13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

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Ten Virgins

The passage:  Matthew 25: 1-13

The parable of the ten young women and the wedding banquet has attracted a lot of attention from artists down the centuries, because of the visual opportunities it offers.  This painting by Phoebe Traquair comes from a church in Edinburgh. 

The story is comic and tragic all at once.  Five young women, waiting to join a bridal procession accompanying a groom to his marriage feast, are ready with extra oil, and can greet him with blazing torches when he turns up late.  Five other young women only take just enough oil for an earlier arrival. When they dash off to find more oil they are separated from their companions, and end up being shut out from the party. 

The essence of this story is quite simple and clear: when Jesus comes calling, make sure you are ready to go along with him.  The implication is that only some will be ready, and others will miss out. 

There are a few points to note about the parable. 

Note the association of cleverness = righteousness. This is found in many parables of Jesus. The clever women represent the righteous, and the foolish represent the unrighteous.

Also, in rabbinical teachings of Jesus' time and soon after him, oil stands for prayer and good deeds: this is righteousness, the actual content of a vital, lived faith.  The challenge Jesus poses at the end is directed to the faithful: keep awake, for no-one knows when Jesus will return.  We are reminded of Jesus' words in Luke 18:8 – "when the son of man comes, will he find faith?"

Notice that such oil is not something to be shared: everyone is responsible for their own righteousness.  The wise bridesmaids were not cruel when they refused to share their oil: since everyone is responsible for their own good deeds and prayer life.

We could say that the foolish bridesmaids had lamps (religion) but not enough oil (righteousness). And they left their run to get the real oil too late.

Another interesting twist is that perhaps the bridegroom couldn’t recognize the foolish bridesmaids because it was dark and they had run out of oil. (Oil is not so easily found at midnight, so we may suppose that the foolish ones turned up at the feasting place with cold, dead lamps).

Note also that it is not the sleeping itself which was the issue: both the wise and the foolish fell asleep. There seems to be a disconnect between the parable and the punchline at the end ‘Keep awake’.  On the other hand if the foolish ones had kept awake, they could have had more time to get oil earlier in the evening, when they realised their supply was running out.  If your oil supplies are good, the sudden appearance of the groom can never be an issue. The wise ones could afford to sleep peacefully, because they had enough to last through the night. It was the foolish ones who couldn’t afford to sleep.

One way to take this text is as a parable about readiness for revival. Although it is placed in Matthew 24-25, which is all about the end of the age, the parable could also be read as being about readiness for Jesus to come into our lives, and that we must be ready to respond to him whenever the Kingdom shows up.  This readiness means prayer and discipleship (oil): making costly choices to follow Jesus, so that when the day of his grace comes, our hearts will be completely ready to respond to him, and nothing will hold us back.  This parable is about investing ourselves in the Kingdom now, so that when the day of revival comes in the future, we can be ready to jump in straightaway.

Being prepared for God is not just about doing the minimum.  (The minimum of oil is not enough). This is because God’s timing is not our timing.  Our willingness to be ready for his coming, to be equipped to respond to his call, needs to be ‘over the top’ - more than just the minimum.  The delay in his coming – requiring perseverance and patience on our part – should never hold us back from being fully prepared.

Another way of reading this parable is in terms of prayer and perseverance when waiting:  when the Lord comes to work in our lives, what has our investment in prayer been like?  The more we have invested, the more brightly and longer our lamps of revival will burn.

There is a potential tension in this parable about the work of grace in our lives, in contrast to human effort. The parable emphasises readiness of the heart to respond to the call of grace.  Both the wise and foolish were called alike.  But only the ready were able to respond to this call when it finally came, despite the best of intentions.

This parable is about being ready for God’s move in your life, and the attributes of persistence, prayerfulness needed to be ready for him.  It’s about investing in the coming Kingdom, and not just expecting to ‘wing it’ when the Spirit comes. 

1. Are you a 'just in time' person, or a 'be prepared' person? 
2. From this parable, what are the two key things Jesus wanted people to know about his return?
4. What is the 'oil' that keeps your lamp lit and burning brightly?
5. How does it make you feel that some will find the door to the kingdom shut before them?
6. How can you get ready for the next move of God in your life?
7. At the final wedding banquet, on which side of the door will you be standing?  Why?


Matthew 25: 1-13


The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

25 â€œThen the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.



Copyright © 2015 Mark Durie, All rights reserved.

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