Will the maidens with lamps be ready? Matthew 25:1-13

Advent series: Parables of faithful waiting

 We’re back into our advent series focused on Jesus’ parables of waiting for his second coming or “second advent.” I’m highlighting these because many among the people of God were not ready for Jesus’ first Advent. And so as we celebrate Jesus’ birth we rightly ask ourselves, are we ready for his second advent? Are we prepared?

Our text today is found in –

Matthew 25:1-13

– the parable of the ten maidens. (I have changed the ESV’s “virgins” to “maidens” throughout).

1Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

So this is about the second coming of Jesus when the kingdom of heaven will come to earth. When he returns, Jesus is saying, it will be like ten maidens waiting for a bridegroom.

We’ll come back to what this teaches us about the second coming, but for now let’s understand the parable.

Jesus is working with ancient marriage customs in this story. After the marriage ceremony, which included the exchange of vows, there would have been a marriage feast (v. 10) at the bridegroom’s house. (See Matthew 22:2-3 and that the groom answers the door at the end of the story.) The role of the maidens was to be ready, after the ceremony was over, to escort the bride and bridegroom to his house for the feast. They have lamps to do this, so they can light the way to the house in the evening.

In our story they’re in position and waiting. But there’s a problem . . .

2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”

So some of the maidens brought along extra oil for their lamps, just in case, and some did not. The lamps are most likely oil lamps and not torches, maybe attached to a pole. (The word here can mean either. For instance it means lamp in in Acts 20:8 and Judith 10:22. Luke uses a different word that clearly means lamp in his short parallel to this parable – Luke 12:35. And the details of the story favor a lamp – torches wouldn’t burn long enough for them to sleep; vessels of oil seem more suited to filling a lamp; and trimming v. 7 seems to apply more to a lamp – Davies and Allison)

5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.”

The delay is the key element in this story. The bridegroom takes so long that they all fall asleep, with their lamps burning all the while. Then at midnight the call comes. It’s time for them to fulfill their duty in the procession. And so they trimmed the wicks of their lamps for maximum brightness. And this is where the foolishness of five of the maidens becomes clear.

8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’”

The foolish ones didn’t expect or prepare for a delay of the bridegroom. And so when they awake their lamps are going out, which leads them to ask the others for some of their oil. But the wise maidens refuse because there isn’t enough for all and the procession would be a failure if all the lamps went out on the way. So they suggest they go and buy more oil. (It is possible that in a town with a wedding going on, people would be up late and able to sell them oil.)

Next we see the consequences of the lack of preparation on the part of the foolish ones.

10And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.”

Those who were prepared were able to fulfill their function; they “were ready,” as it says. And they celebrated at the marriage feast.

11Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’”

Now the phrase, “I do not know you” doesn’t mean that the bridegroom doesn’t know them. They are most likely the bride’s good friends and relatives. It’s a statement of disassociation, “I have nothing to do with you now.” Or even, “I disown you.”

And then we have the lesson of the parable drawn out for us . . .

13Be prepared therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

–  that is, for Jesus’ return. (I have changed the ESV’s “watch therefore” to “be prepared.”) The phrase, “be prepared” can and often is translated as “stay awake” or “keep watch,” but here all the maidens slept and none are blamed for it. The issue is that some were not prepared and were thus shut out.

What this teaches us about Jesus’ second coming

It’s a pretty straightforward allegory.

  • The bridegroom’s coming = Jesus’ second coming (Is the “cry” of v. 6 the same as the “the cry of command” found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16? See also note below)
  • The ten maidens = disciples of Jesus who are waiting.
  • The delay = a delay in Jesus’ return. Jesus forewarns us here that it could take a while before he comes again.
  • The wedding feast = the messianic banquet. This is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching. This is the great party that will take place at the end of the world when Jesus and all his own celebrate his great victory and salvation.
  • The shut door = judgment.

(The maidens here match with what the living disciples will do when Jesus returns in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The word “meet” there and here has to do with an official delegation that goes out to welcome, and then escort a dignitary back into the city.)

This much is clear. But what about the central focus of the parable, the oil and the lamps?

The general point is the same as v. 13. Be prepared for Jesus’ return. The five foolish maidens didn’t count on a delay and so they didn’t prepare for it with extra oil.

To not know the day or the hour means that Jesus could return quickly – or as in this case – after a long time. And this parable teaches us to be ready for a delay. Don’t be caught off guard by it. (As many have pointed out, the slave left in charge saw the delay as a chance to be wicked and get away with it, but was judged. The foolish maidens didn’t consider or prepare for a delay and were judged for this.)

But is there more? Something more specific? I think so. The imagery of a lamp shining takes us back to Matthew 5:15-16 (different word in Greek but the same idea) where this refers to “good works” or being obedient to Jesus’ teaching and example. It means living out the Christian life. v. 16 says, “Let your  light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

And when equivalents to the phrase “Lord, lord” are used (Matthew 7:21, 22; Luke 13:25), as in our passage, as well as “I do not know you” (Matthew 7:23;; Luke 13:27) and “the door was shut” with people asking to get in (Luke 13:25) – when these phrases are used in Jesus’ teaching, the issue is Christians who are not walking in obedience to Jesus. (Jesus calls them “workers of lawlessness” Matthew 7:23; “workers of evil” Luke 13:27.)

And so to be prepared means that we have considered things carefully and are ready to follow Jesus, not just for a while, but for as long as our lives go on until Jesus returns. We are prepared to live out our Christian lives for the long haul; however long it takes until he returns.

And so I ask you –

Will you be ready?

Many among the people of God were not ready when Jesus first came. And here five of the ten maidens were not ready for his second coming.

Examine your own life. Are you a wise Christian or a foolish Christian? Are you committed to living in obedience to Jesus until he returns?

One final thought. Just as in the story when the wise could not share their oil, someone else’s preparedness can’t be shared with you. You can’t lean on your spouse, your friend or your parents. Their being prepared won’t help you. You must make sure you are prepared.

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