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Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 20, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Parables present an interpretive challenge for the Christian. You may have heard parables explained something like, “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” but that’s not entirely correct. They are stories that reveal heavenly mysteries, but not in a platonic sense, where earthly things are a shadow of spiritual realities. Nor are they like Aesop’s fables—short morality plays that are designed to teach us a lesson.
The parables of Jesus—the parables of His kingdom, grace, and judgment—are stories that relate to us His gracious activity in reestablishing Himself as king. For this reason, it is important that we first look for the point of comparison. Not every detail in the story signifies something. The details only serve to move the narrative along, and have significance only in support of the point of comparison.
In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the point of comparison is a meeting. Then the reign of the heavens will be compared to ten virgins who, taking their own lamps, went to a meeting of the bridegroom (v 1). In my translation, I have used “reign” instead of “kingdom” because “reign” refers to the activity of the king rather than a static location. So in this parable, the reign of Jesus is compared to a meeting of a bride and a bridegroom. The interesting thing is that our point of view of this story is neither bride nor bridegroom, but bridesmaids. The custom of Jewish weddings was that the bride and her attendants would wait at her home until the groom and his best man would come to her and together they would all process to the wedding hall. Usually this happened toward evening, which is why each bridesmaid would bring her own lamp along.
It’s not unusual for Scripture to compare the kingdom of heaven to a wedding. Another parable compares the kingdom to a wedding feast. In the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is described as a bride prepared for her husband. And my favorite of all is in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, when he gives instructions to husbands and wives, he’s really talking about Christ and the Church.
Let the wives submit to their own husbands as to the Lord, because a husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, He the savior of the body. But as the Church submits to Christ, in this way also the wives to their husbands in everything. The husbands, love the wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up on her behalf, in order to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of water in the Word, in order to present the Church to Himself glorious, having no blemish or wrinkle or any such thing, but to be holy and blameless. In this way also, the men are obligated to love their own wives as their own bodies. The one who loves his own wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the Church, because we are members of His body. “Because of this, a person will leave behind father and mother and will be joined together with his wife. And the two will be one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am saying it is for Christ and for the Church. Nevertheless, each one of you also love your wife as you love yourself, but the wife to respect the husband (Eph 5:22-33).
St. Paul gives us the interpretive key. He quotes from Genesis, in the beginning, when God created the first man and woman, and thus created marriage. The two become one flesh. It’s more than a metaphor for love, St. Paul writes. It’s a great mystery. And that mystery is that God created and instituted marriage as the first of the estates before sin came into the world because of what He planned to do with His creation. This saying is first and foremost for Christ and the Church. The two will be one flesh. For we are all members of His body. And He nourishes us and cherishes us at His altar. He feeds us His own body and blood, just as your body sends blood to all of its members, so Christ provides the members of His body the lifeblood that He poured out.
The two will be one flesh. This is the love that Christ showed, that He gave Himself over for the sake of His Bride. He allowed Himself to be arrested, beaten, shamefully treated, accused, mocked, and crucified so that you, His Bride, would not have to suffer that injustice and those accusations. He washed you with water and the Word to cleanse you, to sanctify you, to set you apart and remove every blemish and wrinkle. This is the reign of Christ’s kingdom—He takes on human flesh to become one flesh with His Church.
In the parables of Jesus, there is also normally an absurd detail. It’s easy to miss, especially if you aren’t familiar with the background and context of the parable. In this one, though, it’s pretty hard to miss.
The bridesmaids are all going out to the meeting of the bride and the bridegroom, and all of them have their lamps. But Jesus says, “Five of them were foolish and five sensible. For the foolish, although they had taken their lamps, did not take oil with them, but the sensible took oil in the flasks with their lamps. The bridegroom being delayed, they all grew drowsy and were sleeping. But at midnight a cry has come, ‘Behold the bridegroom! Come out to his meeting.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps (vv 2-7).
The absurd detail reveals a foolish deficiency in half of the virgins that ends with some harsh consequences. What is so absurd is that the bridegroom is delayed. Not for a few minutes, not for an hour, but until midnight. Now, when I used to work in catering, midnight was about the time we were trying to shuffle the bridesmaids out of the wedding hall because the party was ending. But here, the wedding procession begins at a most unexpected hour.
As a result of this absurd delay, all the virgins fall asleep waiting. That’s not the issue that separates the foolish from the wise. That is only revealed when they wake up at the approach of the bridegroom. Although the whole bridal party was outwardly prepared, and looked the part, half of them hid an internal unpreparedness. They did not pack additional oil. And the foolish said to the sensible, “Give us from your oil, because our lamps are extinguished.” But the sensible answered, saying, “Since there is certainly not enough for us and you, go rather to those selling and buy for yourselves.” And while they were going away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were prepared went in with him into the wedding and the door was shut. Later, the remaining virgins also came, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us!” But he answered and said, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (vv 8-12).
The unexpected return of the bridegroom points us to the main idea of this parable, and it’s that external preparations alone do not ensure entry into the kingdom of God. It’s not the practice of religion that prepares you. It’s spiritual exercises or a rigorous devotional life. It’s not wearing a cross necklace or evangelical t-shirts. It’s not singing in choir or going to a Lutheran School. These are all good things, but they all are like empty lamps if they are not accompanied by faith. Faith is the internal, hidden preparation for Christ’s return. Faith in what? Faith in Jesus Christ, who has become one flesh with our human race, who has pledged Himself in an eternal marriage with His creation by giving Himself up for His beloved. He has left us with this pledge, and He has left us to wait. But the Bridegroom comes at a most unexpected time, so it makes sense to be prepared.
Watch for Christ’s Return!
Attend to His Word. Renew your Baptism. Eat the body and drink the blood. Fill your lamps with oil. Believe that Jesus is coming, and He is coming soon.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard