremony at her request. Suddenly I found myself giving my standard admonition to have fun while staring into the mirror! I spent weeks—months—waking up with a knot in the pit of my stomach. Who knows why. Thankfully, in the end, when the big day came and there was nothing more to do but wait out the clock until the ceremony began, I did by God’s grace relax and both my wife and I had a roaring good time!
The truth is that if there is anything to ponder or fret about at a wedding, it is not that the candles will burn too fast, that the bride will trip on her train, or that the organist will play the wrong song. Instead, a proper thing to ponder is whether the wedding should be taking place at all, whether people are appropriately serious about their vows and sufficiently mindful of what it means to make such weighty promises before the very face of God.
But I can’t recall a single instance when I heard anyone at a rehearsal worry that just maybe the ceremony would not be pleasing to God. We may hope that Aunt Mildred will like it and that cousin Floyd will remember to pick up his tuxedo, but we seem to assume that the divine dimension to it all will take care of itself. (And even if it doesn’t . . . oh well, so long as the wedding photos look pretty, we’re good to go! After all, why would even God not be wowed by that stunning arrangement of freesia!)
Sometimes we simply forget to have the right focus. That seems to be the point of the wedding story in Matthew 25, too. This parable is on one level very straightforward. The major elements of the story lend themselves readily to allegory. It is easy to match up each character and event of this story with a real life person or event. This is so easy to do that we assume that the meaning of the whole story is likewise easy to understand. The bridegroom is Jesus, the ten virgins are people in the church, the oil for the lamps is faith, and the bridegroom’s arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of history when there will be that ultimate sorting out process known as the last judgment.
But it may not finally be quite that simple. There is a reason we caution people against turning parables into straight-up allegories.
First, let’s note a few oddities we might miss if we too quickly try to sew this up in a neat 1:1 allegorical correspondence:
First, where’s the bride? Where there is a bridegroom and bridesmaids, there is usually a bride to go along with them, but in Matthew 25 not one word is devoted to that person who tends to be the central figure at a wedding. So where’s the bride and, presuming there is a bride, whom would she represent if this whole story really is just an allegory?
Also, why did the five so-called wise virgins bring an extra can of oil along? What made them think to do that? Suppose that next Saturday you attend a wedding in which you see the bridesmaids coming down the aisle, each with a lovely bouquet of flowers in her hands. But suppose that half of that bridal party walked down the aisle using one hand to hold the bouquet and the other hand to lug along one of those old-style tin watering cans with a long spout. Surely you’d conclude that this is a non-standard thing to bring to a wedding. Do they think this could go on so long they will have to keep their flowers watered lest they wilt before the big event gets underway?
So also in the parable: what made half of these bridal attendants conclude that the ceremony could go on so long, or be delayed so long, that they’d need extra oil?
On top of that, what’s the deal with their refusing to share their oil? That hardly seems a gospel-like way of treating other people. Can it really be the same Jesus telling this story who also said on another occasion, “If someone asks you for your coat, give him your shirt, too”? Wouldn’t a generous person say, “Let’s divide this oil among us: after all, it’s better to have ten half-full lamps that can then all burn than to have five completely dead ones.” But that doesn’t happen here, instead half of the girls hoard their extra supply, sending the other five on the unlikely errand of finding an oil shop still open at midnight (a fool’s errand that ultimately will leave those hapless five bridesmaids out on their ear–eternally so if we connect the allegorical dots here).
It would be good to wrestle with these questions.
But more substantively, really to get at the core issue of this parable we need to back up a bit to consider first the context of this parable and then to re-consider the parable itself. The immediate context in Matthew is Jesus’ long speech on the Mount of Olives about the end of the world. All of Matthew 24 was consumed by apocalyptic rhetoric about the signs of the end of the age. Throughout that chapter Jesus makes it clear that there will be, one day, an end to things as we now know them. But Jesus is equally clear that no one, including apparently even he himself (for the time being anyway), knows when that will be precisely. There will be no missing it when it happens. Until then, however, Jesus warns the disciples to steer clear of anyone who claims to have it all figured out.
