I was reading the parable of the ten virgins yesterday (see Matthew 25:1-13), in which there are five wise virgins and five foolish virgins. The five foolish ones took no oil with them when they went out to wait for the bridegroom. Well, predictably, they ran out of oil right when the bridegroom was coming, and they tried to get some from the five smart ones (who did bring oil). The wise virgins politely turned them down, since sharing the oil wouldn’t leave much for any of them! And so the foolish virgins went out to buy some, then came back to the marriage ceremony. The door was shut, and they tried to get in. The bridegroom replied that he did not know them. Jesus’ lesson in this parable was, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (NRSV).
What does the oil represent? Many commentators equate the oil with the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. For one, the passage doesn’t say that. And, secondly, it just doesn’t fit. “Oh boy, the bridegroom is coming, and I’ve run out of the Holy Spirit! Share some of your Holy Spirit with me, will you? You won’t? You say there’s not enough Holy Spirit right here to go around? Okay, fine, you miser! I’ll go buy some.” It just doesn’t work! I mean, is the Holy Spirit quantifiable like that? Not if you believe he’s a person! And how can you run out of the Holy Spirit? Weren’t we sealed with him until the day of promise (Ephesians 1:13)?
Some commentators equate the oil with good works. Haddon Robinson did this on his radio program one time. He observed that Matthew has a prominent theme that Christians should do good works, not just say “Lord, Lord,” in entering the Kingdom of Heaven (e.g., Matthew 7:21; 25:31-46). So the foolish virgins were people who professed Christ yet weren’t doing good deeds. I can see his point, but I’d arrive at it in a more roundabout way. I like what the Nelson Study Bible has to say:
“The ten virgins in this parable were waiting for the wedding procession that went from the bride’s home to the home of her husband. This nighttime procession would use lamps to light the way because ancient cities did not have streetlights…Possessing oil illustrates the concept of being prepared; a lack of oil represents being unprepared for Christ’s return.”
Basically, the virgins needed oil for the ceremony because it was a practical necessity. But five of them didn’t prepare themselves by taking extra oil along with them. And so they weren’t sufficiently ready when the bridegroom returned. The lesson is that we should be prepared for Christ’s coming.
But what’s that mean? When I went to church in Cambridge, Massachussetts, an old man always said, “Don’t get ready. Be ready!” That was an Adventist motif. “Are you ready for Christ to come back!” I continually heard. And those who wanted to put on a show of spiritual humility would say, “I’ll tell you the truth–I am not ready for Christ to return.”
But what’s being ready mean? Moral and spiritual perfection? When my mom and grandma owned a health food store, they had a devout Christian lady who was a non-traditional student at a nearby university. Her class was required to attend a blasphemous, raunchy play. Her daughter said to her, “Mom, what if Jesus comes back and finds you watching that?” That goofy movie, Joe Dirt, has a similar line: “Do you want to be caught doing that when Jesus comes back?” (Be caught doing what?)
I’ve often wondered about the ramifications of this. Suppose the rapture happens while I’m doing something that’s not exactly pure. Will I miss out? Or, as free grace types tell me, will I still be in it, only I’ll have a lot of explaining to do when I meet the master?
Matthew may very well mean that we should have a degree of spiritual cleanliness when Christ returns in order to enter his kingdom. Or at least I can understand how someone would arrive at such a conclusion. The Lord’s Prayer has, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). It’s like we need a continual spiritual bath. We need God to wipe our slate clean on a daily basis!
But Matthew’s Jesus may be saying that we should look at our general character. In Matthew 24:44-51, Jesus contrasts two types of slaves. One is faithful in the vocation that the master has given him: he gives the other slaves food on a regular basis. And, when the master returns, he finds the slave still doing that. The slave was faithful to his commission even when his master was not watching.
The other slave, however, tries to get away with some stuff. He beats his fellow slaves and eats and drinks with drunkards (probably using the food he’s supposed to be giving to the other slaves).
And so God may not be looking for utter moral perfection so much as our attitude. Do we take him and his word seriously, or are we only about having fun? Are we givers within the vocation that God has given us, or do we oppress others?
I’m not sure if my approach can offer tons of security. I can look at my character and identify good parts and bad parts. But I can at least say that I’m trying to do good. And maybe that’s what God looks at: Do we have an attitude that God can at least work with?