Prepared Or Not?
Ordinary Time 32
12. Prepared Or Not?
"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten
bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the
foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the
wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was
delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight
there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to
meet him.' 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their
lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.' 9But the wise replied, 'No! there
will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the
dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10And while they went to
buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with
him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the
other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'
12But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13Keep
awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Weddings are wonderful! That is an expression you may hear
frequently at the announcement of such an event. A lot of
planning and expense usually go into making the event a special
and joyous time. In our culture family and friends will travel
long distances to be present at the ceremony.
Almost every culture has extensive traditions and customs
surrounding a wedding. They underscore the importance of the
event. In our culture marriage is regulated by law. The state
assumes that it has a stake in the proper arrangements and
certification of a marriage. A wedding is an important and
joyful community event.
The parable for today draws on the wedding ceremony and the
traditions that surround it. Unhappy are those who for lack of
adequate preparation miss the wedding. So are those who miss the
kingdom of heaven and its joys.
Context of the Lectionary
The parable and the following two come toward the end of the
church year. It is fitting that the Gospel readings are three
parables dealing with eschatology. They are three of the most
familiar parables: the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins,
the parable of the Talents and the parable of the Separation of
the Sheep and Goats. Each of the parables deals with separation
between those rewarded or accepted into the kingdom and those who
Context of Matthew
The parable and the next two are placed in the last block of
teaching materials in Matthew before the account of the final
events of Jesus' life. They each give a likeness to the
consequences of persons' response to the kingdom. The parable of
the Wise and Foolish Virgins concludes with the rejection of
those who do not prepare adequately for the coming of final
events in history. The parable of the Talents speaks of wasted
use of opportunities to act for the kingdom. The third portrays
a final judgment between those who act on behalf of the kingdom
in this world and those who do not act in accord with its
Context of a Wedding
Jesus frequently compares the kingdom to a glorious feast
of the king or of a wedding. In a Jewish wedding the bride waits
at her father's house until the bridegroom comes to get her. She
then accompanies him to his house where the ceremony takes place.
On the way other participants in the wedding join the party and
accompany the bridegroom and the bride to the festivities.
The time when the bridegroom would arrive to claim his bride
was uncertain so that it would be a surprise. The bridegroom
would come at night, so lamps were needed. Lamps were small clay
vessels affixed to a staff. The vessels contained olive oil and
had a wick for the flame. The vessels would need to be refilled
from time to time as the people waited for the bridegroom to
Context of the Lectionary
The First Lesson. (Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25) The passage is
part of Joshua's farewell address to the people. He commits his
house to serve the Lord. When the people responded that they
will also, he warns them of what that means, especially if they
do not keep their commitment. He proceeds to make a covenant and
tells them the regulations that it implied.
The Second Lesson. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) The
Thessalonians were disturbed that some had died and would not be
alive for the second coming of Christ. Paul assures them that
those asleep would not be treated differently from those still
alive at Christ's return. The passage is related to today's
Gospel reading by looking at death as sleep and the maidens
sleeping while waiting for the bridegroom.
The Gospel. (Matthew 25:1-13) The parable tells of the
contrast of the five maidens who give thought beforehand to be
prepared. Five others are caught unprepared and miss the great
Psalm. (Psalm 78:1-7) The psalm underscores the need to
transmit the faith to coming generations. Each new generation
must remember what God has done and respond to him in obedience
to his commands.
Context of Related Scriptures
Psalm 45:14 Ä The virgins who are companions of the bride
Psalm 119:105 Ä The word is a lamp for guidance.
Matthew 5:15-16 Ä The works of the members of the kingdom
are like a lamp that gives light to glorify the heavenly Father.
Mark 15:35-36 Ä An admonition to watch and not sleep.
2 Corinthians 11:2 Ä The church is described as a chaste
virgin to be presented to Christ.
2 Peter 1:19 Ä The prophetic message served as a lamp
shining in a dark place until the day dawns.
Revelation 19:7 Ä The marriage of the Lamb to the bride who
Revelation 21:2 Ä The new Jerusalem as a bride adorned for
Content of the Parable
The parable uses a similarity between a wedding celebration
and the kingdom of heaven. The point of the parable is the need
for constant preparedness for the kingdom to break into daily
existence. Some of the details of the parable lend themselves to
The use of the figure of the bridegroom makes an evident
connection between the appearance of Jesus and the announcement
of the presence of the kingdom. The early church with its
expectation of an early return of Jesus to bring the kingdom to
fulfillment understood the parable to speak of that coming event.
No mention is made of the bride. From the context a bride
is self-evident. Who then are the ten maidens who waited for the
coming of the wedding party? Were they the contemporary parties?
