October 31, 2021. Sermon Title: Always Have Oil Available: The Parable of the Bridesmaids

First Mennonite Church

October 31, 2021

Always Have Oil Available: The Parable of the Bridesmaids

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

The promise of the second coming of the Lord is central in the Christian faith. However, for many Christians, the second coming of the Lord is not a pressing concern. After two millennia since Jesus ascended into heaven and the ongoing cycle of birth and death, generation after generation, seem to have made the second coming of the Lord less than an imminent event. It seems, Christians are more concerned to see their children grow and to move on with their lives. As far as many are concerned, they are worried whether they can retire comfortably or not, or anticipating their own mortality.

The attitude many Christians have is that of suspicion towards those who speak about matters of the end time. Often times, those who speak about the Lord’s second coming are considered eccentric or escapists. In some cases, it has proven true that many who are so preoccupied with end time matter sometimes only want to take advantage of the insecurity of others. It is well known to us that many have even tried to set dates for the second coming, only to have to explain themselves later.

In Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Jesus tells his disciples things that are to happen. Included among those events are things that have already taken place, for example: the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the persecution that was unleashed against the disciples, and the fast spread of the gospel to faraway places. But there were also events Jesus spoke about that are yet to happen, including his second coming. It was about his second coming that Jesus made it crystal clear, that neither he, nor the angels in heaven know the time of his coming, but only the Father. Thus, Jesus warned his disciples: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44). Therefore, to emphasize the unknown timing of his coming, Jesus told two parables that sandwich the one we are considering today.

The parable of two servants, one faithful and the other unfaithful emphasizes the importance of preparedness for the master’s sudden return. The unfaithful servant lived indulgently and neglected his duties. He was caught by surprise when his master returned. On the other hand, the faithful servant, despite the prolonged delay of his master’s return, he continued to carry out his duties on timely fashion. He was greatly rewarded.

The other parable about is about a wealthy master who gave his servants money to invest. He also entrusted his property under his servants’ care. Although, most of them made gains with the money they were entrusted there was one who did not care to do anything with his master’s money. He simply dug a hole in the ground and buried the money, which he later handed back to his master when he returned.

Between these two parables about the necessary preparedness for the master’s return and the one which emphasizes the need good stewardship of the master’s talents, we find the parable of the 10 bridesmaids—parthenon, virgins in Greek.

We should remember that the parable of the bridesmaids is part of Jesus’ broader judgement discourse, from chapter 23 through 25. In chapter 25, Jesus ends his discourse with the judgement of the nations. There the judge will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, Jesus says (25:32). The ultimate criteria for “inheriting the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world” (v.24) are deeds of good works. 

The parable of the bridesmaids points to the importance of readiness because of the groom’s delay and of his sudden arrival. Just like the other parables we have seen, this one too, has some unusual elements: the groom’s delay, there is no mention of a bride, the guests are said to be “virgins,” and it was an odd thing that stores would be open at midnight for the foolish virgins to go buy oil.  

In the movie, Fiddler on the Roof,[1] we can get an idea about the role of lamps in a wedding. When Motel and Tzeitel get married, all the guests come to the wedding site with lighted candles in hand. In Jesus’ parable, the ten bridesmaids had lamps.

Jesus tells us, from the outset of this story, that there are ten virgins of which five are wise and five foolish. The reason for that forthright information is very important in light of the general theme of this discourse about the final judgement. There is nothing on the outward appearance of the virgins that distinguishes them from each other. They are all invited guests. The ten were young women, and most likely, they were properly dressed for the occasion. They each had a lamp and oil in them. They all fell asleep. They all heard the call when the groom arrived. But the decisive factor for entering the wedding banquet was not simply a matter of being or not being invited. It was not whether or not the bridesmaids had the proper attire. It was not having or not having a lamp or oil in it. It was not whether or not they fell asleep. Participating in the wedding banquet rested in having enough oil to keep the lamps burning, despite the possibility of the groom delaying his arrival.

In Jewish or better said, rabbinic teaching, oil represented good deeds,[2] which is why the determining factor in the final judgement, according to Jesus in Matthew 25: 31-46. (Read the passage) The criteria for inheriting the kingdom could be quite disturbing for a people who put much emphasis on believing the right things. Sheep and goats will be separated on the basis of having done or not done specific things, like: giving a drink of water to the thirsty or bread to the hungry, or clothed the naked, or visited the sick and those doing time, or welcomed the stranger. According to Jesus, the criteria to inherit the kingdom is by doing acts of mercy, which reminds us the words of Jesus where he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:3, 7).

Jesus says five virgins were wise. The Greek word phronimos, can mean: intelligent, wise, having foresight, having perseverance or being consistent. The word foolish is the translation of the Greek moros, which means ungodly, foolish, or being shortsighted. Remember the parable of the two builders. One was wise and the other foolish. The foolish built on sand, without realizing it was the path of flash floods. In the parable of the bridesmaids, the wise trimmed their lamps, just as did the foolish. But the wise virgins also took along with them extra oil. They knew there could be a long waiting period. They knew lamps without oil are good for nothing.  

The groom is certainly delaying his coming. In Matthew nine, verse 15, Jesus says he is the bridegroom. Since the day he left his disciple gazing up, when he ascended, he has not come back. And many who wait can get tired of waiting. Many have did acts of mercy for some time, but got tired. You see, it is easy to give one time to the needy. It is possible to forgive once. It is not difficult to be patient for some time. It does not cost much to be merciful for an evening at a fundraising event. But when the groom delays in coming and the required qualities of the kingdom requires perseverance, then the difference becomes obvious. The wise are distinguished from the foolish. The fair-weather disciple becomes weary and throw down the towel when hard times come.

Another lesson we can learn from this parable is about the desperate situation of the foolish virgins who had to go get more oil. After they came back, they were not allowed in. The door was closed. There will come a time when it will be too late to try to make for lost opportunities to do acts of mercy. We should always be ready to do good and take advantage when the opportunity arises. In the book of Proverbs, we find this wise counsel: Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full (19:15). Amen!

Pastor Romero

[1] Jewison, Norman. Fiddler on the Roof. United Artists, 1971.

[2] Matthew. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII. (Abington Press, Nashville 1995.) p. 450