The parable of the ten virgins, or, if you prefer, “the ten bridesmaids,” is an important parable not only in its content but in its sequence. The parable follows chapter 24 of Matthew, which foretells of the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the coming of the Son of Man. The apocalyptic nature of the prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as we now know it to have happened, blended in with the eschatological vision of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
I believe that we may forgive those who differ in their opinions about the chapter 24 episodes, for the scenes seem to move from one to the other, from imminent to distant, as fast-running creeks blend into each other to form yet another stream. “Is the water in the river from this stream or from that stream?” So, too, we ask, “Is Jesus speaking about an impending apocalyptic scene or is he speaking about a great future event?” It is then well that we are left with the answer, “Both, but I cannot tell when one begins and the other ends.”
Of course, our Lord is speaking about both. Chapter 24 provides a panoramic view of the signs of the coming of the Son of Man which appear throughout history and, yet, which escalate as the years pass until that Great Day when Christ comes again.
So, then, we come to chapter 25 and to the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and unto a very important lesson for all of us today. Hear, then, the inerrant and the infallible word of the living God as it is delivered in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, verses 1-13. (read the text)
“Hurry up and wait!” Every Veteran—every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Guardsman, Marine, and Mariner—knows about that ubiquitous phrase. The military is remarkably consistent in queuing platoons of recruits, for instance, and, then, just having the poor lads at attention for what seems like hours—indeed, it may very well be that they stand there for hours, waiting.
A platoon lines up on orders at Building A. They stand at attention for an hour, waiting to get in—for what? They don’t really know. It is not their need to know or they would have been told. Then, a drill sergeant comes and says, “Plans have changed! We will march over to Building B. You will form a line and wait. Hurry up, you! Now, wait there until I come and get you: at attention!” Thus, “hurry up and wait.”
I don’t know anyone who likes waiting, much less hurrying to wait. Waiting in doctors’ offices; waiting for school to start; waiting for school to finish; waiting for a test. Waiting to get married. Waiting for your baby. Waiting for the electricity to get cut back on. Waiting for your hair to grow back. Waiting for the pain to go away. Waiting for a new day and a new opportunity. Waiting for a cure.
That great English poet, WH Auden, wrote about waiting and infused the word with a well-placed Romanticism in his poem, written in New York, “Heavy Date:”
All mankind, I fancy,
Like a rendezvous,
Occupy the time in
Purely random thinking,
For when love is waiting
Logic will not do.[i]
I think that Auden was on to something. When there is love mixed in with waiting, we are either more likely to wait with wisdom or, conversely, wait with an expectation that drives us to extremes. When I waited for my wife to say “Yes” to my marriage proposal, it was an interminable time, yet an enchanting time. I was not interested in logic, I was interested in her just saying, “Yes!” So, while waiting is filled with uncertainty, there is certainly virtue to be gained from time in waiting. We all know that waiting can, of course, build patience. Yet, beyond that, what if the time of waiting became productive? What if we were changed by the waiting?
In Matthew 25:1-13, Jesus tells a parable about ten bridesmaids. Five of these are faithful and five are not. Five prepare their oil lamps and five don’t. A typical first-century wedding had two parts: betrothal (which we all know about with Mary and Joseph) and the wedding ceremony. The ceremony happened, usually, at the groom’s family home. The party would gather and wait on the groom. He would arrive and sweep his bride up to go to the rabbi for the wedding. All the rest of the party, including the bride’s maids, didn’t know the exact time of the arrival. So, it made it even more fun.
The parable may be unfamiliar to twenty-first century Westerners with its references to “ten virgins” and “lamps” and “bride-groom” and some strange custom which has no equivalent in our society. So, we must bridge the gap between the parable about the archaic, first-century Hebrew wedding customs and God’s will for our lives today. It is imperative to admit, firstly, that the Parable is about Jesus and the Church.
“We should follow the church’s Spirit-led christocentricity in the parables, for ever since Jesus’ resurrection we know that the parables do not teach general truths about God and the world (contrast Jülicher); they teach the gospel of Jesus Christ (Weder, 11–19, 275).”[ii]
The Parable is most certainly a single-minded parable about the coming of Jesus Christ and involves each of us. But how? We are helped by the observation of Arland J. Hutgren in his commentary on the passage.