The wise maidens might be the disciples who were prepared to
answer the call of Jesus and follow him. The foolish maidens
could be the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees who
expected a messiah to come and deliver Israel from its oppressors
yet they were not prepared to respond either to John the Baptist
or Jesus when they proclaimed the presence of the kingdom of God.
The joy of the wedding feast is contrasted with those who
were left on the outside in the dark looking into the house where
the festivities were in process.
Precis of the Parable
A wedding ceremony is anticipated. A group of ten maidens
were awaiting the event, expecting to be part of the wedding
party. They had their lamps chasing away the darkness of the
night. The bridegroom lingered. Finally about midnight the word
is spread that the bridegroom and bride are about to arrive.
Half of the five maidens suddenly realize that their lamps
are flickering low and are about to die out. They are without
oil to keep the lamps burning. They turn in desperation to the
other five and want them to share the oil they have in reserve
for just such a contingency. But the five who had come prepared
for a long wait know that if they share their supply, all the
lamps will be extinguished before they arrive at the house of the
bridegroom. That would certainly dampen the atmosphere of
celebration. So while they may regret it, they feel compelled to
refuse the request.
The five who did not bring a reserve scurry about to find
more oil. Since it is night the shops are closed. By the time
they succeed in finding a new supply and return, the wedding
party has already entered the house of the bridegroom and the
ceremony is underway. When the five maidens arrive and knock on
the door, their entrance would be an intrusion and disrupt the
gay proceedings. They are denied entrance with the rather harsh
reply that they are unknown to the bridegroom.
The parable ends with the admonition to keep awake and be in
constant readiness, for the time of the coming of the kingdom is
Thesis: Prepare for the crisis of the kingdom which may
Theme: Seize the day!
Key Words in the Parable
1. "Ten." (v. 1) Numbers in Israel had more of a
qualitative meaning than a quantitative designation. Ten was a
number of completeness, such as the ten tribes of Israel, the ten
commandments and the prescription that where ten adult Jewish
males were present in one place, a synagogue should be organized.
2. "Lamps." (v. 1) In biblical imagery lamps are usually
identified with the word of God or the witness of the faithful
which illuminates and shows direction for life.
3. "Bridegroom." (v. 1) The bridegroom is symbolic in this
parable of Jesus. The advent of the kingdom in some special
sense was identified with the coming of Jesus, both in his
initial appearance in the flesh and in his expected second
4. "Five...foolish; five wise." (v. 2) The indication of
half who were wise and half who were foolish probably suggested
the incompleteness of the kingdom's manifestation in history.
Even in Judaism, and later in the church, not everyone who
professed to be obedient to God was really prepared to do so.
5. "Midnight." (v. 6) Midnight is symbolic of the darkest
hour, halfway between sundown (6 p.m.) and sunrise (6 a.m.)
6. "Trimmed Their Lamps." (v. 7) The clay lamps had a
cotton wick. As the oil was depleted the wick would burn and
become black. It had to be trimmed so that it would only burn
the oil. Otherwise the lamp would give a dull yellow flame
instead of a bright blue flame.
7. "Lord, Lord." (v. 11) Again the euphemism for the name
of God is used. It is reminiscent of the vain use of the name by
those who mouthed it but were not ready to submit themselves in
obedience to the Lord.
8. "I do not Know You." (v. 12) A typical Aramaic
expression. It means that I will not have anything to do with
9. "Keep Awake." (v. 13) The admonition to keep awake is
given just prior to the arrest and trial of Jesus. The disciples
slept in the Garden of Gethsemane and consequently were
unprepared for the events that followed. They fled and betrayed
Jesus. Matthew no doubt was intentional in placing this parable
in close proximity to the Garden of Gethsemane events.
1. Uncertainty. The parable deals with the uncertainty of
an event. Uncertainty is one of the chief causes of temptation.
So often we can rise to meet a crisis. It is during the time
when nothing seems to be happening that we become lax and succumb
to temptation. Our fears of anticipation may also be worse than
the consequence of the event itself.
2. Apathy. A great enemy of the church is apathy. Many
churches have a lot of so-called dead wood. They are people who
are on the membership list but do not attend except possibly on
the high holy days of Christmas and Easter, or for such events as
weddings, baptisms and funerals. They do not contribute more
than token amounts to keep their name on the roll. They do not
assume any responsibilities for the program of the church. A
continuing challenge is to find some way to shout, "Look! Here is
the bridegroom. Come out and meet him."
