The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: Preparing for Our Lord’s Second Coming
A few months ago, San Diego County experienced an unprecedented power outage that stretched all the way to Arizona and left millions of people in the dark. Our curate, Fr Matthew, had at that point only just moved from the Midwest where the power goes out all the time. He noted that people’s reactions were a bit more extreme in North County San Diego than what he was used to. He said it was only a few hours into the outage, and some of his neighbors had already begun killing small rodents with BB guns and roasting them over charcoal fires; boiling water for baths and huddling around wood pallet bonfires for warmth. (Something like that, right?) All exaggeration aside, it’s true that Southern Californians just aren’t accustomed to these types of inconveniences. As night fell, there was no electricity, but a palpable, primal, and panic-stricken apocalyptic energy had quickly spread through the region.
I know I added to it. I raced home after a late afternoon meeting and immediately began taking stock: 5-gallon water jug, canned food, candles, emergency radio, flashlights, batteries… batteries… What?! No extra batteries?! What good is a flashlight without batteries? Boy, did I feel dumb.
I felt like a foolish virgin who had no extra oil for her lamp when the bridegroom arrived! Not really, but that’s immediately where my mind went when I read through this week’s Gospel, Matthew 25:1-13. My flashlight without batteries was as useless as their lamps were without oil.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus is telling yet another Kingdom parable. And he is using yet another marriage and wedding analogy. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride.
In this parable, there are two sets of maidens, or virgins: five of them are wise, and the other five are foolish. Note that the wise and the foolish live side by side. They also die side by side. Jesus tells us that while the bridegroom was delayed, they all “slumbered and slept.” This sleep indicates death.
The cry at midnight indicates the Second Coming of Our Lord. And note again, that both the wise and the foolish together rose from their slumber at the sound of the cry.
When we profess in the Creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the dead,” we mean “the resurrection of the dead”… all of them. All will die: the righteous and the unrighteous. And all will be raised from the dead: the righteous and the unrighteous. St Paul testifies in the Acts of the Apostles that “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15).
So they all rise from their slumber, at which point it occurs to the five foolish virgins that they are not going to have enough oil to keep their lamps lit.
“Give us some of your oil,” they say to their wise compatriots, “our lamps are going out.” But the wise reply, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.”
In the end, Jesus tells us that the five foolish virgins miss the marriage feast because they didn’t have enough oil.
There is obviously very deep symbolism within this parable. In my view, the burning question, no pun intended, lies in the oil. What does the oil represent, that with it, the wise virgins enter the marriage feast, and without it, the foolish miss out? This oil is so important that the spiritual fate of these virgins lies in the balance. What is this oil? And where do we get it?
The early church fathers note that the Greek word for ‘oil’ shares the same root as the Greek word for ‘mercy.’ Mercy, compassion, almsgiving: all of these have been associated with this oil throughout the ages, but the greatest of these is… Love. Above all else, this oil is seen as Charity, or Love.
St Augustine writes, “I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. St Paul says, ‘I will show you a still more excellent way.’ ‘If I speak with the tongue of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’ This is charity. It is ‘the more excellent way,’ the ‘way above the rest,’ which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it; the oil will swim above. Pour in oil, pour in water upon it; the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. ‘Love never fails.’”
The oil is indeed love, which makes us the lanterns.
We are, each one of us, created with the capacity to shine with the light of God’s love; just as a lantern is designed to shine with light from the burning oil. We are the lanterns, if you will: created in the image of God for the primary purpose of Loving: for shining brightly with the light of His Love.
And Christ himself is the perfect manifestation of God’s Love. He is the one who said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
This love that we are called to shine forth does not come from us; we do not create it. It comes from God. We are called to open ourselves up to it, to receive it, that it might manifest itself in us through our good works, our obedience to God, and our love of Him and our neighbor.
According to St Augustine, again, “We can put oil into our lamps, but we ourselves cannot create the oil. See, I have oil. But did I create the oil? It is of the gift of God.”
Without God’s love in our hearts, our lights will not shine. But with God’s love, our lamps will burn brightly.
We also see in this parable that we can have varying quantities of love within us: we can have more or less of it. The Christian life is not simply a matter of whether or not we love God or our neighbor; it is a matter of how much we love God and our neighbor.
While it is possible to have too little love (like the foolish virgins), it is not possible to have too much love. Notice the wise virgins’ response: if we give you our oil, “perhaps there will not be enough for us.”
If you’re like me, you may have wondered why the wise virgins didn’t just share a little bit of their oil with the foolish ones? Wouldn’t that be the charitable and loving thing to do?
But their inability to share their oil is not to be interpreted as a lack of generosity. Instead, we see in this parable the grave truth that we are, each one, called to grow in our own faith, hope, and love.
In the end, we are not judged by the merits of our neighbor, but by what is within us.
We cannot rely on others’ oil.
It is also worth noting that all ten of these virgins are, in fact, virgins. They were all pure in this sense, having abstained from impure actions. But we see in this parable that it is not enough to simply refrain from sinning. We are called to grow in love.
Again, St Paul says, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)
Jesus challenges us not merely to refrain from sinning, but to actively love God and our neighbor. This is the heart, the fulfillment, of the law.
Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins is above all else a charge for us to be prepared for his coming again in glory.
There is finality in death. Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead. And as uncomfortable as it sounds, this parable also suggests that there is finality to the Last Judgment. Jesus says, “The bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut.”
What must we do to prepare for Our Lord’s coming again? For this wedding feast?
When the power came back on this past September, one of the first things I did was to go out and stock up on batteries!
Now is the time to fill our flasks with the oil of compassion and mercy.
Now is the time to Love!