The Ten Virgins - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Ten Virgins

Matthew 25: 1 - 13

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25 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

The Ten Virgins
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What are we to make of the gospel reading in the context of All Saints? The parables of Jesus are easy to remember, but not always easy to understand, harder still sometimes to apply. We can imagine these ten young women, excited at being bridesmaids, half of them so excited they forget to bring oil with them for their lamps, and all of them so excited they fall asleep with exhaustion and have to be wakened when the bridegroom comes. We can imagine, perhaps, the wedding customs of the time: the bridegroom coming to the bride's house to claim her from her father and take back her to his home. Only he's late. In this society, apparently, it is the bridegroom's privilege to be late for the wedding.

But the ending of the parable doesn't quite fit. It talks about keeping awake; but that was not the problem. All the bridesmaids fell asleep. The real problem was that some were unprepared.

So what is the parable about? It is clearly a moral tale, but what is the moral? What are we to take from it today? If it is about being ready, ready for what?

We can all think of situations where we or our friends have been 'caught napping'. I imagine we have all had those moments when guests have arrived earlier than expected and the table is not laid, or when deadlines have been advanced and the work was not done, or when the electricity has failed and we have mislaid the torch. The world was caught napping (is that phrase an echo of the parable?) in 2008 by a financial crisis we are still struggling to cope with, and in this last week we have seen the Eurozone ministers apparently caught napping by the sudden changes of Greek policy. Contingency plans and forward thinking make a difference to coping with a crisis. But is that all there is to it? Does the parable boil down to nothing more than an illustration of the Boy Scout motto, 'Be Prepared'? Surely not.

The context of the gospel reading is a long discourse by Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25 about the end of the world and the Last Judgement. This parable is one of a series on that theme. So the arrival of the Bridegroom represents the coming of God in Jesus at the end of time. The marriage feast is the celebration of the final arrival of the Kingdom of God, long awaited. And the warning is, that if we are not ready at that critical moment we will miss out. Being ready or not is what counts on the Day of Judgement.

It's hard to know what to make of that subject today. There is no doubt that most of the New Testament writers expected the end of the world to come soon, within their lifetime, though in the later books the expectation fades a bit. It is much harder for us, 2,000 years on, and with the knowledge of all that astronomy has revealed to us of the universe in which we live, to think in literal terms of Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven and coming soon.

Yet talk of the end of the world, at least as we know it, does resonate with us. What is the future of our planet as a habitable place, we ask? What if the planet overheats, the ice melts and the sea waters rise? What if we run out of the natural resources of energy we have relied on for so long? What if the population spirals beyond the seven billion it is today, way beyond our capacity to feed ourselves? What if we destroy ourselves in a nuclear war? Such questions have been around for a long time but they come upon us with ever greater urgency, faster, it seems, than our capacity to react. This parable with its warning to be prepared for the critical moment has something to say to all that. Being prepared means we have to change now, before it is too late.

But surely even that misses the main point. Any preacher standing here when Wren first built this church would have had no doubt what the coming of the Bridegroom referred to and what preparedness meant. Being ready to meet the Bridegroom was about preparing for the day of our death. And that was serious business. That was why the Prayer Book Litany prayed to be delivered from sudden death, for sudden death leaves no time to prepare oneself. The modern version of that prayer in Common Worship still speaks of 'dying unprepared'.

I guess it is not a topic that most of us give much thought to today. It is not - to state the obvious - that death is less common than it was, but early death is, and with advances in medicine we feel that we can keep it at bay. So it's not a thought likely to be uppermost in our minds as we settle down in front of the computer, or whatever we do at the start of the day - unless of course we have been told that it is imminent, in weeks or months. That focuses the mind and opens up prospects and questions we may have shelved earlier in life.

What might being prepared mean in that context? Clearly, to focus on the love of God and the hope given us in Christ of eternal life that we celebrate today. Clearly, to reflect on one's past and ask forgiveness for what troubles our conscience; and to take whatever opportunities there may be of putting right things that may have gone wrong. Clearly, to relish each day and every relationship and to be grateful to God for the life that remains. And to pray for courage.

Those are important things when we know that death is near; but if it is not known to be near, what then? Two other parables in the context of our morning gospel point us to the answer. One is in the previous chapter. There the story is about a household manager who is put in charge of the staff during the master's absence, but abuses his position, bullies the staff and raids the storecupboard and the cellars. He is caught out by the boss's unexpected return and gets what is coming to him. Being prepared in his case was not just a matter of being on the look-out for the master's return but of responsible behaviour in the waiting time. For us, preparing for dying is not only a matter of composing ourselves when we believe it is imminent. We prepare for it throughout our lives by living well - in the best sense of that phrase.

The other parable is at the end of this chapter 25. The judge - and we are to think of Jesus - has the nations assembled before him at the end of time, and separates the sheep from the goats as a shepherd would. The sheep are those who have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick and the prisoners. The goats are those who have not done these things. Both groups ask the same question, 'When did we do all that? When did we fail?' And the answer to both is, 'Inasmuch as you did it, or didn't do it, to one of these least, you did it, or didn't do it, to me.' The parable of the bridesmaids includes the call, 'Come to meet the Bridegroom.' The later parable says to us, we meet Christ the Bridegroom every day - in our daily encounters with other people, especially with those in need, and more particularly in those encounters we don't remember and whose significance we don't understand.

Preparedness for dying is to be seen in the way we live from day to day by the grace of God. Preparedness is in our sense of accountability for our neighbour and those who depend on us, in our response to the needy, who may not appear to us to be at all Christ-like. Preparedness is to be seen too in those other daily and weekly encounters with Christ, in prayer and worship and Bread and Wine.

That, we may say, is the oil that will keep our lamps alight at the critical time.

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