The story of the ten virgins is a curious parable. It’s an answer to Matthew 24, verse 44:
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is cominga at an hour you do not expect.”
To help understand the meaning of being ready, Jesus uses the illustration of ten virgins and the coming bridegroom. The parable is not so much to the group as a whole, but to individuals on a personal level. When the Son of Man comes it’s my personal responsibility to be ready on time. First I want to look at the:
Cultural Background of the Parable
According to Alfred Edersheim,¹ the Eastern custom was for virgins to carry lamps during the bridal procession. Now, we must remember in those days no electricity or electric lighting was available. Understand there was a very practical purpose for these lamps—they weren’t necessarily meant for symbolism. The fact that virgins were chosen to carry them might have been symbolic, but the lamps themselves were out of necessity. They lit the way for the procession and remained on throughout the whole marriage ceremony and wedding feast if necessary. It was both a privilege and responsibility to carry the lamps for the wedding party. Next, let’s think about:
The Illustrative Connection to the Parable
“Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
Under normal conditions, with the day’s light helping, whatever oil was in the lamp would have been adequate for the wedding service. These vessels were designed to generate light for a predictable duration of time. Here’s where the Lord adds a twist to what was common. Something out of the ordinary occurred and it’s this unusual circumstance that defines the difference between the foolish and the wise.
“As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.”
The bridegroom was somehow late pushing the ceremony into the hours of night’s darkness. Practically, more oil would be required for an evening service. However, during the wait all ten had become tired and slumbered. The issue develops when the five, accustomed to the ordinary wedding service, panicked at their need.
“And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And 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.”
Now, we read this and think, “What would have been so difficult in sharing a little oil?” Had the five wise shared with the five foolish, no doubt, the wedding would have gone dark midway the ceremony—and who would have looked foolish then? The five who had prepared wisely sent the five improvised off to face the responsibility of their choices.
“Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The Illustrative Lesson of the Parable
All ten had one hope and goal in mind—to meet the bridegroom and contribute to the wedding. However, half were not careful in evaluating the duration of the wait. It’s not that the five foolish were intentionally unfaithful and rebellious, the problem occurred in the hours of preparation. They took the whole ceremony as anything but special. Out of willful neglect they foolishly disregarded sufficient time to supply for the current need. They had no concept of planning for the unforeseen; nor that the call, when it did come, would be so sudden. The interval between the “arrival of the Bridegroom” and “the closing of the door” was not taken into their estimation of responsibility. Big mistake! They took for granted that they had enough oil for the needs of the ceremony.
When the Savior says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect,” He means take seriously your preparation. We learn that the command to watch, in verse 13, means to think ahead. Week after week, Christian service can get mundane and ordinary. We come on Sundays to worship with only enough preparation of what’s normally necessary. The struggle is to never take for granted service for God. Plan for the unforeseen. One might never get another opportunity to gather oil. To watch means personally get ready now!
J. Robert Hanson
¹ The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book 5, Chapter 7