“What distinguishes the wise maidens from the foolish ones is that the wise are ready for an extended wait. That means, then, that the key to the parable is to be found in the distinction. And the symbolism, within the arena of Matthew’s Gospel and community, would be important for Christians. That is that no one knows when Christ will come. It may be later than expected. Be ready for the long haul.”[iii]
The Lord Jesus uses this scene—one that is admittedly quite peculiar to us, but very familiar to his listeners—to teach about managing time. Now, to be sure, Jesus didn’t teach about “time management” principles like we might find in a course on business at college, but He did teach us about managing time during our wait for His Second Coming.
And what does He teach us? How do we manage time as we await His Second Coming? The parable before us is replete with lessons. Let us consider five indispensable and divinely mandated strategies to managing our time as we wait wisely for Jesus’ Second Coming.
From the first verse, the first strategy for managing our waiting time is this:
We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with great intentionality (v. 1).
In the first verse of this great chapter we read that the kingdom of heaven “will be like . . .” and, then, Jesus begins the parable of the ten bridesmaids. So, there are some very interesting things about the parable as we get going. Firstly, we see that while Jesus employed men in the previous parables he now employs women as the primary characters. This, of course, allowed Jesus to be able to communicate urgency to a wider audience.
The ten virgins we shall call the ten bridesmaids because that was their role. Here, the word “virgin” simply means a young woman. It is also very important for us to see that these ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Again, this entire parable is somewhat strange to us and our customs. But, essentially, the bridegroom would be coming at night and the bridesmaids must be prepared for the wedding to begin.
So we see immediately that there is great intentionality in the parable as we consider that there must preparation for the coming of the bridegroom. Action is required of the bridesmaids. They are not passive. The wedding requires their attention. This is a very important point for us. For our blessed Lord is clearly teaching that there must be great intentionality for each one of us in this holy time of waiting. Waiting is not a throwaway time. Waiting is a holy time swelling with intentionality.
I believe that I will retreat once more to a military illustration to seek to shed light on the truth of this parable at this point. As you all know, our nation is blessed with an active duty regular Army, as well as the United States Army Reserve. In recent years, the Department of the Army has gone to saying to those of us in the military that we have “One Army.” The reason for this is to stress that the “Reserves” are not just sitting around and twiddling their thumbs. The US Army reserve must be always prepared to be integrated into the full regular Army. There is one Army. And we are very intentional about this. In fact, we give the matter such great intentionality because the safety and security of our very nation depends upon it.
In the same we have “One Church” and “one vision in this Church.” We must be very intentional as we wait. Indeed, we wait and we work. We wait and we pray. We wait and we repent. We wait and we have faith. We wait and we serve others. We are active, not passage. We are intentional about the way we are waiting for the Lord Jesus Christ to come again. It is not a time for loitering in the narthex of the church. How many of us here today can say that we are waiting actively on the second coming of Jesus Christ with great intentionality?
We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with careful preparation (vv. 2-4).
The parable progresses by Jesus showing the contrast between those bridesmaids who are called foolish and those denoted as wise. The foolish bridesmaids have only enough oil for their lamps. They have no reserve. The other half are called wise because they carry with them a flask of extra oil. It is quite evident that wisdom lies in careful preparation. Not only this, but in preparation for the right thing.
You see, the point of the parable goes much deeper than the Boy Scout motto. It says something about the insight that the wise virgins have about the bridegroom. There is a sort of unpredictability about the bridegroom. The wise bridesmaids understand this and plan accordingly. In this, there is healthy respect for the dignity and for the secret counsel of the bridegroom. It also speaks to the most obvious need: if he comes at night, then, we need sufficient light to enter in to the festivities.
Now without falling into allegorizing everything in the parable, which is neither necessary nor advisable, we clearly can understand that the bridegroom is Jesus. The wise and the foolish bridesmaids represent not just the church but humankind. So, today there is, according to Jesus, a division within humanity: those who recognize that Jesus Christ could come at any time and or therefore planning accordingly; and those who are not.
