The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Mt. 25: 1-13) always bothered me. It was the refusal to share oil on the part of the Wise Virgins. That isn’t very Christian, is it? What happened to share everything? Be poor and meek? Too bad you forgot your oil. Go see if you can find some in the dead of night.
This procession of virgins describes a typical Jewish wedding procession. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the bride’s house and the groom’s house. He had to bring a bride price to her family. After up to a year of separation, the groomsmen would announce the return of the groom with shouts of “Behold, the bridegroom comes.” At some point the bride, accompanied by the bridal party carrying torches, because these things happened after dark, processed to the groom’s house, When everybody was back in the bridegroom’s house, the couple consummated the marriage and had a feast.
This is an allegory, laden with rich metaphors. Was there one bride, or ten? No distinction is made of any of them. I claim that they are all brides, as we are when approaching the Bridegroom, both as individuals and in community. Why was the bridegroom late, leaving the brides to proceed without him? One interpretation is the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was pending, but not yet accomplished. Are the bride price and the oil the Holy Spirit? If the oil is the Holy Spirit, or at least zeal for the message of Christ, how does the Holy Spirit burn out? Can we shut it out? Fake our engagement with Christ? About “Lord, lord,” the word in Greek kirios (κυριος) can mean “sir,” as in “m’lord” or even just “mister.” But it can have the more familiar meaning. In biblical texts it is often used to mean the Lord, one who has title and authority, especially when referring to Jesus. Are the unwise virgins at the last minute trying to appease, whereas the wise ones are welcoming the mystical marriage in love? For me when I pray I use Lord when addressing Christ Jesus, and I mean Master, Ruler, the one to whom I am vowed, whom I obey, whom I revere and love. Whom I know as always loving and merciful, unreservedly and without end. Not damning, but forgiving.
We have moved past the world where everybody expected damnation, and redemption from sins by a loving God was not a given. Hence the invention of Purgatory, a last chance, and the dread indulgences which were so corrupt we had the Reformation. Where once success in life or faith was a narrow path, now every child in kindergarten gets a medal, because nobody wants to be left out. In Scripture, salvation is not always so assured, and there are a lot of goats amongst the sheep. In the context of the preceding and following parables, the parable of these ten lamp-bearing women become clearer. The Parable of the Ten Virgins is situated between the Parable of the Faithful or Unfaithful Servants and The Parable of the Talents and they all hinge on Matthew 24:36-44 on the need for watchfulness, because you must, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt. 24:42). In fact, most of chapter 24 describes the events leading to the end time and their consequences. In the Parable of the Faithful or Unfaithful Servant, the lazy ones only obey when the master is present. The conclusion of the Parable of the Talents seems harsh, as does the conclusion of the Virgin parable. Using the language of the market place, the servants who invest the talents are rewarded. The one who, for fear, doesn’t invest but saves the talent isn’t just let off with a scolding or a smack, but condemned to the outer darkness, gnashing of teeth and all. Like the parable of the talents, the virgin’s parable is framed in a very secular way – traditions of marriage – a familiar thing. The consequences of failing or falling asleep on watch are harsh and non-negotiable. Here, the virgins are allowed to fall asleep, as the disciples in the garden fall asleep before Jesus’ arrest. But in all of these parables, and in many other places in all four gospels, there is judgment, not universal forgiveness and love.
The major theological question has to do with the parousia, the end time with the second coming of Christ, and the terms of the day of judgment for all souls. One way of looking at sin is that it is voluntary. Each of us by our use of our free will may chose to listen to the conceit of our own hearts rather than hearing the Spirit and obeying God, and that is turning from God. Ultimately we ourselves deny God’s presence and dive into the pit. However, we believe that reconciliation, absolution, can come at any time. In these parables when the Lord comes it is too late, and all our actions are accounted in a final judgment. Even in the Lord’s Prayer we are told that we will be forgiven in the measure that we forgive. We are instructed to love and forgive enemies. We are given different viewpoints of ethical and juridical theologies. It is confusing. One may be harsh, but going back to the days of the fear of judgment, of the massa damnata, or of Puritanical punishments and restrictions are not desirable, nor an answer. But an awareness of the consequences of lack of accountability might not be such a bad idea. For one, it would put a damper on the flame wars which erupt on social media over almost anything. And on lip service compassion. Road rage would be unacceptable. Perhaps we need to heed the plight of the Foolish Virgins, and adhere to a life of Spirit, living in Christ.
A meme has been making the rounds, part of the Presiding Bishop’s Jesus Movement in the Episcopal Church, called “The Way of Love.” A seven sliced pie chart in bright red is labeled Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. It instructs us in a way of living in Jesus. That is what we are called to in baptism and scripture. I believe in God’s love and mercy. But we would be foolish not to recognize the truth in the plight of the Foolish Virgins. Empty words are not enough. Selling off your gift of a wedding robe will not get you into the wedding feast (Mt 22:1-15). Burying your talents, in both senses, will not bring you the joy of Glory. Thinking that the Holy One won’t notice our misdeeds is pretty stupid. Even though we are loved, there are consequences of unrepentant sin. No, the Wise Virgins couldn’t share their oil. Their life and deeds were theirs alone. If these stories make us uncomfortable, even afraid, remember that the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.