As the Church Year comes to its close we hear again this Parable of the Ten Virgins. What is this Parable trying to tell us about the Last Day, about Our Lord coming to judge the living and the dead? First, consider our Baptismal liturgy. When someone is Baptized they are given a candle along with this encouragement: “Receive this burning light to show that you have received Christ who is the Light of the world. Live always in the light of Christ, and be ever watchful for His coming, that you may meet Him with joy and enter with Him into the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which shall have no end.” Looking at the Parable through this statement from our liturgy, we see that the five wise virgins are those who kept their Baptism blameless. That’s not something we can easily see, which is why in the Parable all ten virgins look the same—they are all waiting for the Bridegroom, all carrying lamps, and all fall asleep. Yet, five are wise and five are foolish.
So, what is wisdom? What sets these five apart? Consider these Words of Jesus: “Everyone who hears these Words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” The foolish man is the one who hears the Words of Jesus but pays no attention to them, he does not take them to heart or hear them as words spoken directly to him! “Everyone who hears these Words of Mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Mt. 7:24, 26-27).
The wise virgins, like the wise man, keep hearing the Word of God. They keep the vows made at Baptism and Confirmation, to faithfully hear and be edified by the Word of God. They remain ready and eager for Christ to come and take them to their final home with Him for eternity. But the sad side of this story, the regrettable truth, is that there are some who are absent and unready for the Bridegroom’s arrival, unready for the Lord’s return.
But when will He come? As Jesus says, “The bridegroom was delayed.” We do not know the hour of His coming. Why? Why hasn’t He come back yet? Because He is gracious! He wants the saving Gospel to be spread through all the earth. He wants more babies born, more Baptisms, more to return to their Baptism, more to hear His Word of Absolution, more to be rescued from bondage to sin and death. This is what St. Peter said to us in last week’s Epistle: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (1 Peter 3:9-10).
And so, we wait, knowing that the Lord will keep His Word, that He will come again to judge the living and the dead. We wait, just like those Ten Virgins in the Parable. But while they waited, they fell asleep. None of them knew the day or hour. It’s not as if five of them had insider information they refused to share and came prepared with extra oil.
But that leads to the perpetual question with this Parable: what is the oil? There is no shortage of opinions. Just a few of the thoughts faithful interpreters have had through the years are faith, good works, the Law, the Word of God, repentance, and steadfastness in the faith as opposed to a spark of enthusiasm that quickly dies out. Instead of having to choose just one, might it be all of that put together? Remember what was said at the beginning about the correlation between this Parable and our Baptismal liturgy. All of those things are part of the life of faith. The Word of God preaches the Law, which drives to repentance. Then that same Word preaches the Gospel, which produces faith, which is never without good works. In other words, these five wise virgins are those who stay in their Baptism, which drowns us in repentance and lifts us up from the water to walk before God in a new life. The wise virgins know they need a continual supply of these gifts from God, while the foolish virgins have a dead faith.
How do we know that? In the end, they try to buy what cannot be purchased. Throughout their life they appeared as Christians, but never took the Word to heart, never believed that they had anything to repent of, never believed that they needed Christ’s forgiveness. Those things are for bad people like adulterers and thieves and murderers, but not for your everyday sinner. Now, when they find out that faith and repentance are important, that these are the ways God brings salvation, they try to get someone to give it to them. But you cannot believe for someone else, you cannot repent for someone else. They lived as if they had no sin, nothing to worry about, because they deserved salvation.
In other words, they fell pray to the assaults of the devil. They slept, believed they had nothing to be vigilant against. They did not heed the words of today’s Epistle: “Be sober, be vigilant, for your enemy, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him! Stand firm in the faith.” The war is long and hard. He tempts you to sin—to give up on chastity, to steal, to covet, to think that life is about things and that happiness is simply a shopping trip away, to give up on prayer and meditation on God’s Word.
Arm yourself with the Word of the Lord. Through that Word the Holy Spirit will keep you ready. Through it He will call you to repentance, to a life in the faith, a recipient of Jesus’ sacrifice. The word “repent” isn’t a negative word. That’s why the hymn we just sang is so energetic. “Wake, Awake” is a call to repentance that fills believers with joy. The cry of “repent” is welcomed by those who have fallen into sin and want to be rescued. The Bridegroom doesn’t come in terror, but in mercy, and He comes to take us into the eternal wedding feast with Him. Until He takes you to that eternal feast, receive the Feast here that gives you Christ, that gives you forgiveness. The Lord’s Supper is the pledge and beginning of the heavenly wedding feast, the Meal that sustains you until you stand in heaven to sing hymns of praise and joy eternally.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.