Our text is today’s Gospel: 1 [Jesus said:] “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.” (ESV)
On the night of the first Passover, the Israelites looked foolish, downright ridiculous. It was midnight, and they were still up. They were waiting. Everyone else in Egypt was doing the sensible thing. The reasonable thing. They were in their beds, all tucked in and sleeping. But not the Israelites. There were waiting for something. And as they waited, they were looking pretty foolish. In the middle of the night, they all had their sandals on, ready to go at a moment’s notice. How silly. But the most ridiculous thing they did was with the blood of the lamb they had eaten that night. They painted the Passover lamb’s blood on the doorposts. So there they were. Still up. Still dressed. With blotches of blood on their doors. How foolish they looked.
Ten virgins, or bridesmaids, were waiting for the Bridegroom with their lamps and their oil for light. And when He finally arrived, they would all together march to the wedding service and reception. Five of the virgins did the sensible thing. They were reasonable. They were ruled by common sense. They looked so wise. They thought back to all the weddings they had been to in the past, and they estimated how much oil they would need for their lamps. Why would you lug along more than you need? It is not as though the Bridegroom will come as late as midnight, or so they thought.
But the other five virgins looked foolish. Ridiculous. They brought along large containers of extra oil. If this wedding took place today, it would have been as though they brought along a whole string of extra D-sized batteries for their flashlights. The other five may have mocked them, but they did not care what others thought. For above all, they wanted to be prepared for any circumstance. But how foolish, how over-the-top they seemed in being so over-prepared.
But then the clock struck midnight. And those who looked so foolish, suddenly looked very wise. At midnight, the Israelites did not look so foolish anymore. In fact, they looked very wise. It was the Egyptians—with their dead firstborn sons and their bloodless doors—who looked foolish. They had rejected the God of Israel and His Word, and therefore they were not ready in the middle of the night. It was too late. Too late to believe. Too late to get a Passover lamb. Too late to spare their firstborn sons. But the ridiculous-looking Israelites with those ridiculous-looking bloody marks on their doors made their escape out of slavery through the watery door of the Red Sea to rejoicing.
And when the clock struck midnight, those five foolish-looking virgins with all those gallons of extra oil did not look so silly either. In fact, what was revealed at midnight, was just how wise they had been. For when the cry went out at midnight that the Bridegroom was coming, they found themselves in the ready position of faith, looking very wise. They had extra oil, and they trimmed their lamps and went to the wedding hall with rejoicing. It was too late for those who looked so smart, so reasonable, so worldly-wise. They did not make it. It was too late. And the door was shut on them forever.
In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul proclaims: The foolishness of God is wiser than men (1:25). Those who are truly wise in this life, will not look wise in the world. To the world they—we—are foolish. And yet, God’s salvation is given to such “fools”. They are the ones who are going to be revealed as very wise in the life to come, when Jesus comes again and shuts the door on history. Yes, God’s salvation is given to those who are wise in Jesus but whom the world considers foolish. Yes, everlasting joy shall be upon [the] heads of those whose greatest concern in this life is to have enough oil to keep their lamps burning right up to the second of the Bridegroom’s arrival.
The oil in today’s parable are those things that bring and feed faith in Jesus: Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, Holy Absolution, the preaching of Jesus, the Anointed One. And the point of the parable is that it is a matter of eternal life and death how one regards this oil of the Lord.
There are those who appear to be quite reasonable and sensible, even wise in the eyes of the world. They consume their energy building a good life for themselves—a nice home, a good career, a secure and prosperous retirement. They are focused on building a better life now; in fact, that is their top priority—to live a good life. Now, they may even be church members, but they want to get by with as little of Jesus as they can. Nothing can get in the way of their pursuit of earthly pleasures and prosperity. And so they are complacent, nonchalant about the oil of Word and Sacraments. These sensible people would counsel: “don’t go overboard on this Jesus stuff!” These reasonable people might even ask, “Why bother with the Bible and church and prayer at all? They don’t seem to be doing any good!”
Now, if you were to neglect your faith in order to make your top priority living a good life now, then the world would say that you have good sense. And of course, we all like to be reasonable. We like to be sensible. We like the world to think we are wise. But this pursuit of the good life now to the neglect of our faith is the way of living like those virgins who failed to tend to their supply of oil. And all that kind of attitude can get us is a door shut in our face on the Last Day and a tragic message of “Too late” and an “I don’t know you,” from the Bridegroom Jesus Himself.
