"If I had expected you today, I would have had a cake" -from the wise and foolish virgins
"The parable of the ten virgins 1 ‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 ‘At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” 7 ‘Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” 9 ‘ “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” 10 ‘But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 ‘Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” 12 ‘But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” 13 ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." (Mt 25, 1-13 NIV)
This is the length of the wedding week in Aramaic culture.
It is peppered with countless ceremonial and ritual events, which the bride and groom celebrate separately. However, the actual wedding, the big celebration as we expect it, does not take place until after seven days. A long time for those waiting.
In the Middle East, weddings are celebrated in the summer months.
This guarantees good weather and long nights of celebration!
And so it is in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins:
People prepare for the festivities to finally, finally begin. The wedding party gathers in the early afternoon, waiting for the arrival that no one can predict. They sit together and wait. And wait even longer. Until it is time to light the lamps that have been brought as a precaution in the gathering darkness.
Why do the virgins carry lamps, and what do they burn?
They burn olive oil, the vaunted all-purpose oil of the Middle East:
It is used for skin care, refreshment, cleansing wounds, food and, of course, as a base for anointing oils. It is also used to light lamps, so no household should be without it. There is enough of it in stock - one would think. And the reserve isn't touched, because you can't do without it. It is available everywhere, like sugar, flour, bread. Not hard to get, so it is somehow always... available.
The lamps are what virgins have to light their faces and make themselves known in the dark. Most women in the Middle East wear the lamp at the level of their face, so that it doesn't reflect back on them that they are "prowling" at night and "shaming" their family, and of course this also keeps away harassers, because everyone would immediately see that this girl, "Mary, Rachel, Selma, the daughter of..." is being forced.
Without a lamp, however, it becomes ... twilight and dangerous for the virgins.
No girl of respectable habits goes out of the house in the evening without it. It is their protection in more ways than one.
Why do the virgins have to wait so long?
Well, because the groom shows himself and his bride to the whole village before taking her home. Surrounded by boisterous, dancing friends full of the joys of life, they take every detour and refuse to be rushed. They celebrate! They are invited into people's homes for a drink! They stay in one place longer than planned, with no time pressure at all. In other words, the bride and groom enjoy the day to the full and those waiting for the big meal have to be patient. After all, they too will be seated at the table of honour and allowed to join in the festivities.
Everyone in the Middle East knows that it is very, very difficult to have a clear timetable for such homecomings, and so it is neither surprising nor unusual that it is late, very late, before the groom finally arrives at his home and takes the bride home, officially making her his own. It is safe to assume, however, that he arrives there in the best, very best of spirits.
Of course, every girl from a good home must have her lamp burning with her, so that she can get through the dark hours well and safely. And they do - all of them. All the women are invited. All are decorated and full of anticipation for the feast. They all have their lamp, of course. They all know the tradition, and they all know that it may be late. Some of them, however, seem unprepared.
It raises a slight eyebrow to think that these women knew exactly how such a wedding would go. Olive oil was kept in jars in their homes, and bottles of anointing oil, small jars, could be found in every home.
It is like those who go for a walk in the middle of summer and forget to take water. It's like those who go to Ireland and don't bring rain gear. Thoughtless. Short-sighted. Not very prudent.
You automatically ask yourself: "But what did you expect? That a shop in the middle of a mountain ridge in Austria would take care of you? That it wouldn't rain when you were on holiday in Ireland?" and you shake your head in disbelief at the lack of foresight and preparation.
We all know those situations that make you shake your head. Wanting the big thing, but not being faithful in the little things. Rushing headlong into something without being prepared. Losing your head in anticipation and forgetting half of it.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is a reminder to be prepared to stay sober. Hopeful, but not hasty. For it is a long time, says Jesus, before the bridegroom comes, and he is not in a hurry. Make sure you get through the waiting time well.
Faith, it is not instant, it is not coffee to go, but it is cultivated with care and over a long period of time.
It is not a flash in the pan that will burn out when God is late.
He is coming, the bridegroom, he has promised. And it is not a matter of getting tired of waiting. Falling asleep happens to those who are well prepared as well as to those who are not. Disappointment, suffering, crises of faith are inevitably part of the journey.
No, with no word the Bridegroom demands that we stay awake beyond any limit of exhaustion, that we always refill the lamp, that we suppress every other need in permanent expectation. The point is that we plan wisely. It's about being ready for WHEN He comes. It's about not being completely burned out, not underestimating the wait. And kindly, he tells us ahead of time that it will be a long time.
There is something else in the parable:
Devotion and faith, our fuel, our foundation cannot be borrowed.
We cannot expect someone else to believe for us, nor can anyone other than ourselves ensure that we have enough to activate reserves even when, over long periods of sleep and fatigue, our light threatened to go out. If we are wise, we always take a little more than we think we need from the places where we had enough oil.
A little bit of God won't do, and a lamp that can't even last half a night without going out simply has far too little substance. We can ask for a lot - but not for someone else to give us of their faith, of their relationship with Christ. We cannot get devotion from someone else, nor can we command them to give us something of their own anointing, their own connection in Christ. Our own failure - out of unpreparedness, out of misjudgement, out of personal inadequacies - is not something that a third party can take care of for us. It is not his task, and we must not demand it.
The end of the parable is open.
If the five foolish virgins had not wasted their time setting others up for their failure, but had acted immediately, would they still have come in?
Had they not commanded the Lord to open the door after they were too late, but asked his forgiveness, would he have opened?
Would they have run to him with their extinguished lamps and admitted to him that they had misjudged, dishonorable as it was: would he have left them standing outside?
In the Middle East, a "no" is rarely the end of a conversation. It is atypical for a dialogue to be so brief.
But there is one thing we must be aware of:
The bridegroom is coming, and when, none of us knows. At some point he will take with him those who are ready to come at his call, not those who run away to quickly fix something they missed before, not those who put anything higher than his call.
It is better to come before Him as we are and entrust ourselves to His grace. It would not be the first time that oil would then miraculously multiply. But calling us- he will only once.
So may we just be prepared, even when we fall asleep and his call wakes us up. For his presence, his living water and bread- are always available.
Sibylle/Daughter of Zion
Bible. Mt. 25, 1-13. NIV translation. Quoted here from: www.bibleserver.com.
Kenneth E. Bailey (ed.): Jesus Was Not a European. Middle Eastern Culture and the Life World of the Gospels, SCM Verlag 2018, pp. 323-331. (English title: "Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes).
Worship: Graham Kendrick: Holy Overshadowing