by Kris Coffin Stevenson | 17 June 2021 |
Growing up I heard a lot of sermons about the five foolish virgins of Matthew 25 and about how their lack of preparation prevented them from entering the wedding celebration—heaven, basically. Adventists like to dwell on this story because we’re addicted to last day events. We all think we’re the five wise bridesmaids.
Certainly, we aren’t the foolish bridesmaids who forgot to bring oil and ended up in outer darkness. It seems a pretty harsh punishment for being forgetful, something I’ve been accused of numerous times. I’m not excusing them. They definitely should have used Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. But recently I’ve been convinced that something more sinister is at work here. The five “foolish” virgins weren’t just airheads. They were in active rebellion against the bridegroom.
In order to understand these seemingly neglectful actions, we have to step into Greek for a moment. The word here for foolish is mōros, from which we get the word moron. The meaning ranges from “fate” and “doom,” to “dull, stupid.” Mōros is also used in Matthew 7:24-27 in the story of the house built on the sand. The builder with the sand foundation builds a house identical to the one built on the rock, yet chooses the most unstable foundation material. Something more than forgetfulness is going on in this story as well.
Hebrew has three words for foolish: kĕsîl, ʾewîl or nābāl. These words mean “someone who makes wrong choices,” “moral insolence,” or a “mean disposition.” I Samuel 25 tells the story of someone named “fool” and who was a fool. Nabal returns evil for the good David did him, choosing to be mean-spirited, selfish and uncooperative, and as a result, sabotaging David. The Hebrew words have a darker meaning than “silly fool.”
The story of the bridesmaids is based on the familiar wedding customs of Jesus’ day. The couple is engaged, and the bridegroom has gone to his own town to prepare a place for his bride. This might involve building an apartment onto his family home, so the length of time that he is away is uncertain. When his preparations are complete, he sends word that he is coming back for his bride. According to custom, the groom usually arrives in the late evening. So in this story, the wedding party hurries to get in place so they can be part of the procession that will light and lead the couple to the marriage celebration.
There doesn’t seem to be anything seditious about these actions—or is there? In verse 3, the text comments that the not-wise girls didn’t bring any oil for their lamps. Most of us don’t rely on oil-based lanterns, so we aren’t familiar with these actions. But think about it. If you pick up your lamp to go out the door, it may or may not hold some oil in the reservoir, enough to provide light for a while. Because it is daylight when they leave, the girls’ lamps aren’t lit yet. What differentiates the two groups is that one group takes the time to pack a container of oil. To use a modern equivalent, if they went caving with flashlights, they would need to bring extra batteries in case the batteries in the flashlight were dead.
This is an obvious and easy thing to do. They had one job! As the girls hurry towards their rendezvous, the fact that some of them are completely unprepared would not be visible. Just like the story of the house built on the sand, where the houses look exactly the same on the outside, the five girls’ outward actions are the same as the other girls’. They are holding lamps. But behind the scenes, they are headed for a big collapse.
They do the minimum to try and look like they are part of the group. They are the metaphor of the whitewashed sepulcher with bones inside or the cup that is only clean on the outside. Are they deliberately working to sabotage the return of the bridegroom? Whether they are absent-minded, apathetic, or secretly orchestrating God’s downfall, their actions result in harm to themselves and others. They don’t care enough about the Bridegroom to be prepared and ready.
This story of the bridesmaids is one of three end-time parables told in Matthew 25. These are the last parables in Jesus’ 5th discourse on end times, Chapters 23, 24, and 25. The other two parables of Matthew 25 are the parable of the talents and the story of the sheep and the goats. This trilogy of stories is about groups of people who are unhelpful to or who are actually working against the kingdom of heaven. Their attitudes are not in tune with God’s character, and their actions undermine his kingdom.
In the story of the talents, I’ve always found the man who hid his talent a sympathetic character. After all, he was making sure the talent didn’t get lost or stolen. And maybe he didn’t trust himself to invest it wisely. However, his attitude is revealed in the excuse he gives to the owner when he returns. “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate. I was afraid.…” (verses 24, 25). Hard, harsh, violent, stern, tough–this is the attitude of a fearful person who doesn’t love or trust his Master.
The servant thought that God was demanding and unfair because God expected results from the talent. But the servant ignored the fact that the Master had given him a gift to be used to benefit others. By hiding it, the servant injured the kingdom of heaven. In the same way, by allowing their lights to go out, the bridesmaids caused other people to walk in darkness and undermined the Bridegroom’s plan.
In the last parable of Matthew 25, the people who are called “goats” by God are only interested in caring for the unfortunate if it earns them brownie points. They have never imbibed the concept that God’s character is one of eternal giving and his love and mercies fall like rain on the just and the unjust. As a result, they only help others in God’s kingdom if it will benefit themselves. “Lord,” they say, “when did we see YOU and not help YOU?”
The five bridesmaids are unprepared Laodiceans, the servant with the talent is afraid and mean-spirited, and the goats are selfish. All their attitudes are antagonistic towards an empire built on selfless serving, and their actions are harmful to God’s last day plans.
Complaining and criticizing
That connection with God—the oil—the Holy Spirit—wisdom—is easily broken when we fixate on ourselves and our needs instead of on God and his bounty. In the exodus, the children of Israel’s attitude was one of grumbling and complaining about God’s care of them. When their focus was on what they didn’t have, rather on what they had been given, their connection with God shattered. In the story of the 10 spies, they saw giants instead of a plentiful land provided by God. This distrustful attitude caused that generation to miss out on the Promised Land.
Whining, who? me? When we get caught up in grumbling and criticism, we are batting for the other team. We are exhibiting an attitude that shows what we think of our Lord, and it’s not pretty. Complaining is not just being a whiner; it is a serious sign that all is not right inside, that we think God is unfair and are refusing to help with his kingdom.
Complaining shuts the door to our connection with God. That’s why we’re told to pray without ceasing. We need that connection/conduit open all the time. When we praise and worship, the connection opens. When we criticize and refuse to trust him, the connection closes. It’s that simple.
Growing up in the Adventist church, I’ve participated in complaining about and criticizing other people, the pastor, the conference, the General Conference. I’ve heard lots of arguing about issues from dress standards to last day timelines. But the problems facing us today as Christians and Adventists are complicated and we need to seriously study what we believe so that we can strengthen our connection with the source of wisdom. This takes intentionality and an investment of time. We need to know on what foundation we are building. We need to have a stockpile of wisdom from God. “For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones” (Matthew 24:24 NLT). In the United States, we are still dealing with COVID, grappling with huge social issues, and facing the threat of more violence that could stem from religion mixed with politics. The stakes are high, not only for our own souls but for our local churches, denomination and country.
The story of the five bridesmaids should be a warning to Adventists who are hooked on studying the last days and proud of supposedly being “the remnant.” Last day people are called to hoard oil: the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to light the way for the bridegroom in this time of oppressive darkness. We have one job. Are we packing oil?
Kris Coffin Stevenson is an author, teacher, editor, and scopist. She loves living her eternal life starting now. She and her husband reside in Santa Clarita, California. You can follow her writing at bthelove.net or bthelove on Facebook.