THE FATE OF THE UNPREPARED
What will happen in the Kingdom of Heaven is like the situation which arose when ten virgins took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish took their lamps, but did not take oil with them; but the wise took oil in their vessels together with their lamps. When the bridegroom was long in coming, all of them settled down to rest and slept. In the middle of the night the cry went up, `Look you, the bridegroom! Go out to meet him!’ Then all these virgins awoke, and they prepared their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise ones. `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps have gone out.’ But the wise answered, `No; we cannot do that in case there is not enough for us and for you. Go rather to those who sell oil, and buy it for yourselves.’ While they went away to buy oil, the bridegroom came; and those who were ready entered with him into the marriage celebrations, and the door was shut. Later the rest of the virgins came too.
`Sir, sir,’ they said, `open the door to us.’ But he answered, `This is the truth I tell you–I do not know you.’ Be on the watch then, for you do not know the day and the hour.”
If we look at this parable with western eyes, it may seem an unnatural and a “made-up” story. But, in point of fact, it tells a story which could have happened at any time in a Palestinian village and which could still happen today.
A wedding was a great occasion. The whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home, and they went by the longest possible road, in order that they might receive the glad good wishes of as many as possible. “Everyone,” runs the Jewish saying, “from six to sixty will follow the marriage drum.” The Rabbis agreed that a man might even abandon the study of the law to share in the joy of a wedding feast.
The point of this story lies in a Jewish custom which is very different from anything we know. When a couple married, they did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home; for a week they kept open house; they were treated, and even addressed, as prince and princess; it was the gladdest week in all their lives. To the festivities of that week their chosen friends were admitted; and it was not only the marriage ceremony, it was also that joyous week that the foolish virgins missed, because they were unprepared.
The story of how they missed it all is perfectly true to life. Dr. J. Alexander Findlay tells of what he himself saw in Palestine. “When we were approaching the gates of a Galilaean town,” he writes, “I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the dragoman told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect: `It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in a fortnight’s time; nobody ever knows for certain.’ Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle-class wedding in Palestine was to catch the bridal party napping.
So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night; it is true that he is required by public opinion to send a man along the street to shout: `Behold! the bridegroom is coming!’ but that may happen at any time; so the bridal party have to be ready to go out into the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come. … Other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted.” There the whole drama of Jesus’ parable is re-enacted in the twentieth century. Here is no synthetic story but a slice of life from a village in Palestine.
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one has an immediate ind local meaning, and also a wider and universal meaning.
In its immediate significance it was directed against the Jews. they were the chosen people; their whole history should have been a preparation for the coming of the Son of God; they ought to have been prepared for him when he came. Instead they were quite unprepared and therefore were shut out. Here in dramatic form is the tragedy of the unpreparedness of the Jews.
But the parable has at least two universal warnings.
(i) It warns us that there are certain things which cannot be obtained at the last minute. It is far too late for a student to be preparing when the day of the examination has come. It is too late for a man to acquire a skill, or a character, if he does not already possess it, when some task offers itself to him. Similarly, it is easy to leave things so late that we can no longer prepare ourselves to meet with God. When Mary of Orange was dying, her chaplain sought to tell her of the way of salvation. Her answer was: “I have not left this matter to this hour.” To be too late is always tragedy.
(ii) It warns us that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed. The foolish virgins found it impossible to borrow oil, when they discovered they needed it. A man cannot borrow a relationship with God; he must possess it for himself. A man cannot borrow a character; he must be clothed with it. We cannot always be living on the spiritual capital which others have amassed. There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others.
Tennyson took this parable and turned it into verse in the song the little novice sang to Guinevere the queen, when Guinevere had too late discovered the cost of sin:
“Late, late so late! and dark the night and chill!
Late, late so late! but we can enter still.
Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light had we; for that we do repent;
And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light: so late! and dark and chill the night!
O let us in, that we may find the light!
Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, tho’ late, to kiss his feet!
No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now.”
There is no knell so laden with regret as the sound of the words too late.
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