(Image from The ProtestantCathedral of Magdeburg in Germany, Luther preached there in 1524 ;...the picture detail shows three of the foolish virgins )
( FYI this is the 2nd part of one of my sermons, first part here...) II What the people who listened understood...
The main difficulty to understand this parable is our limited knowledge of historical context and cultural background. So to better put ourselves on Jesus public, we need to get a little insight on traditions of the time.
In fact, a traditional wedding at the time established that the broom had to arrive from his home (or his town) to join her future wife to celebrate the great feast at her place. (Let's remember that it is tradition for the parent's fiancée to be those who do the reception)Also tradition allowed the virgins of the village to be invited to the feast if they dressed in white and went to welcome the groom on the road. They had to bring along oil lamps that would light on the groom's arrival and accompanied him in a beautiful parade of lights until the fiancées door. They would probably even sing some joyful songs. It was indeed, a very beautiful tradition. Later the young virgins who embellished the procession with their lamps were invited to join the feasts. Here we have a simple and wonderful tradition that Jesus used to send a strong message.
Several points become clear, the virgins were not the fiancées (so polygamy was not even insinuated) they were asked to join the parade without merit, they were simply asked to escort the broom on beautiful way. For this they had to be a little patient and wait for him ready since they were unaware of the broom arrival hour. At his arrival, at anytime, they would light his lamps and honour his arrival with a beautiful parade of lights. A beautiful event, later they would join the feast without being original members of the family. They would not use her lamps anymore. So their lamps do not shine all night, only during the parade!
To whom Jesus said all these things? And why?
We are on Matthew chapter 25, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem, they were apparently Tuesday before Easter, two days later he would be delivered to be crucified. Jesus was addressing his last messages. His disciples, simple people, people from the countryside and instead preparing themselves for the upcoming events, they were fascinated and distracted by the City of Jerusalem and its buildings.
So we read in Mathieu 24 :1-3 As Jesus went, out of the temple, his disciples came to him to point out the buildings. But he said to them: Do you see that? I say to you, it will not stay here stone upon which is not reversed. He sat on the Mount of Olives. And the disciples came to him privately: Tell us, when this things will happen and what will be the signs of your coming and the end of the world?
So throughout chapters 24 and 25, Jesus gave them a private explanation and an insight on the end of time. And we arrive to chapter 25 which has three parables that would describe the kingdom of God; The first parable (the good and the bad servant) has a clear message: Expect the Kingdom, while remaining on the will of God. On the third parable (the parable of the talents) the message is more troubling, it deserves a sermon in itself. Let's just say that Jesus calls us to overcome, to understand that God's will for us is to give fruit in abundance.
But the second? What is the message of the second? And who are these sleepy virgin? Jesus. He said: Then the kingdom of heaven is like ten virgins who took their lamps, went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five wise. The sentence is clear; the kingdom of heaven is a clear reference to the ten virgins. For the audience, Jesus' close disciples, the message of the Ten Virgins sleeping is partially clear. His public may have even laughed at the stupidity of girls leaving the village without bringing along enough oil, or not oil at all (verse 3) Only part of those who follow Jesus would wait for the kingdom properly prepared. The lamp and the oil are secondary images to enhance the care of once and neglecting of the others. For the disciples, it was a clear call for wisdom when expecting the Kingdom! But wisdom started before the waiting itself, and the foolishness too.
Even if the message to them was apparently clear, it is only partially, because at that time, many things were not revealed to them yet. So in light of the following events and the word of God ...
III What would Jesus wants us to understand "today"? ... to be continue