3. State of Readiness. It is hard to maintain a constant
state of readiness. Life calls for a rhythm between activity and
rest. All ten maidens slept while they waited. Sleeping is not
denigrated. In fact, adequate sleep is necessary for readiness.
Studies show that people who are sleep deprived over an extended
period of time are more prone to accidents and illness, are less
efficient in their work and are more irritable. Sleep can,
however, be used as an escape from responsibility. Sleep can be
interrupted or postponed on occasion for special demands without
4. The Unexpected. History is full of surprises. We may
see cause and effect in retrospect. It is hard to see the
effects of many things in prospect, especially in complex
relationships where many factors affect the outcome. One of the
most indeterminate factors is the freedom of human responses.
The consequences of Jesus' death and resurrection are easier to
see with hindsight. How and when the kingdom may break into
history in powerful ways in the future cannot be fully
anticipated. Therefore it is important to watch and be prepared.
The signs of the kingdom's coming into our personal lives or into
larger social movements cannot always be perceived in advance to
those who are attentive and receptive to them.
5. No Borrowed Oil. The five unprepared maidens wanted the
other five to give them some of their oil. They could not do so
without running short themselves. One must be careful in pushing
details of a parable too hard to fit some notion. If we assume
that the oil for the lamps in the parable is symbolic of our
works which are the light which shows God's glory, as suggested
in Matthew 5:15-16, then the oil for our lamps is our works. The
doctrine of supererogation contends that Jesus and certain other
persons have earned more merit than they need for salvation.
Since salvation is not a matter of merit, but of grace, we do not
need to appropriate another's merit. Indeed, we need not and we
cannot borrow from another to light our lamps. It is a
responsibility we have to be prepared to accept for ourselves.
6. Recognized by the Bridegroom. The foolish maidens who
were tardy in arriving at the wedding were not recognized. If we
accept the assumption that it is our works that provide the fuel
for the light of our lamps, then that light cannot wait until the
last moment to be recognized. A time comes when it is too late.
If we are citizens of the kingdom, then our character should
manifest it. The beatitude says that it is the peacemaker who is
a child of God, that is, shares the divine characteristic that
demonstrates origin. Character is not acquired instantly. It is
the result of a process of actions that lead to recognition of
our true parentage.
1. Oil for My Lamp. (v. 4) We can use a variety of
resources to keep our lamp lit.
A. Prayer and Meditation
B. Steeping Ourselves in Scripture
C. Regular Worship
D. Serving Other's Needs
2. The Bridegroom Comes. (v. 6) Christ comes in many ways
to awaken us and invites us to join the wedding banquet.
A. Through the Examples of Others
B. Through Events Around Us
C. Through Personal Failure
3. Trim Your Lamps. (v. 7) People need to rid their lives
of the debris that keeps the light from burning true and bright.
A. Habits of Commission
B. Habits of Omission
C. The Burden of Past Guilt
4. Knowing the Day and Hour. (v. 13) Some people are
always trying to develop a timetable for the future. They make
elaborate schemes purporting to know exactly how and when God
will deal with history and its outcome. They do a great deal of
mischief by raising false hopes which leads at times to bizarre
behavior. We should not fall prey to such false expectations.
We do so by being aware of steps to take in response to such
A. Do not Second Guess God
B. Do not Put God in a Straitjacket
C. Prepare for Any Eventuality
5. The Time is Now. (v. 13) Persons never know with
certainty when the time of accountability will come. It may
tarry until midnight. It may arrive sooner than we think. It
may come as a surprise. Therefore, be alert and ready at all
A. Be Awake!
B. Be Watchful!
C. Be at God's Work!
Points of Contact
1. Reading the Future. People try many ways to read the
future. Horoscopes in the daily papers attest to this desire to
know how things will happen to us. Tarot cards, fortune cookies,
Ouija boards and fortune tellers are some of the means people
consult to try to determine their futures. All of these
represent a lack of trust that God has the future in hand. For
those who are in God's care, the future is not something to fear,
but something to enter with confidence. People need to be
reassured of this truth.
2. Life as Celebration. People look forward to events which
give cause to celebrate Ä weddings, Christmas, Thanksgiving,
Easter, birthdays, anniversaries. People who have had near-death
experiences find their life priorities radically altered. Many
find the new lease on life a reason to celebrate each new day as
an opportunity that might have been lost. Jesus presented life
in the kingdom as a royal banquet or as a wedding feast.
Christians should not wait for the end of time Ä either
personally or as the Second Coming Ä to celebrate life. Each day
should start with a pause to celebrate the opportunities it
brings to live in the kingdom.
3. Lost Opportunity. Fiction writers of short stories,
novels, movies and TV programs often dwell on lost opportunities.