Today’s Gospel is a study in contrast between those whose top priority is to live a good life now and those whose main concern is to die a good death, and by “good death”, I mean dying faithful in the Lord. Those who live for this life have little use for God’s gifts which bring and feed faith in Jesus. In Baptism, God brings sinners to faith in Jesus. Absolution returns sinners to their baptismal faith and cleanses them of their sins. Holy Communion feeds us the Lord’s very Body and Blood for a full forgiveness. And the Word of the Gospel nourishes us with God’s salvation even as we travel through this dark world of death. But these gifts mean nothing to those who are worldly-wise but who are foolish to God.
But to you and me, and to all the saints, we may appear foolish to the world. The world mocks us for being so concerned about our supply of oil, of God’s gifts of faith, life and salvation in Jesus. To the world, we are not at all reasonable, sensible; we are foolish. But to God, we are wise, like those five virgins lugging around those extra flasks of oil, yes, like those virgins whose chief concern was to have enough oil with which to greet the Bridegroom, no matter how late his arrival.
You see, now, don’t you, whom these five wise virgins represent? They represent those whose main concern is to live a life of preparing for a good death, to die faithful to Jesus. And such are you by the grace of God.
And God’s grace works first to drive you to your knees and to break your heart. The theological word for this is “contrition”, which is the godly sorrow you have over your sins. Examine your hearts and you will see that you have frittered away much of your life trying to build a good life for yourself. Of course, such things as a comfortable home, a rewarding career, enjoyable hobbies, nice vacations, good friends, and a secure retirement are all gifts we receive from the hand of our gracious God. But we each in our own way have allowed these lesser gifts to make us complacent, nonchalant about the greater gifts, the gifts that give us and sustain us in saving faith in the Holy Triune God.
The truth is we all have lived like the five foolish virgins, the ones who seem so reasonable and sensible in the eyes of the world. We have pursued the good life now at the neglect of our salvation. By God’s grace, then, let us repent. Let us pray in the words of today’s Introit: O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you.…My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions.
The Good News for us sinners is that God is neither reasonable nor sensible. The sensible thing for God to do would be to shut the door to heaven on the whole world of sinners and to be done with them. But instead, God the Son takes on flesh and comes into our world to deliver us from all our transgressions. Bridegroom Jesus is not sensible, not reasonable. He is above all merciful. He went to the cross to be judged for sins He did not commit. He went to the cross for our nonchalant attitude towards God’s Word. Our despising of God’s Word and our pursuing of our own will rather than God’s made us all a target for God’s wrath. But along comes Jesus, God-in-the-flesh. And the arrow of God’s wrath is driven deep into the flesh of Jesus, as He died on the cross in our place, bearing the punishment we deserved.
On the first Passover, the Israelites looked foolish, smearing the lamb’s blood on their doors so that the angel of death would pass over their homes. And Jesus shedding His blood on the cross is also foolishness to the world. And now, you and I are the ones whom the world considers foolish, for like the Israelites, we trust that the Blood of the Lamb of God covers all of our sins and opens the door to true freedom—freedom from slavery to sin, death, and the devil—the freedom of life everlasting. The sensible thing for God to do would be to shut the door to heaven and to be done with us. But instead, the Father sent His only-begotten Son to open that door—really, to be that Door—of eternal peace and joy and life in heaven.
But there is more. Right now, God gives us His grace to live like those wise virgins who appear so foolish to the world. He feeds us in the faith He first gave us at our baptism. He comes among us again today with the oil of salvation, and He pours that oil out abundantly upon you. The oil of the Holy Spirit that calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies you in the true faith. And this blessed oil of Word and Sacraments is what sustains you, in spite of your many sins. Do you see? The God who refused to do the sensible thing, the God who refused to slam shut the door of heaven to you, this gracious God keeps pouring into your life the oil of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. And He gives you the grace not to neglect the oil of Word and Sacrament, but to make it your greatest concern that you abide and remain in the faith, that you may die a good death, faithful to the end. Yes, forgiven in Christ, your greatest concern in this life is to have enough oil to keep your lamp of faith burning right up to the second of the Bridegroom’s arrival. What a gracious Saviour you have! In grace, He makes you a faithful virgin, a ready bridesmaid, with enough oil to bring you to the heavenly marriage feast that is to come. Amen.