The parable of the ten virgins has an obvious meaning: we are to be ready for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus will return to earth again – not incognito as when he came to Bethlehem, but in glorious majesty to put this world to rights and transform the whole of heaven and earth into a new creation. 1 Thessalonians 4 gives some details: his coming will be the signal for a general resurrection, and his people will go ‘to meet him in the air’ in order to accompany him down to the earth with great celebration. It will be like a bridegroom’s torch-lit procession to the wedding feast! The details of the parable are probably not meant to be given particular meanings. The bridegroom obviously refers to Christ himself, but we don’t have to ask who the bridesmaids are, or what the ‘oil’ stands for.
The scene Jesus paints would have been familiar to his hearers: the bridegroom going in procession around the village, perhaps via the bride’s house, perhaps sorting out the financial arrangements; the final part of the procession when torches were needed (probably oil-soaked rags on sticks rather than clay lamps); the wedding feast as the climax. At this distance we cannot be certain whether the bridesmaids were friends or servants of the bride or groom, or simply villagers, but that is not the point. The story may part company with reality when the five foolish bridesmaids go off in the middle of the night to try and buy oil, and return to find the doors are shut and they are refused admittance (‘I do not know you’ was an expression of rejection). We cannot imagine that happening at a village wedding! But Jesus deliberately puts the twist in the tale to make the point: there is a cut-off point for the kingdom, it is possible to be too late.
Why did Jesus tell this story? His first hearers might have recognised that he was challenging them about their response to himself, the Messiah they were longing for. Were they ready to follow him, or were they unprepared to make the commitment? But Matthew records the story for his readers and for future generations of Christians because the story warns us not to be put off by any apparent delay in Jesus’ return. We must all be ready for Jesus to appear at any minute.
This warning is especially necessary for us in the 21st century. From our point of view Jesus is indeed a long time in coming – so long that many people don’t believe he will return to earth as promised at all. There are many who look for ‘signs of the times’ to encourage them to keep alert; the previous chapter mentioned ‘wars and rumours of wars… famines and earthquakes in various places.’ Others go further and try to calculate a timetable for our Lord’s return – in the second letter to the Thessalonians we read that Jesus will not return until after the ‘man of lawlessness’ appears. The trouble with all these things is that we are all too liable to misread what is happening. After all, the Jews did not expect the Messiah to come until after Elijah had reappeared (Malachi 4:5), and did not recognise that John the Baptist was the fulfilment of that prophecy. ‘You do not know the day…’
How do we ‘keep watch’, or, more literally, ‘stay awake’? This parable does not tell us, though other parables of Jesus do. We are to keep doing whatever God has called us to do; we are to use the gifts he gives us as wisely as we know how; we are to feed the hungry etc. Then, whenever he comes, we will be ready.
If you expected Jesus to come tomorrow, what difference would that make?