I should begin with at least an acknowledgement that this reflection is late. That had something to do with getting ordained to the diaconate on Friday, preaching on Saturday, and baptizing my niece on Sunday. More on all of that later. But when I preached on Saturday, I preached on this very text. So without further ado…
The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
First, we have to understand the parable. Wedding customs in first century Palestine were a little different than those we know today. The wedding was a drawn out affair, beginning with the betrothal. After that, the couple was married but would not live together until the complex negotiations regarding the dowry were complete. When that was done, the bridegroom would go to the bride’s house and bring her to his own house. Then there would be a splendid feast that would go on for several days.
So the parable happens just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house. He is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep. But that is not the problem. The problem is that half of them were unprepared.
I think we bristle a bit at the wise virgins’ refusal to share their oil with the foolish. Jesus was always for sharing and charity, so what’s the deal here? Well, since we know Jesus regularly encourages such sharing, I think we can safely conclude that is not the point of the parable and move on. The point of the parable then, may well be the oil itself. Of what is this oil symbolic?
The Church Fathers help us a bit there. They talk about the oil as the oil of salvation. This would be an oil that can only be had in relationship with Jesus. It’s an oil that can’t be begged, borrowed, stolen or bought at an all-night Walgreens. We fill the flasks of our lives with that oil through daily prayer, devotion, the sacraments, and a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ, our Savior. So the foolish virgins were looking for oil too late — too late not just because it is midnight, but too late because they should have been filling their flasks with this oil all along. It’s not the wise virgins’ fault they did not share: indeed this is an oil that cannot be shared, any more than one could live another’s life for that person.
What gets me is that five of these virgins showed up unprepared. We may not be familiar with first-century Palestinian wedding customs, but they certainly were. So they would have known the wedding would go on for some days. How is it, then, that they forgot extra oil? Even if the bridegroom had not been delayed, they certainly would have needed it! What was so important to them that they forgot to attend to the most basic part of their job in preparation for the wedding banquet?
Just so, we certainly have nothing more important to do than to show up at the wedding feast of heaven with our flasks filled with the oil of salvation. No other concern should distract us for our most basic job on earth, which is preparing for our life in heaven. We must not be deterred from prayer, devotion, good works of charity, fasting, and zealous reception of the sacraments lest we hear those awful words the bridegroom spoke to the foolish virgins: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”
When we get to the feast, if our flasks are not full, it is already too late. As we approach the immanent end of this Church year (there’s just less than three weeks left), let us look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year. And let us steadfastly resolve to fill those flasks to overflowing in the year ahead. The only way we can do that is by zealously seeking our God, praying the prayer of the Psalmist:
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.