Our text is from Matthew 25:1–13: 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)
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour—Jesus does not speak these words to those outside the Church, who live in the darkness of unbelief. In today’s parable, such sinners would not have even shown up to meet the Bridegroom. And so Jesus would have wasted His breath in telling such unbelievers to watch and prepare for His return.
But Jesus is telling His Church to watch and prepare. This parable of the Ten Virgins is a parable about the Church. And it is a parable of warning. You see, our Lord knows that within His Church are pretenders—unbelievers pretending to believe. But in a congregation these pretenders mingle in with the true believers so that you cannot tell them apart. That is why all the virgins look the same and they all carry lamps.
But we cannot see into the lamps. In the Church, we do not know who has oil and who does not. We simply assume that everyone in the Church has oil. After all, why would you carry around an empty lamp? Why would you belong to a church but not believe what it teaches? Why would you call yourself a Christian but not trust the Bible?
The reality is that some people do belong to the Church and call themselves Christian, and yet they are pretenders. They have the outward trappings but they do not have faith. They have joined themselves to a Christian congregation, and so, like the true believers, they are given the title of “virgin”. As it is used here and in St. John’s Revelation, the title “virgin” refers to those who do not give themselves over to the world’s impure passions but who follow the Lamb of God in true devotion and unsullied faithfulness. For the time being, these pretenders are lumped together with the true believers to the point where they are all called “virgins”.
The point is: you cannot tell a true virgin, a true believer, by appearance. For according to the parable, all of the virgins look the same and they all carry lamps. And they all fail to keep watch. They all fall asleep. None of them is morally pure. The problem is not that the foolish virgins are worse sinners than the wise. The foolish virgins are not worse. Rather, all the virgins, foolish and wise, are all the same, equally bad.
The difference between them is hidden from our eyes, for we cannot look into their lamps to see if they have oil. It is not that some are good and some are bad. Even though they looked and acted no different, five of them were carrying around empty lamps. The oil in this parable is faith. The foolish virgins did not believe that the Bridegroom would ever come. They had lamps—same as the wise virgins—but they had no oil, no light, no faith. In the end it was clear that they were dressing up and waiting, not for the Bridegroom but just for the sake of appearances.
Despite the outward trappings, without faith the foolish virgins are shut out. All the virgins had to be awakened. They all scrambled to light their lamps. The foolish virgins, though, ended up being shut out, not because of their moral failures, but because their lamps contained not a drop of faith. But with faith, by faith, the wise virgins, despite their moral failures, are brought in by the Bridegroom to the joy of the wedding feast.
This parable illustrates what we Lutherans mean when we talk about “faith alone”. The wise virgins are not morally superior to the foolish. The wise were not brought in because they were perfectly prepared or because they had fulfilled their duties. They had not. They came in by grace. The Bridegroom forgave their sleepiness and He generously sent someone to wake them. The difference between the wise and the foolish is that the wise believed that the Bridegroom had spoken the truth when He said that He was coming. They believed that He was their good and loving Saviour and that He wanted them to be His guests at the feast. Even when they failed to keep watch, they still believed that He was coming. That is faith. That is what was in their lamps.
Now, we must all ask ourselves: “what about me? Am I a foolish virgin? In my heart, do I reject what the Bible teaches about God? Or do I believe that Jesus is who He says He is, the eternal Son of the living God, the Saviour of the world, who is coming back to judge the world and to welcome His saints into heaven? In short, do I have true faith? Will I be saved?”.
The answer is yes to you and me and to all who live in the faith first given us at our baptism. For all those who believe and are baptized are saved.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is why you need to be awakened. The Midnight call comes now. Repent. Awake. The Lord will return as a thief in the night. You have been a foolish virgin. We all have. The first step to becoming wise is to recognize your foolishness and your inability to overcome it and to confess your foolishness to God. And the second step is to remember and to trust what our Saviour Jesus said: that everyone who is baptized and believes is saved. So do not stop with the question: “Am I foolish?”. Of course, you have been foolish. But there is more to you than that. Along with that question also ask: “Am I baptized? Does God keep His promises?” Yes! Most certainly, yes!
