It’s always interesting to see people’s expressions when I say that they aren’t saved by faith…
The parable of the Five wise and five foolish virgins is a bit of a mystery, and a tremendous warning to us.
It’s a mystery because it doesn’t match any known customs of the day. It wasn’t an earthly story with a heavenly meaning – it was just strange – even to the people of Jesus day. We are left wondering about the details.
For example – the oil. What is it? Why do we need it to get into the wedding banquet?
Obviously the bridegroom is Christ – there isn’t any doubt, because of course Christ is the bridegroom, the Old and New Testaments talk about Christ as the bridegroom, and his church as his Holy bride. But then that raises a question – who are the virgins?
Are they the church? If so, this is the only time in all of scripture that the bridegroom in a parable is Christ, and the church is not the bride. One scholar suggested that the ten virgins are the pastors. This is a warning to pastors. All well and good, except then it doesn’t make sense falling at the end of the church year, when the whole church is warned to be faithful. If the virgins are the pastors of the church, what are they doing just sitting around? “But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Shouldn’t the pastors be the ones making the announcement.
Traditionally, the virgins – whatever their significance to the wedding may have been – are seen to be the church – those who claim the name Christian. But that isn’t really a comfort either. Half of the church doesn’t get to heaven.
Of all the Gospel readings that end with stern law – and there are a few of them throughout the year – none can match this parable for sheer fright. What are we to do? How do we make certain that we are not left out in the cold and dark when the bridegroom returns?
We could redouble our efforts to be faithful Christians. But then, that would mean that the oil is works, and that can’t be right. Oil is faith, or hope, or something that we don’t do, isn’t it? As Lutherans, we don’t believe that we are saved by works – Jesus couldn’t be clearer – we can even choose him, he chose us. And using Abraham as his example, Paul says repeatedly, not by works.
It’s as if Jesus is saying, “If you want to get to heaven you need to make absolutely sure that you…” And then he doesn’t finish the sentence. After a parable like this one, you just want to say, “What do we have to do to be saved!”
Saint Peter gives the answer in his Pentecost sermon, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
In the early church, after baptism, there was an anointing with oil. In some churches today the custom is still practiced. In others, it evolved into confirmation. But it was tied to Baptism, and it used oil. Oil has always been closely tied to Baptism. In the Old testament, priests were anointed with oil. In the new testament, Saint Peter calls the church, “A royal priesthood.” So it only makes sense that the church would consider oil as a symbol for Baptism second only to water. And in this parable, the oil is burned to give light. Water – the normal symbol for baptism, doesn’t burn. So in this strange parable, Jesus uses the other symbol for baptism – the oil of anointing.
But that raises another question : The women in the parable ran out of oil, and so couldn’t be admitted to the wedding banquet. Can you run out of baptism? Well, no. God’s promise in baptism is good. But you can reject that promise. The promise is good. But baptism doesn’t work because of the act of doing. Baptism gives the faith to grab hold of the promise given in Baptism. but there is nothing that says you still couldn’t walk away from them if you want, and reject the promise.
And, from a worldly perspective, there are a lot of reasons that you may want to turn your back on baptism : After all, Baptism makes Satan your enemy – he is the prince of this world, so in baptism, you have made an enemy of this world. Your own flesh is still sinful and hates God, so in baptism you have made an enemy of your own flesh. The devil, the world, and even yourself, these are all your enemies in Baptism – Baptism makes you a very unpopular person. It’s easy to walk away. It’s tempting to walk away. Baptism is good for Sunday mornings once a month, but on Monday I need to survive in this world. And you can’t do that by living like Jesus – after all look at what happened to him – crucified like some common criminal, condemned, beaten. That may be for the great saints, but not for me.
Actually giving up my favorite sins? That’s not what baptism is, is it? Does it really mean that I can’t <insert favorite sin here> anymore? Well, yes it does. There is a struggle, a fight – every day. The old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires. Sounds good on paper, until you realize what a horrible death drowning is. Until you realize that the old Adam in you – that is your sinful human flesh – isn’t just going to let you shove the head underwater until it stops struggling. The old Adam is going to fight you every step of the way – try to drown the new Adam, try to overcome you, and bring you back to Satan.
