A Meditation upon the Parable of the Ten Virgins: On Great Tuesday

These are the most puzzling verses of this parable. It almost sounds as if the wise virgins are uncaring about the unwise. How could this be when our Lord commands us to be merciful to all? How could we say that such behaviour on the part of the wise virgins is virtuous? This then is a real puzzle.
Fr. Raphael Vereshack | 19 April 2011

1 Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

After our Lord and God Saviour Jesus Christ enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He then begins to preach to the people. Of course Jerusalem represents the whole world, of all times and places. So whatever He preaches there in Jerusalem applies to us all. That is why from Holy Monday to Holy Wednesday, time almost seems to stand still after the drama of our Lord’s entry into the Holy City. When our Lord entered Jerusalem many of the people greeted Him with palm branches and victorious cries (although an indication of what is to come is indicated on the festal icon where the Pharisees stand to one side of the people, looking cold, aloof and accusatory towards Christ Who is approaching on the donkey). But now for the next three days He will preach to the people about the coming Kingdom. That indeed is why He uses parables like the present one of the Ten Virgins- so that the people may come to understand what the Kingdom truly consists of and of what they need to struggle against within themselves.

The Bridegroom of course refers to Christ. Much imagery found within the Scripture and then the Holy Fathers uses this image of the . Basically it means that Christ desires that we enter into most close communion with His Body which is the Church. In other words Christ does not just come to preach a moral message to us- how to be ‘good’ people. Much more than this He desires that we find our entire life in Him and that through communion with Him we discover an entirely renewed and divine way of life. Virtue then is necessarily involved in this new way of life and the following of His commandments and that is why the Ten Virgins are referred to here- for they represent that active way of life dedicated in mind and heart to Christ. That for example is why they carry lamps- they seek Christ through the way of life which they endeavour to follow.

2 Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

However not all of these dedicated virgins were wise. It is like this with us also. We all as Orthodox Christians have been dedicated formally and sacramentally to Christ through Baptism. But often we are not wise enough to seriously follow the dedicated way of life which our Lord calls us to.

3 Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

This lack of dedication can be especially seen when we have no ‘oil in our lamps’. We have the lamp or means towards the Christian life to hand- the life of prayer & fasting, spiritual reading, participation in the sacraments, advice from our spiritual father. But we do nothing about this- our ‘lamps are empty of oil’- we are not really dedicated to the way of life which the Church gives us. Or else we do these things in a purely formal way. The wise virgin then is our state when we adopt in a committed and dedicated way, the pattern of life which the Church sets before us.

5 But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.

This represents the present world. Due to sin and our general inability to perceive Christ clearly in this present world, we are not so aware of Christ. This applies to all of us to some extent, even to those more fully dedicated to Christ. The unwise virgins are not aware of Christ because of their lethargy and indifference. The saints however live in hope of Christ’s even greater presence at a future stage beyond this world. Just like those who sleep, they hope to awaken- but in this case in the midst of the Kingdom. But in any case, whether we are dedicated or indifferent, one day we will all be called away from the shadows of this present world, into the presence of Christ.

6 And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps.

Sure enough then, just as Christ promises, He will return one day. There will be a judgement according what we have done and been dedicated to, and whether our lamps contained the oil and were lit, or were snuffed out and empty due to indifference.

8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.

These are the most puzzling verses of this parable. It almost sounds as if the wise virgins are uncaring about the unwise. How could this be when our Lord commands us to be merciful to all? How could we say that such behaviour on the part of the wise virgins is virtuous? This then is a real puzzle.

The answer then is that the oil is something which only we can attain although through Christ. We cannot get it from someone else like a commodity. And this is because the oil represents (this is what St Seraphim of Sarov says) the grace of the Holy Spirit, which enlightens the person who is dedicated to Christ. Therefore no one can just let his lamp run out- be completely devoid of the Holy Spirit through indifference and laziness- and go and find that grace as he would purchase something at the store.

However that there is an alternative way to find this life of grace even if at present we are devoid of it, the Lord indicates by saying: “go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.” That is, go to the Church, to the priest to ask his advice and support for your life in Christ. Go to Scripture and spiritual reading. And of course go, approach the sacraments, confess and receive the most Holy Eucharist, and in this way, ‘buy’ or obtain for yourself this grace of the Holy Spirit which guides a person towards Christ and His kingdom.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ 12 But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you’.

However we must not put this way of obtaining the guidance of Christ and of the Church off to the last minute. If we do, then we risk having Christ not opening the door of mercy towards us. Not because He does not show mercy at the last minute (for example the Good Thief on the cross). But because the worst outcome of our lives would be to live in indifference and then approach our final moments on this earth too, when we shall certainly meet Christ, with indifference. Then the door will be shut not because Christ does not have mercy on sinful mankind. But rather we lived a life where Christ was so far from us that He was a stranger to us, or perhaps someone we even chased away from us. Then we risk hearing those dreadful words: “I do not know you”; ie He certainly knows each of us and the true state of our heart. But since we actively did not want Him in our lives then He was no Bridegroom to us. He was not the One we sought to be in communion with nor with His Church. Instead we sought communion where our hearts found its own joy- material things, dreams of glory or human recognition- but not Christ.

13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

Finally then, Christ is certainly coming into our midst. This is what His entry at Jerusalem signifies. Yes, the kingdom is in an important sense inaugurated when Christ entered Jerusalem. But Christ will also come into our own midst unexpectedly, amidst our own lives, and in connection to the hour of our departure from this world. So whether we prepare for this meeting with Christ will be up to us. We can genuinely work towards Him like the faithful children of Israel who cried out in sincerity: “Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord”. Or we can be like the Pharisees Who greet Christ with contempt and coldness and who eventually seek to slay Him. Likely though we have both forces struggling within us.

Let us then resolve to properly greet Christ Who comes triumphantly into our midst, especially at this most holy time of the year. Let us at this early point of Holy Week listen to Christ’s teaching so that we too may commit ourselves to His way of life. And let us take up this struggle so that we too at Pascha may experience in Christ the joy of His and of our resurrection.

You might also like:

Holy Tuesday: A Hymn of Invitation by Peter Bouteneff
“On the Necessity of Vigilance: A Sermon For Holy Tuesday” by Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov)

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