Have you ever given time to wondering about the parable of the ten virgins? It raises some notoriously difficult questions about what Jesus meant, what the various symbols mean, and how it should be applied. Let's start by reading the parable:
Matt. 25:1-13 The parable of the ten virgins
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘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. 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. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
I wonder: What does Jesus mean by 'keep watch'? We generally associate keeping watch with 'staying ready' spiritually for the coming of our Bridegroom (Christ), whether he comes at the parousia (Second Coming) or, more likely, when we die, since all ten virgins 'fall asleep' (Jesus' favorite phrase for passing away).
But why virgins? Aren't we the Bride of Christ? And what are these lamps the virgins carry? What is the oil? Who sells the oil? And how do you buy it? Why is having enough oil the criterion for entrance through the door? Do we somehow earn our way into the wedding banquet?
The more I study this parable, the less I know for sure, but I'm 100% certain that Jesus thinks that having oil is really, really important. I also believe Matthew has given us a couple very solid clues in this chapter about what that oil in question might be.
What is this oil that we're meant to keep in full supply? I'm discovering a few layers to the parable, as I had with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Let's take them in order.
I. The mercy of almsgiving as a heavenly investment
Warning: this first layer will involve something that sounds like buying your way into the kingdom of God or earning your salvation with good works. Stay with me; it's essential territory to cover and a prerequisite to understanding the parable. We mustn't miss what Jesus says or dismiss what Jesus wants by prematurely filtering his words through what we know about the post-Easter gospel of grace.
In Second Temple Judaism, the mercy of almsgiving had become nearly synonymous with righteousness (tzedakah, also translated justice or charity). Jesus does so in Matt. 6:1-2. Showing mercy to the poor through almsgiving was like investing in your heavenly bank account. The Rabbis were riffing off passages like Proverbs 19:17, which says, "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed." Jewish teachers applied this to mean that when you give to the poor in this life, your investment is returned by blessedness in the next life. CLICK HERE for a good article on the details. Some first century Rabbis also believed that those who suffered torment in the afterlife could escape hades or gehenna (depending on the Rabbi) after one year if (i) your family fulfilled the requirements of liturgical mourning through that year and (ii) if you had a good track record of almsgiving. For more details, see Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, 49.
Jesus is playing off the same idea of spiritual capital investments when he says, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matt. 6:19-20) by practicing the righteousness of giving alms to the needy (Matt. 6:1-4). It's also clear that one layer of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus directly identifies treatment of the poor with one's postmortem destiny. So too the parable of the sheep and goats at the end of Matthew 25. The idea that acts of mercy are a heavenly deposit is possibly also what the angel meant when he said to Cornelius, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God." And it is certainly what St John Chrysostom meant when he said, "If you want more storehouses, you have them: in the bellies of the poor."
What Jesus adds to the rabbinical discussion is his rebuke of those who practice almsgiving and fasting as an outward show of their religious pride. Here he stands in the tradition of the Major and Minor Prophets of Jewish Scripture. Isaiah, Amos and Micah spring quickly to mind. Jesus assures those who 'blow their own horns' that the kudos they receive comprise their full payment (Matt. 6:2) ... no future reward awaits. He also addresses the possibility that one could give their outward tithes and yet still completely miss the deeper matters of righteousness, mercy and faithfulness (Matt. 26:26).
II. The Oil of Mercy
This background connecting almsgiving, righteousness and entering the kingdom leads us back to the parable. I would propose that in the first layer or immediate application of Jesus' parable to his Jewish listeners and Matthew's readers, the oil he mentions (as well as the gold coins in the next parable) signifies 'mercy' -- and in that context, mercy was specifically merciful (practical, compassionate) treatment of the poor. I see this for textual and contextual reasons:
A. Textual clues: the linguistic connection between 'mercy' and 'oil.'
We need Hebrew and Greek scholars to translate the Bible (because of complex grammatical rules and special idioms), but any curious layperson can now easily do a decent word study. Teachable moment: just type "NT Greek lexicon" + the word you want into your web browser. In this case, I've done a search for the Greek words that we translate "oil" and "mercy." The following details pop up on sites such as:
1. MERCY (noun): eleos
|1656||Original Word||Transliterated Word|
2. Have / obtain /receive / show MERCY (verb): eleeo
|1653||Original Word||Transliterated Word|
|have mercy, have mercy on, have mercy upon, obtain mercy, receive mercy, show mercy, found mercy, had mercy, has mercy, mercy, received mercy, shown mercy, shows mercy|
3. OLIVE - olive berries, olive tree, olives (noun): elaion
|1636||Original Word||Transliterated Word|
|olive berries, olive tree, olives, olive trees|
|1637||Original Word||Transliterated Word|
4. OIL - lamp oil, healing oil, anointing oil, olive oil (noun): elaion
|Strong's Number: 1637||eálaion|
|Original Word||Word Origin|
|eálaion||from the same as (1636)|
|Transliterated Word||Phonetic Spelling|
|Parts of Speech||TDNT|
|KJV (11) - oil, 11;NAS (11) - oil, 10; olive oil
Do you see the obvious similarity? Eleos, eleeo, elaion: mercy, show mercy, olive (oil), oil.
