Every religion has their own version of Heaven. This series from 2018 that we’ve been revisiting is a look into the many metaphors that Jesus used to convey his version of Heaven. Due to centuries of Church history, and denominational propaganda, these metaphors have taken on a life of their own, and as a result, obscure other ways to interpret them. The parable of the Ten Virgins is one such passage which is almost always interpreted through the lens of Evangelical Christian eschatology (study of the End Times) which is ninety percent pre-millennial or based on fictional novels (“Left Behind”) and not biblical scholarship.
Matthew 25:1-13 falls among passages which Jesus is giving his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven and what he told them would be the signs of the end of the age (Matthew 24), so I can understand the common “end times” conclusions. This means we have mistakenly concluded this story is only bout the rapture which could come at any moment. Therefore, I will dissect this passage to unearth the bigger message beyond everything.
Like most of Jesus’ parables about his Kingdom, there is a contrast between two types of people. Those who can’t see the Kingdom reality (usually the religious minded) and those who can. This passage is no different with its contrast of ten young virgins who are awaiting the Bridegroom: five foolish (morai/moron-meaning lacking sense) and five wise (not Sophia, but phronimoi/phronimos-meaning possessing insight or understanding). The coming Bridegroom is the symbol of intimate joining or divine union (wedding party)…its Jesus’ version of how to be “One with God” or what most call Heaven. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” (v.1)
What is interesting about Jesus’ parables is the severity upon those who fail to find and access this Kingdom, and possess divine union. He is constantly telling us that the religious mind has God all figured out, but they end up godless and excluded. Nothing is more subversive to religion than Jesus’ own teaching. This is why the Christian religion should never have existed. The Gospel is the invitation into divine union regardless of one’s religion.
We must begin to see this story as affirming the necessity to prepare for a long dark night if we would find God. It’s about the light of self-discovery in discovering God. We can only go so far on our own steam, the rest of the journey is the Bridegroom coming to us, on his own time and fashion. All ten virgins were seekers on a spiritual journey. All placed their hope in joining the wedding party, and they all took similar lamps to light their way on the dark and unpopulated outskirts of town. Sincerity of heart seems to be shared among all ten, so this parable isn’t about inner devotion. The five foolish look the same as the wise, they all fall asleep, they all seek the same satisfaction, and they all hear the same call, but one distinction causes those with “no sense” to remain excluded and unknown by God.
Not all spiritual paths lead to God.
A gem in this teaching is hidden between the lines. Why didn’t the foolish virgins just go out to greet their Groom in the dark? Think about the entourage of a king. Would you think it wise to run up to them in the dark? We’d likely meet the end of a spear long before we’d meet the Bridegroom. This means that the light from the lamp is two-fold. First, to light our path, but second to light our face and to be seen and to be known. It’s ontological.
The delay in arrival means that the five foolish virgins lack the necessary light to know and be known by the bridegroom. They couldn’t imagine having to endure such a long dark night. Their limited “understanding” figured he’d meet their expectations and thus they prepared accordingly. This is clearly the religious mind on display. Religion has God “figured out,” and placed in a tidy little box of theology or ritual, or conduct. Those lacking sense, are those who do not know themselves because they make assumptions about God. They have no contingency because of their certainty.
By contrast, the wise are those who “don’t know” or who are “agnostic” about what they seek. As a result they plan to endure long periods of darkness. When the call comes and awakens them all, the five with understanding act in a way which most would call stingy or selfish or un-Christ like. Where modern religion has a culture of niceness, the wise in this parable do not. Each person is responsible for themselves. Those who don’t prepare, who don’t count the cost, or don’t invest, will lose everything in Jesus’ parables about God’s Kingdom.
Try applying this Kingdom principle to modern economic inequality… “hand out’s” or even “hand ups” are not possible. There is severity toward the unprepared. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) The door is shut (v.10) when we’d think compassion is warranted.
Not all who want the Kingdom will be granted access. Only those who are “known” (Matt 7:21, Matt 25:12). All people have spiritual awakenings, but some are unto the discovery that they are excluded. Our assumptions are wrong, and because we didn’t prepare for the long night, we will remain outside.
The oil is the fuel to go the distance. The text here is plural…”flasks/vessels”…meaning more than one. I cannot share my contingency plan with you and you cannot with me. We must each, on our own, acquire the oil to withstand cold, dark, nights, and to be illuminated and known when the time comes. Without the fuel, there is not light, no orientation, no way to gather our bearings, no way to distinguish us from thieves. The oil is our diligence in preparing (from many sources/”flasks”) which will give us “understanding“(phronimo) about ourself and the arrival of the Bridegroom. Every world religion tells us that we go to God illumined by our lamp, but Christ following (anti-religion) means we go out in darkness and wait for God to come to us.
Let me ask you: What is your spiritual practice?
The parable of the ten virgins is not a lesson on preparing for a future rapture two thousand years later, it’s a clinic on the diligent endurance of becoming real, authentic or known by God, not through religion, but through the austerity of night, where all our illusions about ourself and our pseudonyms fade away. This parable is the wisdom lesson on how to discern the difference between “knowing about” something and “truly being known.“
The emerging question then is one of deep personal reflection and contemplation. Do I have the oil to go the distance? Have I done the work to know who I am before my Bridegroom? There is no convenient time or place to meet God. It’s a difficult path, a narrow gate, a dark night of the soul. God doesn’t actually meet us where we are… the Bridegroom meets us at the end of who we think we are? We are greeted when the light of our lamp reflects the contours of our face…scars and all.
Jesus gives us clear direction if we would join the Bridegroom at the wedding party; (gregoréo– which means to “Stay awake, Be alert, Be Alive!” Instead of scrolling over the depth of life, pay attention, wake up from our institutionally induced anesthesia, stop seeking to be entertained and be alive now. Gather the oil now while we can, because we do not know that the wedding starts within us long before we reach the party.
To be unknown by God isn’t that God won’t know us, but that God cannot know us because nothing false (pseudo) can exists in the light of perfect truth. The message here is that a prepared posture allows us to see and know as well as to be seen and known. The soul, with no oil in his or her lamp, is a fiction, an unknown self who is locked out of joy because he or she cannot see that the day and hour of the Bridegroom’s arrival is right now.
May we be like the five wise and diligent women, so that the lamp of truth can illuminate our true face before God.