Because of the development of the plot, the reader or viewer
knows before the actors do the tragedy of missing a chance for
something that could lead to fulfillment of a desire. In life it
is too often only after the event that we know we missed an
opportunity Ä a word not spoken that could have changed a
relationship, a bad choice at a critical moment, a wrong
direction taken at a juncture in life. Life confronts us with
choices and opportunities. None is more important than the
choices that affect our eternal destiny. People need to think
seriously about how they are prepared for the ultimate choice
about the meaning of their lives.
4. Wisdom and Intelligence. Wisdom is not directly
correlated with intelligence. Very smart people may not make any
better choices in life than those who have lesser intelligence.
A person with only marginal intelligence can show love to others
and engage in a life of service. The response to the grace of
forgiveness and empowerment to live in love, peace, joy,
compassion, generosity and other such values can be received by
anyone. The wisdom to be prepared to act according to the spirit
of Christ is more to be valued than great feats of intelligence
without these characteristics.
Points to Ponder
1. Absent Lord. This parable along with others in the
series has an absent lord. The bridegroom has not yet appeared.
People become atheists because they have no experience which they
identify as an experience of the presence of God or as an
encounter with Christ in their lives. The problem is to find
ways to help them recognize the reality of God. Sometimes it may
be an intellectual problem, such as a world view that does not
allow for the existence of spiritual realities. It may also be a
false conception of who God or Christ must be. It may also
result from a poor, distorted or inadequate modeling by those who
claim to know God in Christ Jesus. It may also be some ethical
or moral barrier in their own lives which will not let God into
2. Awake or Asleep. The parable seems to have an internal
inconsistency. All ten maidens are asleep when the shout arises
that the bridegroom is coming. It makes no difference whether it
is the wise or the foolish maidens. Then in the final verse of
the pericope we find the admonition to be awake, as though the
point of the parable is not lack of preparedness but being asleep
when the Lord comes. Some commentators have suggested that this
concluding verse is not part of the original parable, but was
appended by Matthew or the early church. How do you harmonize
the two? Or do you need to press every detail of a parable for
3. Maidens and Virgins. In the New Testament it is
sometimes a question of how you translate the term which is
either maiden or virgin. At the time, the two were considered
identical. An unmarried young woman was automatically assumed to
be a virgin. In the American culture today, many young people
are active sexually at a very young age. It cannot be assumed
just on age that a young man or woman is a virgin. Indeed, a
growing problem is children having children when they are not
mature enough to care for them. They have no stable support
unless their parents or other adults provide the support. How
should the church address both the problem of early, extra-
marital sexual activity and the consequences in infants without
the family support needed for them?
1. The End Times. How do you act in anticipation of the end
of the world and history as we know it? In the light of the long
delay in that end coming, one should prepare as though history
will continue for another 2000 years before the eschaton, but
should live as though it could happen today.
2. Scout Motto. The scout motto is a good one for
Christians also: "Be Prepared."
3. A State of Readiness. During the Cold War the U.S. and
the USSR lived in a constant state of readiness for the
possibility of a nuclear war. The U.S. Strategic Air Command had
planes circling in the air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to be
prepared to respond to a nuclear attack.
4. The Attraction of a Bride. A couple had a two-year-old
girl. They were taking her to a botanical garden. On the way
they passed a cathedral where a wedding party was evident since
the groom and his attendants were standing around in the parking
lot. The child was taken inside and saw the bride before the
ceremony began. She had no further interest in the botanical
garden. She kept wanting to go see the bride again. On the
return the doors to the cathedral were open. She was taken where
she could see the wedding in progress. Just then the priest
began praying and it came over the speakers very loudly. She was
somewhat frightened and so they left. She still wanted to see
the bride. As they went farther, they walked by the Hilton
Hotel. A limousine pulled up with a wedding couple in it. They
sat at the entrance without getting out for a while. The young
girl was taken over to the limo. The couple opened the window
and talked to her briefly. That was a highlight for the two-
year-old. She talked about it for a long time afterward.
5. Surprises in History. Malthus developed a theory that
the population growth would outstrip the growth of food,
resulting in mass death and chaos. Even India and China which
were earlier subject to periodic famines have stabilized food
production for a much larger population than Malthus would have
In the '60s the Club of Rome made some very pessimistic
projections about the depletion of oil reserves by the year 2000.
Approaching the year 2000 the known oil reserves now are greater
than when they made the predictions.
For years many people were expecting that South Africa would
only change the apartheid system as the result of a long and
bloody civil war. They did not expect it to happen until at
least the twenty-first century. The surprise is that the
transition took place through a process of political negotiation
and a relatively peaceful election.