Similarities between words doesn't always mean anything; some words are just soundalikes with no connection. Other words have an original connection that is no longer relevant. Sometimes similar words are connected only by wordplay. But in this case, the ongoing symbolism of oil as mercy is both direct and very relevant.
According to Lazar Puhalo, olive trees were actually named after mercy because the trees gave oil so abundantly and for so many goods that oil actually became an item of currency. The olive groves of the Palestinian region were and are glorious sources of provision, reflecting and symbolizing the generosity of God's enduring and abundant mercy.
One of the great tragedies of the conflict between Israeli settlers and the Palestinian people is the punitive destruction of centuries-old olive orchards that provide delicious meals, oils and soaps. Torching or uprooting olive orchards is a horridly unmerciful and wasteful weapon of spite in middle eastern culture. Whether provoked or unprovoked, destruction of an olive grove is meant to demoralize a community and destroy an inheritance passed from generation to generation. CLICK HERE for an article on the impacts of olive tree destruction.
Back to the oil / mercy connection in Judeo-Christian tradition. The superabundant mercy of God is identified by another word: "polyeleos" -- literally, 'much oil' or 'much mercy.'
Polyeleos also refers to part of the prayer services on Orthodox Christian feast days when all of the oil lamps in the sanctuary are lit (including a large chandelier) and the readers chant Psalm 134-135 (LXX; it's Psalm 135-136 in most Bibles).
So, why 'many mercies'? Because after every line, Psalm 135(136) repeats, "His mercy endures forever." For how long? Forever! That line is sung over and over (twenty-six times), many mercies, under the many lights of many oil lamps. This is the high point of the service of the major Christian feasts because all of this mercy, all of this oil, all of those lamps, all of that light point together toward Jesus Christ and his gospel (present also in an Easter Gospel reading), Christ, the Light of the worlds and ultimate fulfillment of the Psalm's many mercies.
For armchair detectives who want to dig a bit deeper, you might investigate what interesting paths might lead from the Jewish Feast of Lights (Chanukah) to the Christian polyelios ... rumor has it ...
B. Contextual clues: The contextual connection of the Matthew 25 parables
In addition to the textual clues connecting the virgins' lamp oil to the righteousness of mercy, we also have contextual clues in the two other parables in Matthew 25: the parable of the bags of gold (or 'talents' - Matt. 25:14-30) and the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46). The three parables were grouped together by design, if not by Jesus then at least by Matthew. As different as they seem, they are strung together by the 'return' theme: the bridegroom returns, the master returns and the Son of Man returns. Various preterist interpreters (e.g. N.T. Wright) may be correct in assigning an initial fulfillment of Christ's return (his vindication, exultation and judgment) to Jesus' ascent and entry into Jerusalem, or to his resurrection, or to the fall of Jerusalem. But traditionally, preachers and commentators concentrate on applying the parables to Christ's final return, when he "comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead."
If the latter interpretation is valid, then we can reverse engineer the passage for insight into the criterion of judgment. On what basis are those in the parables included or excluded from God's kingdom? In order, (i) having sufficient oil, (ii) having invested one's gold and (iii) having shown mercy to the least of these. What if these three criteria are really one? If oil can represent mercy, if investing (laying up treasures) looks like almsgiving, and if giving ourselves to the least of these is really ministering to Christ, then all three parables establish the same criterion for entry through the door, for sharing in the Master's happiness and for entering the joy of the Lord: mercy, specifically compassionate care for the poor (whether the hungry, the naked, the sick, the refugee or the prisoner). Those who have acquired sufficient oil, made sufficient investments or offered sufficient service will be welcomed. Those who have not will be barred, excluded and expelled. And that raises a problem, doesn't it? Are we saved by our compassion or are we saved by God's grace?
Whatever interpretive gymnastics we do to make this fit our doctrine of salvation or our commitment to grace (don't go there yet!), I don't think there can be any doubt about what Jesus wants: he is passionate about whether or not we 'do mercy,' so much so that he frames it as an immediate life and death, in or out, right or left crisis (lit. judgment). And as much as we're about salvation by grace alone through Christ alone, we mustn't negate Jesus' own teaching about what he desires.
