The Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 22, 2015
“The Difference between Wisdom and Folly”
St. Matthew 25:1-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." St. Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus Christ “sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead” as we confess in the Creed. The right hand of God is not a geographical location. It is a place of authority. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth.
He exercises his authority in heaven. He intercedes for us Christians. He displays to God the Father the purity of his own life and his bitter sufferings and death for our sins. As we struggle here below with sin and doubts plaguing us, he pleads for us before our God. He points to his obedience and suffering that he offered up in our place, as our substitute. He did all that needed doing for us, and this is what he shows to God the Father. He has authority in heaven as our Mediator. He pleads for us. His pleading is always heard by our heavenly Father.
Jesus exercises his authority on earth through his gospel and sacraments. Whenever his gospel is proclaimed Jesus speaks authoritatively. He speaks the truth with power. He gives what his gospel says. Just as his law is powerful to condemn sinners to hell, his gospel is powerful to forgive us all our sins and send us on our way to heaven. Jesus has power on earth to forgive sins and this is what he does. But he will not always be doing so. He will not always be proclaiming the gospel. The day is coming and is fast approaching when there will be no more time to hear the gospel, no more time to repent of sins, no more time to find refuge in the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ. That day is called Judgment Day. It is coming and nobody knows when.
Jesus teaches us with parables. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins describes the difference between wisdom and folly. The wise virgins brought oil for their lamps. The foolish virgins brought no oil. All ten virgins waited for the coming of the bridegroom, but when he finally came only five of them were ready to follow him into the wedding hall. The five were ready because they had oil. They were wise. Those who had no oil were foolish. Having or not having oil spelled the difference between entering into the wedding celebration.
In this parable, the oil for the lamps symbolizes the word of God. The light from the oil lamps is the faith that the word of God establishes. The point of this parable is that when Jesus returns, some will be ready and some will not be ready. Those with oil for their lamps will be ready. Those without oil will not be ready.
Oil keeps the lamp lit. We have a cabin on the Canadian side of Gunflint Lake about fifty miles this side of Thunder Bay, Ontario. At our cabin on the lake we have no electricity. Sometimes we use kerosene lamps. Kerosene works like oil. The wick of a kerosene lamb will not burn unless it is saturated with kerosene. A kerosene lamp without any kerosene is useless except as an ornament. The virgins who had lamps and no oil for the lamps are those who are outwardly Christians. They go to church. They hear the gospel and receive the sacraments. They are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. They say the words of the confession of sins, they hear the absolution, they recite the Creed. They hear the words of law and gospel. They eat and they drink the body and the blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. They go through the motions, but they don’t take seriously their need for God’s Word. They have lamps with no oil. The lamp is but an ornament.
They don’t think they despise God’s Word. That would be wrong. It’s just that everything else is more important. Everything comes before obtaining sufficient oil for the lamps. They assume that if they know where to go to get it this must mean it will always be there for them. They’re wrong. They need to have it with them. They can’t count on others providing it in their hour of need.
In most areas of life you don’t need to know the answer if you know where to look to find it. This is true in matters of science, cooking, history, mathematics, or carpentry. There are books, after all. Books are there to be read. You don’t have to know what the book says. You need only know where to look for the answer when you need it.
But the Christian faith is not like this. It needs oil all the time. It doesn’t burn without oil. There is no Christian faith that is not fed with the Word of God. There is a popular but dangerous opinion that Christians don’t need to concern themselves with doctrine. The word “doctrine” is used in negative terms. Relationships are good. Doctrine is cold, boring, and irrelevant to our lives. This is the modern religious opinion.
It’s a false and foolish opinion. The oil in the lamps is God’s doctrine. It is what he teaches us in his holy Word. It is summarized in the six chief parts of Christian doctrine that we memorize in Luther’s Small Catechism. God doesn’t talk to us to hear himself talk. He talks to us to teach us. He teaches us not so that we may file away his teaching somewhere in case we need it for the right answer to the right question. He teaches us to keep us faithful. Without the oil of God’s gospel our faith flickers and dies. Try to light a kerosene lamp with no kerosene in it. It won’t light.
