Then 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.
I don’t know about you, but this parable has always been a little unnerving to me. This morning, I was compelled to do some research to see what kind of deeper message I might be missing here, besides the obvious, which I read as: the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone…until it isn’t. While I know this, I’m always driven to see how this might be a message of God’s love for His people. Because, on it’s surface I’ll admit this doesn’t exactly mesh with the image I have of a loving God!
So, here’s a little backstory I found: first of all, as Biblical scholar Scott Hahn states in his commentary, “this story line centers on a Jewish marital custom: following the period of betrothal, the groom would lead a procession to bring his new wife to their home, and they would celebrate a week-long banquet with family and friends.” Ok, so that explains why the virgins (also called bridesmaids or maidens in some translations) need lamps while waiting for the bridegroom: because while you are expecting his arrival any time, you don’t know exactly when he will come (it may be dark). There is a rather obvious parallel here then to our lives as Christians awaiting the second coming of Jesus. Like all ten virgins in the story, we need to be ready for the arrival of our Eternal Bridegroom Jesus. For we know not the day nor the hour of that arrival (Mark 13:32).
But what is the significance of the lamp and the oil in my life today? And here too, my bible footnotes* were a help. It states that both Origen and St. Hilary tell of a moral parallel for us here: that the lamp is our Christian faith and the oil represents our good works. This makes much more sense (and sounds much less harsh in this context) when later the ten “foolish” virgins say to the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out,” and the wise virgins reply, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” (Matthew 25:8-9)
Ahhh. Now I see. Some things–like a personal lived experience with Jesus– just cannot be given to us through others. Why? Because Jesus invites each of us individually. Unless we respond to the invitation and open our hearts, the gift may simply go unopened. Not because we aren’t loved, but because we need to welcome that experience for ourselves. This is the risk of free will.
The work we Christians are called to do is done out of charity that is inspired by our personal relationship with Jesus. If I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, you cannot make that happen for me. If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus, I cannot make that happen for you. If your aunt was a nun or your daddy a preacher, this does not mean you will automatically have a personal relationship with Jesus. Sure we can share our stories, and we can encourage one another in our faith, but when it comes time to “meet our Maker”, the only experience of God that counts is our own.
These thoughts reminded me of another saying I’ve heard recently, “God has no grandchildren.” What this says to me is that every child of God–all us adopted sons and daughters through the light of our baptism in Jesus–are first-generation children of God! While that may seem somewhat obvious at first, when I ponder that my relationship with God is every bit as personal and real (or has the potential to be if I “do the work” that is required in relationships) as if I were one his chosen people of the Old Testament like Moses or Elijah , or the New Testament like Peter and Paul, my mind just kind of buckles in awe. Can you believe that’s what we are invited to… you and I!?
But what we do with that invitation is ours for the chosing. We can either stoke the fire that lights our faith with prayer (talking to God) and meditation (listening to God through more prayer and Scripture), or we can hold our faith-lamp close (or throw it away) and criticize and blame others for its brokenness and lack of light.
Faith is a trust and confidence in something (or Someone) you cannot see. It is God’s gift to us, but we must open our hearts to receive it.
What we do with that faith–the charitable works of giving to others (and the daily work, too, like prayer and meditation)–are our gifts to God.
According to my bible dictionary**, a virgin, in biblical terms, is a female “whom no man had known” in a sexual or deeply intimate way, but it can be used as a figure of speech or image referring to nations or peoples as well. In the Old Testament virginity was not esteemed for its own sake, but in New Testament times it became a desired state in life as a path to spiritual fulfillment modeled by many (think John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus, Paul).
This parable reminds me, among other things, that a healthy personal relationship with Jesus requires both faith and works. And that a personal, intimate relationship with our Triune God–Father, Son and Spirit– is the relationship I, we, must desire above all else. Settling for anything less is foolish.
I pray we all choose wisely.