This sermon was originally preached as the fourth part of a Lenten sermon series at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, focusing on “Holy Sleep,” looking at the ways sleep is discussed in the Bible and how God works through it or uses it.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Have you ever fallen asleep on the job? When either from lack of sleep, fatigue, or pure boredom you’ve found yourself nodding off at your desk, only to wake up and realize that you either let something slide or missed something important? I remember having trouble staying awake as a teaching assistant during my early morning class sections because I consistently fell asleep between 2 and 3 AM and had to be in the classroom at 8 AM every day. There were many mornings where I had to really fight to stay awake and on top of things, and sometimes sleep would still get the better of me for just a few seconds, even if I was chugging coffee. Falling asleep on the job, drifting off when I needed to be paying attention. Has this ever happened to you?
This is what happens to the ten young women or virgins in Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s Gospel this evening. The bridegroom was on his way to the wedding banquet and they had one job to do: be ready to meet him when he comes. They knew he could arrive at any time, even late into the evening, and so these ten young women had to be prepared to meet him and usher him into the banquet hall. They set themselves up outside the house and waited for him, and in the event that it got dark, they brought along olive oil-burning lamps, perhaps like this one, to let them see his coming.
Now, in this parable, half of these young women didn’t think about how long it might take for the bridegroom to arrive, so they grabbed their lamps and ran off to the meeting place without bringing enough oil to keep them burning in the event that the bridegroom was delayed. They just figured they had enough and weren’t terribly worried. The others might share, right? Jesus says that they were “foolish,” or perhaps more pointedly, according to the Greek, “stupid.” The other five virgins, on the other hand, thought ahead. Jesus says that they were “prudent,” or “wise.” They remembered to bring extra oil with them in the event that the bridegroom came later than they expected.
And so they lit their lamps and waited, for a long while. The bridegroom was running later than expected, and they all fell asleep and their lamps burned down, perhaps some went out. All ten of them. Not a single one of these women stayed awake while waiting for the bridegroom. They all fell asleep on the job. Only when someone shouted to them that he was coming did they wake up and trim and relight their lamps. Only now, the foolish virgins realized that their lamps were sputtering and going out. What to do?! Could they ask their friends to borrow some of their fuel? No, because then there wouldn’t have been enough oil and everyone’s lamps would go out, and how could any one of them greet the bridegroom properly? That wouldn’t be showing him the proper respect he deserved. The five foolish ones had to go find some oil somewhere else, so it was off to the shops, even at this late hour.
But while they were gone, the bridegroom came, and he took those prudent women into the banquet with him and shut the door, leaving the foolish virgins outside. And they called to him to let them in, but he replied that he knew them not, and did not allow them to join in the wedding feast. Therefore, says Jesus, his hearers should keep watch, because no one knows when the Son of Man shall come.
Parables are, by nature, a difficult genre of biblical literature to interpret, and this one is no exception; that is to say, there are multiple ways that we can interpret this parable. On the face of it, we could say that this parable is just about sitting up and watching for the coming of the Son of Man, but that doesn’t really tell us much about what the kingdom of God is like. Of more interest is the oil. Why is it so important? Is it even oil? What is going on here, if this is all a parable about what it will be like when the Son of Man comes?
This parable reminds me of something that happened when I was in the Boy Scouts. One spring, my troop went on a two-day hiking trip out west of here in the Shenandoahs on a trail known as Little Devil’s Stair. I was our patrol’s grubmaster, and so to make life easier for everyone, I gave all the boys in our patrol my own version of an MRE or C-ration, which contained all the food they’d need for the entire weekend. Some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cup noodles, jerky, GORP, instant oatmeal, and other things. But after being on the trail for only about two hours on the first day, a bunch of the boys in my patrol had already eaten half their rations (and a few had eaten everything that didn’t have to be cooked!). While the Boy Scouts’ motto is Be Prepared, these guys weren’t thinking about that terribly hard. And while it is true that they weren’t shut out of any sort of wedding feast, they were forced to go hungry for a good part of the trip when they would have been otherwise satisfied had they been wise about their snacking.