Moreover, it's not as though Christ said those who receive God's mercy are empowered by God's mercy to then do merciful things. That's what I would have said. That's good theology! Grace initiates and then empowers. And Jesus did say things like that ("Those who have been forgiven much, love much" - Luke 7:47). But he also says, "Blessed are those who are merciful, for they shall be shown (or obtain) mercy" (Matt. 5:7), as if God's mercy were contingent on ours. As if we "obtain mercy" by first being merciful. Or, in this chapter, "obtaining mercy" is like "buying" the oil of mercy or "investing" the gold of mercy or "feeding, clothing, visiting, welcoming" those in need of mercy. And the result of "obtaining mercy" by "doing mercy" is that God responds with his affirmation, welcome and rewards. All of this obtaining-buying-investing-doing language seems loaded with trouble for those sensitive to the religion of works righteousness. How shall we navigate these treacherous waters?
III. Salvation by Works of Mercy?
In a religious culture that already understood earthly mercies as a ticket into the gates of paradise, isn't it odd that Jesus didn't just correct them? All he had to say was, "Not by works of righteousness which you have done, but by God's mercies you have been saved" (Titus 3:5). Sometimes I get the feeling we wish Jesus had been more Pauline!
In fact, Jesus had already used other parables that proclaimed God's mercy as scandalous and indiscriminate, decidedly not based on righteous deeds but by grace alone. Remember the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-22)? Or the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)? It's all about grace. Even the wasteful son and last minute converts get in. So, too, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the poor man didn't arrive in paradise because he was more generous than the rich man. His poverty and his open sores--not his oil or his investments or his merciful deeds--were his only credentials into the bosom of consolation.
But in the three Matthew 25 parables, isn't Jesus teaching salvation by works of mercy? At this layer of interpreting the parable, if we're honest, it seems so. Along with the prophets who came ahead of him, it is the righteous (i.e. the merciful!) who inherit the heavenly kingdom. Jesus wants the people of God to know, "Yes, God requires mercy, not sacrifice. God wants genuine compassion, not external shows of piety" (cf. Isa. 58; Jer. 7; Micah 6, etc.). Like those prophets, Jesus affirms and fulfills the heart meaning or deeper intent of the Law (loving God by loving each other) and rejects the hypocrisy of religious performance that whitewashes the surface of inwardly filthy vessels.
Another detail arises here: notice that what they need is not found in the Bridegroom's house, or the Master's estate, or in the Judge's chambers. The virgins and the stewards alike need to head to the market ... the venues of opportunity where oil is bought and investments made. The third parable identifies these locales in their literal sense as hospitals, refugee camps, skid rows and death rows. These are the actual markets where mercy is given and received ... traded and obtained. Somehow, we not only prepare for Christ there (in the first two parables); we also meet him there in the guise of the least and lowest.
But Jesus also takes another step, far beyond the Jewish prophets; a step we might overlook because we read as those who already believe in Jesus Christ. This move, however, would have jarred his original listeners. In the parables, Jesus increasingly identifies himself personally as the very Bridegroom they are waiting for, the very Master who they serve, and the prophesied "Son of Man" who will come with the clouds as Judge of the nations. The claim carried implications that alarmed the temple establishment. "Is Jesus claiming to be who we think he's claiming to be?" They're beginning to understand. His subsequent triumphal entry into the city and dramatic occupation of the temple site only raise the stakes, because now the crowds are seeing it too. And finally, Jesus is compelled to confirm it under oath at his trial before Caiaphas ... the final 'blasphemy' that seals his fate (Matt. 26:64-65). Are you the One? I AM.
So yes, in these parables, the call for the oil and gold and acts of mercy are Jewish prophetic exhortations at their finest. We are to feel the pointed indictment of Christ wherever we are loveless, merciless or indifferent. But that is not what shocked Jesus' listeners. They were faced with the existential challenge of his claims. Will they or won't they believe the Bridegroom who was to come is standing before them? How will they respond? Thus, the parables that make mercy a matter of eternal consequence bears this second, greater demand: belief in Jesus as the Christ of God!
How odd, then, for Christendom to accept the latter as a theological matter of course, while puzzling over and even resisting former--often acknowledging the Judge while balking at his judgments! And fair enough, for we're wary of slipping into salvation by good works, no? Mercy is a great virtue, but as spiritual capital for access to the kingdom of heaven? That begins to sound like the old "social gospel" of liberal Christianity doesn't it?