Now remind us, “what is the oil in the story?” Most agree that the lamp oil represents the life of faith and demonstrated faith, that is, deeds of goodness for others. It is, in short, the investment of the means of grace —Word, Sacraments, and Prayer—to the building up of our own souls in preparation for seeing the Lord Jesus Christ. This is our growth in grace: our sanctification.
There simply is no place in the Church for one who recklessly declares,
“I don’t need to pray, I don’t need to go to church, and I don’t need to hear any more preaching. I don’t need the Lord’s Supper. Nor do I need to be actively engaged in helping anyone other than myself. I’ve got all that I need. I have been confirmed, I walked the aisle, I gave of an offering every year to the building fund, and I never passed the Salvation Army Santa without a generous tip. Now let me go on about my way.”
Now, I doubt very seriously whether anyone here would admit to that sort of flagrant disregard for the practice of the Christian faith. However, across the span of years in our lives, distractions come. There may even be good distractions, like children, and children’s activities, that keep us from becoming the people that God wants us to be.
Be very careful at this point. I am not talking about competing time between church activities and soccer. I am talking about the priority of the Lord Jesus in your life. The activities will always flow naturally from the source. It is the source that we must be concerned with: our souls. We must be very careful. We must be very careful about the preparation of our own souls for the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember the urgent message of St. Paul to Timothy, his young mentor at Ephesus:
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:14-16).
Thus, the urgent question is very much before each one of us: do we identify ourselves in our heart-of-hearts as being a card-carrying member of the wise group or the unwise group? How diligently are we preparing to meet the Lord Jesus Christ? If you were to die today and you were to stand before God would Jesus Christ be a friend? Would he be someone that you have grown to know? Have you pursued him? Or, would he be a stranger to you, one that you never speak to; one that you never call upon; and one whose name you spoke only in ceremony but never in the secret, authentic place in your heart? Your true answer, not to me, but to God, will tell you whether you are wise or unwise in your waiting. And it may just tell you more.
The third essential strategy for managing our time while waiting for Jesus Christ to return is this:
We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with ordinary living (v. 5)
Verse five says, “as the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.”
There are two concerns: the delayed-coming and the sleeping. Jesus had earlier given a parable about the surprise of a Master coming sooner than thought. In this one the Christ figure comes much later. It has been rightly said that this is intentional. We must never seek to calculate that which we simply do not know.[iv]
There are some who look upon this and believe that Jesus is somehow chiding all of them for their negligence in waiting. I prefer to see this as an ordinary activity of life.[v] The truth is that we all get tired and we all get drowsy and we all must fall asleep. This passage at this point is showing us that waiting involves the ordinary things of living.
Someone once said that when Christ came again he would like to be found puttering about in the garden. By that, I believe that this fellow was really expressing what we see here. We all must sleep. But some of us have said our prayers before we went to sleep. And some have not. But we all wait by living. We wait by going to work. We wait for the second coming of Christ by going to sleep. We wait for the second coming of Christ by raising their children. We wait for the second coming of Christ by going about our daily activities.
However, there is a remarkable difference between the two. Both had to sleep, there is no doubt about that. But one group, one half of the bridesmaids, were already prepared in case the bridegroom came while they were sleeping.
God is calling each one of us to live our lives in faithfulness to the calling that he has put on our lives, into the opportunities and gifts that he is given to us. But one of the marks of the Reformation is the careful proclamation that there is not a wall between sacred and mundane. Pruning roses is an act of glorifying God as surely as singing hymns, if it is to God’s glory. Selling insurance is as godly as being a missionary, if we are going about what God has called us to do.
Now, to be sure there are differences in their role, relationships and so forth. But the important thing that we see is that we must go on about our lives. Yet, or you prepare should Christ come amid the ordinary living of your life? What if he came while you were indeed, pruning your roses? What if Jesus Christ came in this season of your life? This is the matter before us. Are we ready?
The answer to that question is found in our relationship with God. Are we stoking the fire? Are we seeking him with all our heart, soul, and mind, and strength? Is he our “all in all?” I would not leave here today, my beloved, unless I knew for certain that I had recommitted my life to Jesus Christ so that as I await tomorrow morning and go off to work, go to school, go about my ordinary daily living, I know that I had committed my life to Christ and I am following him.