Despite the cottage industry that has arisen around making apocalyptic predictions anyway, Jesus says that all such speculation and calculation is wrong. And since Jesus himself indicates that even he doesn’t know the date or time, it’s a cinch that no one will calculate that date based on Jesus’ words. I mean, if I tell you I am completely clueless as to the workings of electromagnetism, it makes little sense to scour anything I write for clues as to the inner machinations of electromagnetism. You’re barking up the wrong tree.
In Matthew 24 Jesus is not trying to create starry-eyed disciples who do nothing but scan the horizon for clues as to history’s end, he’s trying to create focused disciples who keep their eyes on the chief things of the gospel. He’s not training short-distance sprinters who will perpetually dash for history’s finish line but long-distance marathon runners who are poised to stay faithful over the long haul.
In context, then, the reason to plan ahead on the likely need for extra oil becomes clear. Wise believers will not necessarily think that the end is near. The wise won’t bother with predictions that might prod one into thinking that the end of everything is so imminent, we don’t need to bother with things like taking care of the environment, developing long-term strategies for peace among the nations, or nurturing a faith strong enough to deal with issues that may crop up many years from now. The wise, in other words, take the long look.
But in so doing, such wise believers display not an uncaring attitude as to when the end may come but a very caring one. Living with the end in sight need not mean being some starry-eyed person who does nothing but scan the horizon. In fact, what it should mean is living into the kingdom at every, every moment, doing the work that each day presents and doing it precisely because you know the Bridegroom is always close at hand, whether the end happens anytime soon or not.
What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow, someone once asked Martin Luther. “I think I’d go out and plant an apple tree.”
There are no particularly difficult or striking features to the Greek original or English translations of Matthew 25:1-13. The story is pretty straightforward. The Greek words used for “wise” and “foolish” are phronimoi and morai. The word for “wise” could also be translated as “prudent” or “thoughtful.” The word for “foolish” is the same one used earlier in Matthew when Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) talks about salt losing its saltiness and so becoming “foolish.” In Matthew 5:13 this is usually translated as “becoming useless” but the root word there is the same one used for “foolish” here in Matthew 25 (and is behind the English “moron”). In the context of Matthew 5, the warning about the salt is designed to urge the disciples to stay vibrant in their faith, even through persecutions, and this is followed immediately by the admonition to let your light shine and not hide it under a bowl.
Maybe there is some connection between that light and the lamps of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. In any event, the foolish are those who are not able to stick with Jesus’ program over the long haul. In the context of Matthew 5, maybe this includes those who decide not to view the world through the upside-down vision of the Beatitudes as Jesus laid out in his great sermon. Maybe what makes the foolish virgins so foolish (so “useless” for the kingdom) is that they adopted the prudent ways of this world, living for the moment, going for the gusto, and allowing this world’s standards to define “the good life.” But what is prudent to this world is foolish in the world of Jesus’ kingdom where the meek, the lowly, the merciful come out on top.
William Willimon has written that when he was a young pastor in rural Georgia, a dear uncle of one of his congregation’s members died suddenly, and though this uncle was not a member of Willimon’s church, he and his wife decided to attend the funeral. So Willimon and his wife drove to a back-woods, off-brand Baptist church for the funeral one sunny afternoon.
It was, Willimon said, unlike anything he had ever seen. They wheeled the casket in and soon thereafter the pastor began to preach. With great fire and flaying his arms all over the place, this preacher thundered, “It’s too late for Joe! He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it’s too late for him now! He’s dead. It’s all over. He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s finished!”
As Willimon sat there, he thought to himself, “Well, this is certainly a great comfort for this grieving family!” The minister continued: “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day, so why wait?! Too late for Joe but not for you! Make your life count, wake up and come to Jesus now!”
“Well,” Willimon concluded, “it was the worst thing I ever heard. ‘Can you imagine a preacher doing that to a bereft family?'” he asked his wife in the car on the way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate! I would never preach a sermon like that.” His wife agreed: it was tacky, calloused, manipulative.
“And of course,” his wife added, “the worst part is that everything he said was true.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 8, 2020
Matthew 25:1-13 Commentary