Sermon preached at School of Ministry, Almondsbury Conference Centre, 9 November 1985
When talking of virgins, I have a recollection that they numbered four and twenty and came down from Inverness. In the passage before us [Matthew 24:45-25:13 – SJC] they numbered ten, of whom five were wise and the others foolish; perhaps half the number suffered the fate of their Scottish counterparts?
Young maidens (from the Greek parthenoi) is perhaps a less emotive way to consider their role in the narrative. This parable is so full of strange and quirky details that it is better to treat it gently and, like young ladies themselves, not to squeeze too tightly.
One of the first questions I want to ask is: what were they all doing out at night? Seems a strange time to have a wedding. Not too much is known about marriage customs in Palestine at that time, so it is difficult to be certain; even so, ten bridesmaids does seem somewhat excessive. If it was midnight then it would be even odder for any shops to be open for oil. Those making long journeys seldom travelled at night, unless with some nefarious purpose… you can see the dangers of lifting a story out of its context.
This story is only one of a series recorded by St Matthew which deal with the birth pangs of the new age and the necessary calamities to be associated with it. The old order would be turned upside down in a way which lent itself to grimly graphic language. Echoes of the Day of the Lord as suggested in the Book of Daniel are very strong. It would be a mistake, however, to treat the details so described as accurate predictions of the future. The Bible is not in the prediction game, but revelation. In fact, the details do not matter that much. In our story they serve only to point to the need to be alert and to be prepared.
The same elements feature strongly in the parable of the sheep and the goats which comes next, and the account of the dutiful and brutal servants which comes before. Each contrast marks the sharp cleavage between right and wrong attitudes and modes of conduct (“by their fruits shall you know them”). It was felt that the Second Coming of Christ had been delayed, and therefore the Gospel writers had to face the dilemma of encouraging the faithful in the face of sagging morale and disappointment at its non-arrival. Be faithful to all that you have been taught. It is not for you to know times and seasons. Watch and pray. Be alert.
It is a bit of a shock, then, to see in our story that all ten of these young ladies fell asleep, for the bridegroom was so long in coming. It has to be seen, though, that there is a great deal of difference between lapsed vigilance and a slumber which occurs within a state of instant readiness. It is important what you did before you closed your eyes.
Now, it has been suggested that the lamps carried by the ten were probably not household lamps; rather like the finger pots you made at school. Their light would have been too poor, the oil resources too meagre, and the slightest puff of wind would blow them out. It is more likely that they were cones of rushes, dipped in pitch and soaked in olive oil. This would take a good deal of preparation. The foolish five, then, had probably not soaked the things properly, which was even worse than not having enough oil.
The sole purpose of their being there in the first place was to provide the light by which they could recognise the groom, and also to be recognised by him. There are similar echoes to be found in the other story recorded by Matthew of the man who arrived without the proper wedding garment, ie unprepared. He was greeted with, “go away, I don’t know you.” You have no means, that is, by which you can be recognised.
This seems to be much the same in our story. Without your flaming torch, your light, held in a state of readiness and expectation, you cannot be seen nor be recognised.
Let your light so shine before men that they may see…
It occurs to me, therefore, that our story survives the details and anomalies by which the unwary may be led astray. It survives too the eschatological context in which St Matthew sets it. It is a fundamental lesson in alertness and preparedness which are marks of our obedience and fidelity to that to which we have been called.
I can be obedient to a call if first I am obedient to myself. Obedience consists in finding out what I am most deeply and truly, and of being loyal to that insight; neither puffing it up on an ego trip, nor deflating it by self-flagellation. I will thereby discover a reality which is greater than my individual self, but not other than it. I can say, with St Catherine of Genoa:
My me is God, nor do I know myself save in him.
This self, which God my creator gives, Christ my saviour redeems, and the Holy Spirit renews.
Obedience to God, however, often receives a very bad press – especially since we are the authors. God the Victorian Father or the foreign potentate who exchanges love only in return for the strictest kind of trembling, fearful obedience. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and everything else, or you get your teeth kicked in…”
Obedience is not submission to a tyrant, but a discovery. Fidelity in friendships or marriages consists of this mutual process of discovery, and the fidelity which emerges is deserved only because it is the free gift, offered and received each to the other. The mystery of this process is energised by love.
Whoever has loved knows well what he has loved in the other cannot be reduced to describable qualities […] the mystery of what I am in myself is the very thing about me which is only revealed in love. (Gabriel Marcel)
Thus in love will my conduct be determined, through love will my state of readiness be fashioned. Love will be the light through which the bridegroom may be seen, and ourselves recognised – unexpectedly and astonishingly in the long, little ordinariness of life, both in the present and the ultimate Day of the Lord.