I don't much like this story of the ten virgins. That's partly because I don't much like the young ladies themselves. The foolish ones must have been very foolish to come with lamps or torches to a wedding banquet and forget the oil! One imagines them as silly, chattery, giggling creatures without a brain in their heads. Yet the wise girls are not much more attractive. There is something rather smug about them. They are in the right; they have oil. They're not going to share it. They know perfectly well the silly girls will not have time to buy oil and get back for the feast but they're not bothered. It serves them right. This picture becomes a bit more disturbing when we remember that the early church undoubtedly identified itself with the prudent virgins and has gone on doing so ever since. There is a picture of Christian complacency which is not much bothered with those left outside, so long as we are OK. I have a horrid fear that it is only too true.
That leads on to my second reason for finding this story uncomfortable, to say the least. There is a dreadful finality about the door. When the bridegroom comes they all go in and the door is closed. That's it. There is no suggestion the door can ever be opened again. No chance now for the foolish girls. They are left outside in perpetual darkness while the party goes on inside. Worse still, when the Bridegroom comes to the door he says "I do not know you." Not just, "Sorry girls, you're too late for the party, we've finished the food" but an utter rejection: "I do not know you".
The Jews who first heard this story would have found it very shocking. In a village wedding of the time – and in Palestine today – everyone in the village goes to the wedding party. The door would never be closed. The bridegroom would certainly not say "I do not know you" to people in his own village. However, this story is not meant to be bland and comforting. It reminds us that the stakes are high. This was the belief of the early church. The Lord would soon return; the world would end; those not ready to enter with him would be left behind eternally. That's it.
That is what is really uncomfortable about the story. We don't like to think like that today. We don't want to imagine that vast numbers of people are going to be left outside the kingdom of God when all comes to an end. Yes, maybe a few like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and one or two I could name in Zimbabwe; maybe drug pushers, gang leaders and sex traffickers as well. Surely all our friends and family and the nice ordinary people who live in this world, surely God will welcome them. I hope he does. I hope very much that God shares our universalist view point. There is some evidence in the Gospels that he does but not a lot. The picture given by most of the New Testament, certainly by the writings of John, also by the Synoptic gospels is that the majority will be left out and, as Matthew puts it more than once, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
What should our response be to this story? I will suggest three:
The first is a bit moralistic but it concerns the oil. The main point of this parable is simply to warn people to get ready, to prepare for the coming of Jesus. This is typical of St Matthew. He puts a great deal of teaching into his gospel about how to live the Christian life. That is what the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount tell us. Matthew knows we are not saved by obedience to the law but if we make no attempt to keep the law of Christ, then it won't be any good us saying "Lord, Lord" when we meet him. According to Matthew he will say "I never knew you". We are all great procrastinators. We put off big things and small things. One good thing to do as we come up to Advent and have to prepare for Christmas is to think of the good resolutions we have made and haven't kept, or the ones we think we should make but haven't got round to. The bad habits we know we should give up some time; the good things we know we need to start doing. That sounds pretty boring but it isn't really. Often the things we really dread doing turn out to change our lives, like going to confession for the first time. Even the little things – not joining in with gossip, or taking a morning walk, can turn out to improve the quality of our life in an astonishing way.
Secondly, we can start bothering about the equivalent of the foolish virgins. Once we are sure we have put oil in our own lamps we need to worry about those who haven't. That is mission; mission is not just about getting people into church so that the church is nice and full and can pay its quota. Mission changes people's lives and saves their souls. Quite what saving souls means now and how we should go about it demands a lot of attention and a lot of discussion. Mission, preaching the Gospel, inviting people into the Kingdom of God is fundamental to Christian life. Without that element we really do become a pious, complacent little club.
My third point is rather different. The story ends with a party; well more than a party, a banquet – a party literally to end all parties. We forget that. We can get so fixated on the fate of those who don't make it that we can forget what a wonderful future there is for those who do. The gospel is full of warnings, exhortations, threats, predictions about the awful things that will happen to people who do not repent and turn and follow Jesus. Yet it is good news and it promises us a wonderful ending. The story of the ten virgins really ought to start with that ending and work backwards. This is hope – not a kind of foolish optimism that everything will turn out OK but the sure knowledge that God is waiting for us, waiting for us with joy, light, laughter and all the really good things about life. Just beyond that doorway we call death there is a kind of life that turns out to be the thing we most desire in all the world: God. God is not a static being to be adored from afar; he is a trinity of being who invites us amazingly into the heart of that trinity to share in the love that is the source of all the life. That is what should make us WANT to fill the lamps with oil, to do all that work of getting ready – we really don't want to miss out on what God is offering and the joy of getting ready for it now is that we find some foretaste of that new life comes to us now, before we even go through the gate of death.
Those of us who read Harry Potter know how this is a major theme of the books. Voldemort is terrified of dying and all his evil actions are directed to give him eternal life. Dumbledore tells him "Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person". He doesn't believe it. Harry does come to believe and can go through death because of it. Dumbledore could almost be thinking of the ten virgins when he says to Harry "For the well organised man, death is just another great adventure." Ron Weasley thinks he is barking - brilliant but barking - but Harry learns early on that there are far worse things than death. Have we learnt that, properly and put it at the heart of our Christian faith?
Perhaps CS Lewis catches it best at the end of his Narnia stories when he meets the children in the place we call death and tells them "The term is over; the holidays have begun. The night is ended. This is the morning." Isn't it worth getting ourselves ready for that and telling everyone else about it?
Nicolas Stebbing CR