The oil is kind of like the food in those ration packets. Just as that food was necessary to give the boys energy while being out on the trail in the woods for two days, the oil the virgins— that is to say, those who trust in Christ and wait for him— had for their lamps was necessary for their being ready for Christ the Bridegroom’s arrival, regardless of when he would come, either while they were awake (alive) or asleep (dead). As Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs at Concordia Seminary writes in his commentary on Matthew, the virgins didn’t know when the bridegroom would arrive. When he did, it would be sudden, and they wouldn’t have time to get ready for his arrival. They just had to be prepared, so that even if they had fallen asleep while waiting, they could be ready and on the ball when he came. And since this is a parable, the oil isn’t really oil. Instead, it’s whatever is needed to be prepared for when Christ returns in his glory.
Which leads to another question: are we prepared for Christ’s return? Are we ready? Have we been phronimoi, “wise,” in our preparation for his coming so that we will be ready for him whether he comes while we still live or when we have died and are raised up? Do we have what we need to honor our Bridegroom when he comes? That depends on what we mean by “prepared.” Dr. Gibbs again:
…[D]epending on a person’s situation and spiritual need, the oil may stand now for this Christian truth, now for that important reality. Repentance is obviously needed if one is to be ready to welcome Christ Jesus when he returns, and so is true and humble faith. Perseverance and courage will be the needed gifts at times, and many will be the times when humility will keep me ever watching. Willingness to suffer for the name of Christ and to deny myself (16:24) are key. Sorrowful awareness of the world’s brokenness and a longing for God’s name to be hallowed on the earth (6:9)– these, too, can be the oil, ever ready in our vessels. And the list can go on. Whatever it takes to be ready to receive and honor the King when he comes— the parable teaches us to desire those things.” (1323-1324)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, are we ready for the King when he comes, or will we be caught, having become complacent with the world around us, not having done any kind of preparation for his coming? Have we lost sight of who we are in Christ? Have we forgotten what Christ came to do and how that is mirrored in our life together in the church; that is to say, are we focused on preaching, teaching, and healing one-another? Have we neglected his word and sacraments? Have we become comfortable in our sins? Have we become unwilling to change and repent from the evils, large and small, that we do, actively overlooking the logs in our own eyes while we search for specks in the eyes of others? Have we ceased desiring God’s justice and become complacent with sin’s injustice in the world? Have we ceased to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8)? Are we just giving God lip-service? When our King and Bridegroom comes, there will be no time to do these things if we have fallen asleep— which is to say, if we have died or have been caught unawares. Jesus is pretty clear about this. Those who neglect any kind of preparation for his coming will be like the seeds that fell on the sandy ground— their faith will have no root. Their light will have no oil with which to burn. There will be no fuel with which to relight their lamps, no fresh wicks to trim. They will cry “Lord, Lord!” but he will not know them. The door will be closed.
This parable serves as a wake-up call to us. “Take heed unless you fall.” But as with all things, there is hope for us if we fear that we may be unready and unprepared. Indeed, being “ready” requires constant practice of the above, and we can do none of the myriad things that serve as oil to our lamps without faith in Christ our Savior and the help of the Holy Spirit. Christ died and rose again to break the bonds of sin, death, and hell that once bound us and made us entirely unworthy to enter into his kingdom, and when we trust that his death and resurrection was indeed for us and that he has saved us from our sins, he sends us the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us in the way we should live, to lead us to the sacraments, those fruit which “make my soul to thrive [and] keep my dying faith alive” (to paraphrase the Apple Tree Carol). To drive us to repentance and to hear and receive God’s absolution. To hear and meditate on his word and receive comfort from it. To do good works for our neighbors and to lift one-another up when we stumble. To see the hurt and the pain in the world, and to pray to God, yearning for his justice and mercy. To be courageous in our faith when faced with adversity. To think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” To “call on our Lord in every trouble, to pray, praise, and give him thanks” (SC).
Only Christ can give us the oil we need to keep our lamps trimmed and burning as we watch for his final coming. When we trust in him, seeing what he has done and believing in the promise he gives, then he fills our oil bottles with whatever we need to be ready for his coming and guides us in our preparation, so that even if the sleep of death overtakes us in our wait for his arrival— even if we fall asleep on the job— we will be ready when he comes and will join him in his wedding feast. When we trust him, he won’t bar us from the banquet hall. Amen!