When Christians tire of learning the teaching of God’s word they are losing their faith. They may like the social fellowship they enjoy with decent religious people. They may enjoy the benefits of getting together on a regular basis with people of high moral standards. There are many reasons why people might be interested in having lamps while having little interest in what the lamps contain. Religious respectability is its own reward even in these days of increasing godlessness.
But the wise virgins are those who know a need far deeper than appearances. They understand that true enlightenment comes only from the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. They are wise because they distrust their own wisdom. They know that without the Word of God they are unable to see their way through life. Without the oil of God’s doctrine they would be flitting here and there and everywhere else, running after lies and stumbling over one error after another. They know that the truth matters because without it they are blind.
There is a difference between the kerosene lamps we use up at the lake and the oil lamps used in Jesus’ day. Kerosene lamps have a clear base so you can see how much kerosene there is in them. The oil lamps were made of clay. You didn’t know that you were low on oil until you started running out. That’s why it was so foolish to count on a lamp lighting your way when you had no extra oil. It would be like driving a car with a broken fuel gauge and never stopping for gas.
Do you want to know why people are unconcerned about the oil, why they care so little about God’s teaching, why they would rather give attention to appearances than to the truth that is the source of true faith? It is because they would rather listen to themselves than to God. God’s talk bores them. They’d rather hear themselves talk. They know all they want to know about God’s word. They cannot imagine that God has anything more to say that will matter. They know what they know and that’s enough for them.
But they don’t know. They only think they know. They don’t know because they don’t reckon with the inescapable fact that deep down in their hearts where their faith is planted is an unfathomable evil that won’t be removed until the day they die. It is the radical ferment of sin, distorting, twisting, and contradicting everything God says. So these self-satisfied Christians, content with what they learned in catechism class decades before, ignore their need to obtain any more oil for their lamps. Instead of oil that fuels true faith they rely on their own notions, feelings, and appetites. They lose the fuel of faith and with it their faith.
Doctrinal indifference is indifference toward God. To be indifferent to what God teaches us is to deny the faith, lose salvation, and be excluded from heaven. Doctrinal indifference leads to damnation. The doctrine of Christ centers in Christ. It doesn’t focus in on the Christian’s religious sensibilities. Everybody has religious impulses. That’s not faith. Religion that originates in the heart of man is idolatry. It is placing our thinking above God’s thinking, our wisdom above God’s wisdom, and our works above God’s works.
The oil that lights the true Christian faith is the oil of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of truth who teaches us the truth about Jesus. He doesn’t depict Jesus as that warm fuzzy who, like the purely symbolic spiritual teddy bear, makes us feel good when we’re lonely. He teaches us about the Jesus who came into the world to save sinners and will return to this world to judge them. The oil that lights the fire of faith is the pure gospel that directs us to the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. Where God and man are joined in one Person and that Person takes upon himself all our sin – there is true wisdom. This same Jesus joins himself to us, fights for us, and drives away the devil with the words, “It is written.” This Jesus who crushed the serpent’s head by washing away our sins by his blood is wisdom. Our faith is born from this wisdom. It lives in it, and is sustained by it. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is unnecessary oil for decorative lamps. But for us who are being saved, it will burn as a lamp leading us to heaven.
Those who despised God’s Word and grace and relied on their own virtue instead of the blood and righteousness of Jesus will be condemned forever. They will hear the words of dismissal: “I tell you the truth, I do not know you.”
Those whose faith is kept alive by the Word of God will enter into the celebration that knows no end. No marital bliss this world has ever known can compare with the joy that Jesus the heavenly bridegroom has prepared for his church, his holy bride, in heaven. We will know God as he knows us and that knowledge will be a never ending source of happiness. No sin will mar that perfect joy. It will never fade or grow old. It will last forever. We don’t know when Christ will come to take his church home. We don’t need to know, not when we have the oil to light our way.
Rolf D. Preus