It’s not easy to be a Christian. It’s not easy to even come to church as a hypocrite these days, because church is increasingly seen as unpopular. The service is early, and there is so much to do around the house. It’s tempting to go do other things instead of being fed on God’s word.
But you see, that’s just what Jesus is warning about – the temptation to neglect the Word of God. What was it that the five wise virgins had : An extra vessel full of oil. They expected that the bridegroom might be delayed, so they didn’t just trust in whatever was at hand, they came prepared to wait until tomorrow, or the next day , or whenever.
That’s the difference. You hear a lot of people say, “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I don’t need that church thing.” Really? What if Christ is delayed, and he doesn’t come back this week or month or year. Can you still keep the oil of your baptism while you stay away from the word of God for year after year? And then the most frightening words of all, ” Don’t worry, my faith has never been stronger.” There is a problem already. You are trusting in your faith to save you. Faith can never have itself as an object.
You see, if you get in a car, you trust that the starter will work, you trust that the engine will work, that the tires will work, that the car will work. You have faith – in the car. You don’t get into the car and say, “Because My faith in the car is so strong, it will start.” Your faith is not in the faith itself, but in the car.
So it is with your salvation. Your faith doesn’t save you any more than your works do. Yes, faith grabs hold of the promise. Just as faith makes you put the key in the ignition of your car. But it’s the car that makes you move around, not your faith. It’s Jesus that saves you. It’s his death and resurrection that saves you. “You are saved by grace through faith – but not of yourselves – it is a gift of God.” As Saint Paul says. Faith looks to the promise in Jesus Christ. To trust in your faith to save is to move faith from it’s true object – Jesus Christ – to yourself and your faith.
The five foolish virgins brought along the oil. They had the lamp. But without the extra vessel, the lamp went out. As the Psalmist says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” It is the word of God that lights the way for us. Just as it is that word of God which fills the vessels of the five wise virgins.
And so when the five foolish virgins run out, and the cry is heard, “‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” They need to replenish their oil. But they can not be given oil from the five wise virgins. No one else can hear and learn the word of God for you. So the five wise say to the five foolish, “go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” Who are the dealers? Who sells the oil of the word of God? Who is it that fills your vessels with the promise of salvation?
Why, the holy Christian Church, of course. Isaiah says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And saint John writes, “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”
It is the church who sells the oil – without price. It just gives it away. But you need to be there to get it. You see, faith doesn’t come from within. As surely as you can’t believe for someone else, so it’s also true that you can’t believe all on your own. In the creed we say “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church?” In the Catechism we confess: What does this mean? “I believe that I cannot be my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel.” That’s why God gives you his holy Christian church. The place where you can come to hear the word of God, to receive, once again the promise of salvation. To have your sins forgiven. To eat from the table of the Lord. To make sure that your vessel does not run out of oil.
In the parable, it was too late. The five foolish didn’t get it done in time. You never know when the bridegroom will come. And there is no one so strong that they can just muscle their way into heaven. No one so good that they can neglect the word and promises of God and yet guarantee themselves a place at the banquet.
There is still time. For now. Look outside – the bridegroom is not here yet. But he may be at any moment. Or, like those virgins who were waiting, you may fall asleep at any time. Your time in this world is not unlimited, and the opportunities to hear the word will not go on forever. As one teacher in the church used to say, “I told you two thousand times, I’m not going to tell you two thousand and one.” There will be a last opportunity for each of you to hear the Gospel. A last moment, beyond which it is too late to refill that vessel, to return to the source and object of your faith and be filled with the promise of Salvation for Christ’s sake. That is why we must keep watch, we must be vigilant, we must never stop hearing and learning that word. We can never take the promise for granted. We must never give up on the Holy Christian Church, where the water of life and the oil of gladness are given without cost.
Jesus is your salvation His death and resurrection have brought you out of death and into life. May God grant that you hold fast to the promise.