And so, how do you keep the faith which was given to you in Holy Baptism? How do you stay awake at least part of the time and how do you get oil in the lamp of your heart? How do you keep the hope alive even while your flesh fights against you? How do you stay wise when foolishness is all around you? Well, you stay wise by holding on tight to God’s Word as it comes to us in the Bible, in preaching, and in the Sacraments.
This parable is a warning. The lamp can run dry. Faith requires constant replenishment. Faith cannot survive apart from the Word and the Sacraments. The power of faith is not in our will power or sincerity or understanding. The power of faith is the promise of God to be and to do what He says He is and will do. All of that is based upon who He is and what He has done. He is the One whose mercy endures forever. He is the One who has laid down His life to atone for and cover your sins, to declare you righteous. Without God’s Word and gifts, faith will dry up and die. Only the virgins whose lamps are lit, who have oil, get in. Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. His Word is true and trustworthy.
For faith to stay healthy and alive, it is absolutely necessary to come to church to hear God’s Word and receive the Lord’s Supper. But simply coming is not enough. Singing the hymns and saying the Creed is not enough. Even being absolved and receiving the Lord’s Supper is not enough. For it is possible to be a churchgoer without being a Christian, to have the outer trappings without having faith—in short, to be a pretender. And that’s the point: no one can look into the lamp of our hearts to see if it contains the oil of faith. But God knows. And today God speaks to us a powerful Word of salvation in Christ our Saviour. Yes, God’s Word does what it says and promises. But it must be received through faith.
Let me say that again: God’s Word is a Word of power. And yet, God’s Word does not work automatically because God does not force Himself upon us. His Word does indeed bring us to faith and keeps us in the faith. And all that God’s Word gives—forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Name of Jesus—must be received through faith. Faith is always a gift from God and not our our doing. But we can reject that gift, which means that the salvation which the Word gives can be rejected, neglected, and abused. This is a warning for us all.
Being an religious person, a churchgoing person, a person carrying a lamp, but who nonetheless refuses to believe what the Word actually teaches, his or her faith will be snuffed out. The Word must be received by faith and that faith must be tended to. And that is the difference between the two groups of virgins. The foolish virgins did not have the oil of faith in the lamp of their hearts. Perhaps once in the past they did truly believe. But over time they stopped tending to their supply of oil, of faith. And at the midnight cry announcing the Bridegroom’s arrival, they had none. But for the wise virgins, their main concern was to have enough oil to keep their lamps burning right up to the moment of the Bridegroom’s arrival.
For you who have been an every Sunday attender for as long as you can remember and also for first-time visitors, the lesson is the same: repentance is needed. We must confess our sins and seek God’s grace. God’s Word and Sacraments are needed to keep our faith alive. No matter how good or bad you have been in the past, if this spark is neglected, it will be snuffed out and die. Now is the day of salvation.
And so, do not dare to say: “Oh, I have my faith! God and me are good. I understand Him and I don’t need to come to Church or study the Bible or receive Holy Communion. I have enough”. Repent. You don’t have enough. God would continually pour oil on you so that your lamp overflows. The Lord is not into minimums and “enoughs”. He gives abundantly. He has got more forgiveness than you have got sins, but the lamp needs to be constantly replenished. Faith needs the forgiveness of sins that God gives in His Word, in Holy Absolution, in the Lord’s Supper. That is where lamps get lit and also where and how they keep on burning.
This is the faith and wisdom we all need and that we never outgrow and which we must constantly receive. This faith is a blessing that is offered to us in the place and ways God has promised. And that is why we are here. That is why we keep coming back. This is wisdom. We are loved by God in Christ. And fools that we are, He wakes us up to His mercy. He is waking us now. It is not too late but it is later than when we first believed. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Watch in the faith that God has given to you, though you do not deserve such a gift. Watch in the faith that is being renewed every Lord’s Day through the Lord’s Holy Word and Supper. Yes, watch in faith, trusting in Jesus the Bridegroom, who sacrificed His life to make you a member of His Holy Bride, the Church. Yes, watch in faith, rejoicing! For this age is coming to a close. The Bridegroom is coming. As He came once to rescue you from the hell you deserve, so now He is coming for you, to bring you safely to His heavenly wedding feast, where you shall dwell in His glorious presence for all eternity. Praise be to God! Amen.