The Twenty Seventh Sunday after Trinity (Last Sunday)| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 23, 2008| 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.”
The parable Jesus tells us today is about folly and wisdom. It is about time and eternity. It is about being ready for Christ’s return. Christ will return to judge. This world will come to an end. A great division will take place. The wise will be welcomed into heaven. The foolish will be shut out.
We do not determine what wisdom is and what folly is. God does. Jesus tells us this parable so that we may know what constitutes ultimate wisdom and folly. What makes one wise or foolish as we face the end of the world? Jesus tells us.
In the story he describes a wedding celebration. It is the eternal celebration of Christ’s marriage to his bride, the Holy Christian Church. The virgin attendants were to wait until the bridegroom made his entrance into the house for the celebration. When the groom arrived they would light their lamps and join the procession into the wedding. Then the festivities would begin. The virgins represent those who wait for the coming of Christ.
The virgins had to be ready. The wise virgins were ready and the foolish virgins were not. That’s because the wise virgins had oil in their lamps and the foolish did not. If you have no oil in an oil lamp you cannot light the lamp. The oil within the lamp fuels the flame at the end of the wick. The wick must be saturated or it will not burn.
When the bridegroom arrived all of the virgins were asleep. Not one of them knew when he would come. Five had oil for their lamps. Five had no oil for their lamps. The five who had oil were ready to meet the bridegroom. They lit their lamps and joined the procession into the wedding. The five who had no oil were not ready to meet the bridegroom. They came late. They heard the words of rejection from the Lord of the wedding: “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
“Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” That’s how it reads in the King James. Jesus says “verily” a lot in the King James Bible. It’s a translation of the word Amen. That’s how we Christians end our prayers. We say Amen. We learn the meaning of Amen in the Catechism: “Amen, amen, that is, yea, yea, it shall be so.” Yes, yes, it shall be so. What shall be so? Whatever Jesus says after saying “Amen I say to you” shall be so. Jesus places himself under oath. He’s not just talking to hear himself talk. He’s saying what will be and he’s placing his full authority behind it. “I know you not. I do not know you.”
Not having oil in your lamps makes a difference. Oil is wisdom. Having oil makes you wise. Having no oil makes you foolish. The wise enter into the celebration of heaven. The foolish are shut out of heaven.
What is the oil in this parable? It is the Holy Spirit. It is his voice. It is the gospel of Christ. This is the fuel that brings faith to flame. The flame of faith burns on the wick that is saturated with the gospel.
The oil penetrates a dry wick, saturating it, so that it can fuel the fire that burns at the end of it. The gospel penetrates the heart and mind, saturating the person in it, so that the fire of faith can burn. Without the oil the lamp cannot be lit. Without the gospel there is no faith.
An oil lamp with no oil is useless. It cannot provide any light. Just so, there can be no true faith without the gospel. And not just any gospel will do. It must be the gospel that the wise of this world consider foolishness. It must be the gospel that upends the values of the most prestigious religious leaders and the most influential teachers. The gospel that fuels faith and causes it to burn brightly is the message of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross for sinners.
This is true wisdom. It is unknown to the wise of this world. A philosopher is a friend of wisdom. At least, that’s what the word means. But in fact, human wisdom is foolishness in God’s eyes. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1, 18-25:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The wise virgins are not wise in this world’s estimation. The foolish virgins are not foolish by the standards of this world. We do not consult opinion polls to determine whether or not we are ready to meet the heavenly bridegroom when he returns. We consult his word.
This is why it is so important to go to church and not to just any church but to a church in which the gospel is purely proclaimed. Faith doesn’t grow on trees. God doesn’t zap you with faith as you’re walking down the street or driving in your car. You don’t get faith by contemplating your spiritual naval. Faith comes by hearing the gospel. And the gospel does not conform to the expectations that human wisdom has.
Human wisdom is based on human strength. The wisdom of the cross cannot be understood except from the posture of human weakness. Only the hungry want to be fed and only the helpless will ask for help. The gospel is for sinners. It is Jesus suffering and dying for sinners.
The gospel is meaningless unless we’ve been convicted by the law. The conscience isn’t good enough. Folks can con their own conscience by making excuses and false promises. God’s law requires a pure and selfless love. It is right to do so. God is love. But our love for God is neither pure nor selfless. We’ve craved the approval of sinners like ourselves. We have loved that approval more than we have loved God. We have loved our own opinions more than we have loved God’s truth. We have failed to love God purely. We need to know this about ourselves. We need to know of our need for oil. We need to be shown that we are spiritually empty apart from the life-giving words of the Holy Spirit. As the Psalmist says:
O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. (Psalm 63, 1)
The soul that thirsts for God thirsts for forgiveness of sins. We can know God nowhere else. This is why all wisdom is centered in the cross. As we sing:
To me the preaching of the cross is wisdom everlasting;
Thy death alone redeems my loss; on thee my burden casting,
I, in thy name, a refuge claim from sin and death and from all shame
Blest be thy name, O Jesus!
The Holy Spirit shows us our need for the forgiveness of our sins. He then sets Jesus before us. He persuades our doubting hearts that Jesus provides us with the forgiveness of sins that we so desperately need. The Holy Spirit doesn’t spin the facts or distort the record or come up with excuses for us. No, he shows us how Jesus died and bore in his own body our guilt and sin. He shows us how Jesus rose, ascended up on high, and will soon return to take us home. He persuades us that we are indeed pure saints for Christ’s sake. We are ready to meet him when he comes.
Only the Holy Spirit brings us the oil that fuels the true faith. He does so only through the gospel and sacraments. When we don’t read or hear God’s word the oil in our lamps goes away. Our faith has no fuel. It cannot burn. It cannot light our way to the wedding celebration. Only those who hear the gospel, take it to heart, and trust in it are ready to meet Jesus when he returns.
True wisdom is not passing an ACT test or getting a BA, an MA, or even a PhD. True wisdom is holding on to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus in simple faith. It is rejecting all other wisdoms in favor of this. This wisdom is not born in pride of achievement. It is born in humble confession of sins. It doesn’t boast deep understanding of human mysteries. It boasts the holy and vicarious obedience of Jesus offered up on Calvary. There is peace with God. There is freedom from judgment. There is forgiveness of all our sins. From the holy suffering of Jesus the Holy Spirit comes to us. He is the Lord and Giver of life. He saturates our souls with the gospel of immortality. He fires the flame and enlightens our path. We enter the marriage feast of Christ and his bride with joy. And that joy will never end. Amen