Living Lessons 4

Spiritual Preparedness

If you haven’t read this story in a while, it is probably time to do it again.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps[a] 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. Matthew 25:1-13

This story continues the warnings that Jesus gives to his followers about being prepared for his return. The ten virgins are not so much named for their lack of sexual activity, but rather, it is nomenclature that is used to ensure we know these women were of marriageable age, creating an understanding of their relationship to the bride. These women were close to her and were deeply invested in the groom showing up.

The imagery of the parable accurately reflects typical customs of first-century Palestinian wedding festivities. A welcoming processional escorts the newly married couple from the bride’s home to a great banquet at the bridegroom’s home, some unspecified time after the legal nuptials have been exchanged. Torches light the way in the darkness, so all the bridesmaids must take enough oil to keep them burning for as long as necessary.

The two groups of women are described as identical in everything except their preparations. Thus, the fact that five fall in each category does not teach that the same number will be saved as lost. The wait proves longer than all have anticipated, and everyone falls asleep.

When we study scripture, it sometimes seems appropriate to make everything an allegory, but there is a danger in that hermeneutic. We can over-spiritualize each line of scripture, but that is not helpful. This story is a metaphor for spiritual preparedness, and in this story, we understand that even those who are deeply invested in the coming of the bridegroom are only sometimes prepared. 
Does this make the unprepared bridesmaids bad people? Not at all. However, the five prepared bridesmaids did not share their oil with the unprepared bridesmaids, which almost makes them seem like the bad ones in this story. So we have the unprepared, who are just that, and the prepared, who seem selfish.

But if we depersonalize this a bit, we can perhaps zoom out and see a principle that should be seen. It is the idea that we can’t transfer one person’s spiritual preparedness to another. We can certainly help one another, but the choices are our own.  

When the Bridegroom says that he does not know them, he may never have known them. We may have misunderstood their relationship with the couple. Perhaps, and this seems likely, the moral is not that the bridegroom refused to acknowledge them but that they were never really his friends.

Spiritual preparedness is going beyond the trappings of religion, and moving into a place of trust. All the bridesmaids fell asleep, but only half were prepared. Perhaps they knew the Bridegroom after all.

I guess the question for us is this.   Do we trust that the bridegroom is coming, and are prepared even if it takes much longer than we hope?  

By Tim Gillespie

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