We have now come to the last few Sundays in the church year. The church year dedicates these Sundays to the end of the age … the day when our Lord and savior Jesus Christ will raise the dead and give life everlasting to all who believe in Him. Today’s Gospel is a parable that illustrates the events of that Last Day.
Once again, we need some cultural context if we want to understand the parable. In this case we need to understand the wedding customs of First Century Israel.
First of all, weddings were arranged by the parents. It was like a sales transaction between the parents. Sometimes, especially when a man’s first wife died, the groom himself would make the arrangements with the parents of the bride. Most of the time, the parents of the couple would get together and arrange things. It often happened that the first time the bride and groom actually saw each other was at the wedding.
Secondly, there was this long time of betrothal. The couple would get married, but not begin living together right away. Sometimes a year or even more would pass between the time of the marriage and the time the couple shared a house. This time was called the betrothal. This was the situation between Mary and Joseph when the angel announced that Mary was to be the mother of the Messiah. They were married, but they were not yet living together.
During the betrothal, both the bride and the groom are busy preparing for married life. The groom prepared a house specifically for his bride. He might even build it from the ground up. In the meantime, the bride gathered together all the little things that she needed to run the home once her groom came for to take her home. It was an exciting time.
Of course, the entire community knew about the bride and the groom. Everyone was looking forward to the day when they would come together to begin a new family.
Eventually, the word would come. The groom has finished the house. He is gathering his friends together to escort his bride in grand procession to their new home. The watchmen on the walls would scan the horizon and hope to be the first to see the groom coming for his bride. If the groom came during the night, the watchmen would wake the entire town as we just sang in the hymn, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” The community would go into over drive as they prepared the bride to meet her groom.
Once the groom arrived and the bride was ready, the entire community would accompany them in grand procession to their new home. There they would celebrate the beginning of this new family for about a week. No one in the community would miss it.
This is the culture into which Jesus told the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins. All ten women were part of the community who wished to celebrate the beginning of a new family. At first, all ten of them were ready for the arrival of the bridegroom. But then, Jesus said that the bridegroom was delayed. This was not unusual. They didn’t have interstate highways. There was no way to know if a bridge was washed out until you got to the bridge. Travel was unpredictable and delays were the rule rather than the exception.
The delay separated the wise from the foolish. The wise were prepared. They had extra oil. The foolish ran out. The wise virgins joined the community in grand procession to the new home and the wedding feast. The foolish were not ready and so they missed out.
This image of the groom going away to prepare a place for the bride and then returning to take her home exactly matches the words of Jesus Christ to His disciple in the upper room. [John 14:2] In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. Jesus speaks to His church just as a groom speaks to his bride.
There is a powerful image of this relationship between Jesus and His bride, the church near the end of Revelation. [Revelation 21:9–12, 21] One of the seven angels … spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and … the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. So it is that when we recently sang, “Awake, Jerusalem, arise!” we were not singing about wakening the community. Instead, we were singing of awakening the bride, that is the church at the coming of the groom, her savior Jesus Christ.
This is indeed a grand and glorious celebration … one that no earthly words can truly describe. Never the less, there is a warning in the parable. The foolish virgins missed out. They were not ready. They heard those terrifying words: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
The virgins had no idea when the bridegroom might return. In a similar way, we have no idea when we might leave this world. Are we to leave this world when Jesus returns? He might come before I finish this sermon or he might come thousands of years from now. Jesus Himself said, [Matthew 24:36] “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” We may leave this world on the Last Day when the Lord returns or we may leave this world through the gate of death. The point is that there will be a time to leave this world behind and this event is very likely to be a surprise – an event that has little or no warning – an event that can be a disaster if we are not ready.
But what does it mean to be ready? The parable symbolizes readiness with oil. The prudent virgins had extra oil. The foolish virgins ran out. What does the oil represent?
There is one more ancient tradition that will help us … the tradition of the bride-price. Tradition called for a groom to pay a bride price for his future wife. The price would be things of commercial value – livestock, crops, currency, and so forth. With the bride-price, the groom made the bride his own.
Jesus Christ paid a much greater bride-price for the Holy Christian Church. The Holy Spirit inspired Peter to tell us, [1 Peter 1:18-19] “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” These words teach us that Jesus paid the bride price for the church not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. With His suffering and death on the cross, Jesus makes us His own. It was at the cross that Jesus created the Holy Christian Church and made her into His holy bride. All those who are members of the Holy Christian Church are ready for His return.
We become members of the Holy Christian Church when the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to create faith in us. We remain in the Holy Christian Church as the Holy Spirit maintains our faith through that same Word. That Word of God comes to us as we read and hear it. It also comes to us as we receive it with the waters of Holy Baptism and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table. With these Means of Grace the Holy Spirit maintains our readiness for our Last Day on this earth. With these Means of Grace, we will be ready even though our Last Day is a surprise.
The five foolish virgins in today’s parable represent all those who are not ready because they have neglected the Means of Grace. They have rejected the Word of God and so starved their faith. The foolish heard the most terrible words that their Lord could utter, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” From these words we learn that those who have starved their faith to death will experience an eternity in the presence of God’s wrath and judgment. As Jesus often described it, “In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
On the other hand, the Holy Spirit wants to work in you now with Word and Sacrament to nourish and maintain your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit will make you ready. Like the prudent virgins in the parable, He will bring you into the wedding feast of the Lamb where you will celebrate … not just for a few days … but forever. Amen.
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