When I was in seminary I helped to start a church that met in a theater. I wrote drama sketches which illustrated the sermon each week and organized people from the congregation to perform these dramas in worship. The first sermon series in that church was on the Gospel of John. I wrote drama sketches all about a relationship between a man and a woman. The pastor used these dramas to compare human romance to our relationship with God.
That church was the place where Becky and I met. And I recruited her to play the woman opposite me in the dramas. There was even a wedding drama. So, as we often like to tell people, we got married before we got married!
In the drama the groom had some mishap on his way to church and so didn’t have any pants to wear. He stood in front of the congregation with a sheet wrapped around his waist until it came time for the kiss. He forgot all about the sheet, and while embracing his bride, dropped the sheet, revealing some very colorful boxers.
Now I know we have all had nightmares somewhat like the events of that drama sketch. We are supposed to go somewhere important like a wedding, only to find we aren’t fully prepared and so we show up with no clothes on, or some such thing.
Normally such things only happen in dreams or dramas, but Jesus also told a story about some people who weren’t ready for a wedding. It is one of three stories in Matthew 25. Let’s read it together. . . .
1 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.It is very important that we understand the context in which Jesus told this story. The first three words of our text are: “At that time...” What time was Jesus talking about?
2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.
4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.
5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
7 "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.
8 The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'
9 "'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'
10 "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 "Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'
12 "But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.' 13 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
In Matthew 24 Jesus told his disciples to be ready for the coming destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem by the Romans. In chapter 25 he is still talking about the same thing. “At that time” refers to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus already gave the disciples one story at the end of chapter 24 encouraging them to be like the wise servant who does his master’s business even when he is away. Now Jesus gives the disciples three more stories along the same lines.
In order to understand this first story we must first understand something about marriage customs in Jesus’ time and culture. In Middle Eastern culture from Jesus’ time down to this day it has always been quite common for wedding ceremonies to involve torchlight processions late at night. And Middle Eastern weddings have several stages, lasting sometimes for days. It would not be unusual for the bridegroom to be detained at one event before finally arriving at the wedding banquet and thus surprising the bridesmaids.
A second thing we need to notice about this story is that it is rooted in the Jewish wisdom tradition. The writer of Proverbs treats Wisdom and Folly as two women. In this story Wisdom and Folly are each personified by five bridesmaids. This story, just like those in the book of Proverbs, invites us to consider which kind of bridesmaid we want to be. Do we want to be like the foolish bridesmaids who forgot the oil for their lamps until it was too late and so were shut out of the week-long party? Or do we want to be like the wise bridesmaids who were prepared when the groom finally showed up late at night?
A third thing we need to note about this parable is the identity of the bridegroom. Back in Matthew 9:15 Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom. And in 22:2 Jesus spoke about the kingdom being like a wedding party which a king prepared for his son.
The point is this: throughout his ministry Jesus was coming as Messiah, just like a bridegroom showing up for a wedding feast. Some in Israel were like the wise bridesmaids and were ready for him when he came. Others were like the foolish bridesmaids and so missed him. Those who weren’t ready for the Messiah when he came would ultimately face the judgment of AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem.
This was the meaning of Jesus’ story of the bridesmaids for his time. But what about our own time, what is the meaning for us? I think this story warns us about a couple of things:
- There are certain things which cannot be gotten at the last minute. There will come a day when it is too late to acquire a skill, or a character if we have not done so already. Similarly, there will come a day when it is too late for us to acquire a relationship with God if we have not done so already. When Mary of Orange was dying her chaplain sought to tell her the way of salvation. In response she said, “I have not left this matter to this hour.” She was a wise woman to have sealed a relationship with God before she was on her deathbed.
- This story also warns us that there are some things which can’t be borrowed. The foolish bridesmaids were not able to borrow oil at the last minute. Similarly we cannot borrow character or a relationship with God, from parents or friends or preachers. Either we have these things for ourselves or we do not have them at all.