We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with evident expectation (vv. 6-12).
Then, we read in verses 6-12 that a voice is heard, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” All the virgins arose and trimmed their lamps (that is, they prepared the lamps for lighting). Yet, the foolish bridesmaids ran out of oil. They asked for oil from the wise bridesmaid who had their flask of oil in reserve. The bridesmaids respond to the others that what they had they must use. Therefore, it would be best for them to go to a dealer, an all-night Quick-Mart-lamp-store, if you will, and “get your own oil.”
Now this may seem severe to you or it may seem stingy. But the truth is that we cannot give away our spirituality to another person. We can share what God is doing in our own lives but we cannot manufacture the oil in another person’s lamp of the soul.
Now the challenge is this: when Jesus Christ comes again we will not have time to go and purchase by the grace of God and the mercy of God the righteousness that we need for our souls and the sacrifice that is needed for our sins. It will be too late.
The shut door in this passage is very much reminiscent of the shut door of the ark in the great flood. The shut door in this passage is very much reminiscent of the shut door of the ark in the great flood. The New Testament mentions this in several places (e.g., Matthew 24:37-42; Luke 13:23-27; and 2 Peter 2:4-9).
This leads us to a final important strategy for waiting on Christ:
We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with necessary warning (verse 13).
The parable in verses 11 and 12 with an extraordinarily crushing conclusion. The bridegroom, who is here called “Lord,” tells the foolish bridesmaids that he does not know them. There is within this a certain hyperbole to be sure. But there’s something else going on. There is a matter of disrespect. There was a matter of the bridesmaids prioritizing other things over the groom. They were part of the wedding party, however, they really didn’t take it seriously. The parable concludes with a warning by Jesus:
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This is the warning for every person. And the challenge and the charge before each of us is this: are you really part of the wedding party? Have you prioritized the marriage supper of the Lamb, the reality of the risen Christ and his promise to return? Are you managing time or just marking time?
This parable comes to us today in a time where we have many distractions. I call your attention to the singular truth: Jesus Christ is coming again. Jesus Christ has called you to manage this season of waiting in at least five ways that we have considered today:
- We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with great intentionality (verse 1).
- We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with careful preparation (verses 2-4).
- We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with ordinary living (verse 5)
- We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with certain expectation (verses 6-12).
- We manage the waiting time for Jesus to come again with necessary warning (verse 13).
One of the most famous stories about waiting in the Bible is the story of the priest Simeon in Luke chapter two. Simeon had waited for the promise given to him by God to see the Messiah. How many years had this old priest ministered in the temple, seeing young couples bringing babies? Watching as young men came in who were perhaps the Messiah? How would the Messiah come to him? But the Bible says that Simeon was faithful in his waiting. And on the day when Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus into the temple for the right of circumcision, equivalent to the spiritual and great commission act of baptism, Simeon knew that the infant in Mary’ arms was the One. The Bible records,
“He took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’” (Luke 2:28-32).
My dear friends: are you so waiting on Jesus, so managing the gift of time, so that when Jesus comes again, you will say, “Lord, my eyes have seen my salvation.” Jesus is coming again. Or, you are going to Him before He comes again. Will it be a Day of Wrath or a Day of Joy? The answer to that question is not just how you manage time, but, first, how you respond to the Lord of time today. Do you have the oil of true faith in your heart today? For the bridegroom cometh.
Michael Milton is pastor of Trinity Chapel Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina
[i] W.H. Auden and E. Mendelson, Collected Poems (Vintage Books, 1991), 259.
[ii] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew : A Commentary, Rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004), 544.
[iii] Arland J. Hultgren, “Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 146.
[iv] In the first parable, the Lord came sooner than expected (24:50); in this parable, he comes later than expected. However we calculate the Return, we will probably be wrong. Better not calculate at all. Bruner, 547.
[v] “The sleep of the ten bridesmaids is not blameworthy in our parable (McNeile, 361; Jeremias, Par., 52). If only the foolish five had slept, it would be a different story. Disciples may go to sleep at night without feeling guilty—if they have made their preparations.” Bruner, 547.