V. A third way, perchance?
If classic liberalism lapses into a noble works focus for entry in the kingdom, and classic Evangelicalism embraces salvation by grace through faith alone (at the expense of Jesus' teachings), might there be a third way? Perhaps.
St Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) raised an important fact in the parable that addresses this works/grace dichotomy. He points out that all ten of the women are called 'virgins.' That is, they didn't lack 'virtue' ... all ten represent people who have lived pure and pious lives in their thoughts and actions. That's not what's lacking. That's not the oil that ran out. What then?
St Seraphim thought the parable was about "the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit." What does that mean? He said,
"In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, when the foolish ones lacked oil, it was said: 'Go and buy in the market.' But when they had bought, the door to the bride chamber was already shut and they could not get in. Some say the lack of oil in the lamps of the foolish virgins means a lack of good deeds in their lifetime. Such an interpretation is not quite correct. Why should they be lacking in good deeds if they are called virgins, even though foolish ones? Virginity is the supreme virtue, an angelic state, and it could take the place of all other good works.
"I think that what they were lacking was the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God. These virgins practiced the virtues, but in their spiritual ignorance they supposed the Christian life consisted merely in doing good works. By doing a good deed they thought they were doing the work of God, but they little cared whether they acquired thereby the grace of God's Spirit."
(Lazarus Moore, St. Seraphim of Sarov: A Spiritual Biography, 172-174).
Thus, on one hand, it's not that we ought to ignore mercy. Christ certainly didn't. In Matt. 25, he brought it front and center. On the other hand, even a virginal life of outward righteousness and charitable works can be bankrupt of the grace of the Holy Spirit ... even a performance-driven replacement for it. How then can we ensure that our mercy is not devoid of divine grace—that our lamps do not run out?
First, negatively, I would suggest that we avoid five errors of the Pharisees (the public pietists of Jesus' day):
- They erred whenever they failed to do mercy.
- They erred whenever they did mercy for the benefit of the self-righteous ego (to prove they were 'radical' believers 'on fire' for God).
- They erred whenever their acts of mercy were not accompanied by the Spirit of grace to those whom they served (e.g., begrudging 'entitlement' and thereby actually feeding it).
- They erred whenever they forgot that they too were in need of God's mercy and failed to be grateful for it.
- Most of all, they erred by dissociating their works of mercy from belief in Christ, the all-merciful Source of our mercy.
One can see from this list how religion can 'get you coming or going.' That is, there is the religion of self-righteous deeds done for God (the so-called 'hard-core Christian') and there is the religion of self-righteous deeds done sans God (under the rubric of humanist activism). Without a doubt, good deeds done are often good. Compassion is a human virtue and Christians don't have a monopoly on loving-kindness. But not all good works or merciful deeds are necessarily spiritual investments in heavenly treasures. Christ alone knows what is or isn't. The parables of Matthew 25 contain a lot of mysteries and remind us that some will be surprised at the outcome when Jesus' renders his verdict. So what can we know?
Positively, we can return to the parable and simply marry within our own lives the two things Jesus obviously wants:
- Jesus obviously wants us to acquire the oil of mercy. That is, be merciful as he is merciful. Forgive as we have been forgiven. Show the kindness that the Father has shown us.
- Jesus obviously wants us to recognize him as the Bridegroom we've been waiting for. The whole parable calls us to focus our attention on him. Our waiting is for him; our lives are for him; our acts of love, done in faith, empowered by the Spirit ... all for Christ, or rather, Christ does them through us, as he is the actual source of mercy.
Closing: The death and resurrection as the punchline of every parable.
Elsewhere I've cited Benedict XVI, who has said that the punchline (and final layer) to every parable is the death and resurrection of Christ. In the spirit of early Christian interpretation, if I were to preach this passage, I would point to the Cross (i.e. Christ crucified) as the polyeleos, the abundant Olive Tree of many-mercies.
How do I acquire the oil of the Spirit that gains me entry to the Kingdom banquet? At the Cross. How do I receive God's mercy? At the Cross. How do I become merciful, in my deeds but more so in my character? At the Cross.
Just as the True Vine pours out the wine of the blood of Christ, so the True Olive Tree produces the oil of many mercies and the grace of the Holy Spirit. These parallel pictures--the wine-bearing vine and the oil-bearing olive tree--are images of the one Tree of Life, the Cross of Christ. While we await the some-day return of the Bridegroom-Master-Judge, we also encounter him in the now-day markets, dispensing the oil mercy and grace to and through those on the margins, behind the hedges and on the street corners. They are invited in, no matter how battered and broken ... and so are those graced by the Spirit to serve them. May we be virgins found faithfully filling our lamps with Jesus' oil and becoming familiar with his face now so that he's no stranger then.