Some Things Can't Be Borrowed or Postponed

Matthew 25:1-13

"The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins,"
(William Blake), Tate Gallery.

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, 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. "Sir! Sir!" they said. "Open the door for us!" 

But he replied, "I tell you the truth, I don’t know you." 

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.


Some years ago, I arranged for emergency preparedness training to be conducted in the church I was then serving. Over three hours, an instructor from the Red Cross – a delightful man named Gar– taught us the steps toward preparedness for a wide range of potential disasters.

One segment focused on personal preparedness and we were given three steps to follow: Get a Kit. Make a Plan. Be Informed. We were told to make certain that our personal emergency kit would be properly supplied and that meant filling it with things like water; c rations; a bright yellow fold-up poncho; a silver emergency blanket; gloves; a dust mask; a Leatherman tool; clothing and bedding; a first aid kit; duct tape and plastic sheeting; prescription and non-prescription medications; pet supplies; cash and coins (enough to fill up two tanks of gas and enough to buy food for three days for people and any pets); sanitary supplies; important papers; contact information; a map; and a hand-cranked or battery-operated radio and flashlight.

Gar told us we should be at the ready and know what to do at any time wherever we might be: at home, at work, in the car, in the church, at the mall -- wherever. He revealed some potential hazards, described a range of emergency scenarios – from fire to flood to explosion to chemical leak -- and gave a list of steps to help us plan to respond with the right actions during and after each. The segment concluded with the third step in personal preparedness -- understanding where and how we would get important messages so we would know what to do when the time came to act.

Get a Kit. Make a Plan. Be Informed. Sounds to me like a good summary of the Parable of the Ten Virgins.

Our parable, from the gospel of Matthew, flows out of the chapter that precedes it and it’s followed by two more parables that flesh out the crisis and the joy that will be precipitated by Christ’s return.

In first century Palestine, at the end of a betrothal, it was customary for the bridegroom to lead his friends to the bride’s home and then to escort her and her friends (the virgins) to his home for the wedding festival. Now this could happen at any time and the uncertainty of the timing was considered part of the excitement of the wedding. But just before the big event, a messenger was sent through the streets shouting in essence: “Hey everybody, the bridegroom’s coming." The alert ones in the wedding party would respond, and the others would be left behind.

In Jesus’ parable, the announcement came at midnight. This was often the case; most bridegrooms chose to come late at night. The five unprepared attendants were awakened and it was then that they realized they didn’t have enough oil in their lamps to get through the night. Panicked, they attempted to borrow some from the other bridesmaids. But the prepared ones responded, "If we give you our oil, there won't be enough for us. Hurry out to the dealers and buy some for yourselves."

Now the lamps mentioned here were set afire for the bridal procession. These required large amounts of oil to keep burning and the oil had to be replenished. So, with no alternative, the five foolish ones race out, but by the time they return for the wedding banquet, the door has already been closed. They knock on the door and plead to be admitted but the groom says: "If you belonged at this event you would have made it here in time."

The five foolish virgins represent false disciples, the five wise ones, true disciples. The bridegroom is, of course, Jesus. The bridegroom’s sudden arrival is the unpredictable day and hour of Jesus’ return.

When He comes, He will separate true disciples from the false, the faithful servants from the worthless servants, the sheep from the goats. We’re told here what Jesus expects in His disciples: habitual obedience, preparedness, works of righteousness. These signs, in fact, are evidence of true commitment to Christ. The actions of the true disciples are then set, in counterpoint, to the false disciples who didn’t prepare themselves and then tried to make a desperate attempt at the end to make up for years of neglect and disobedience.

Think for a moment about teachers. When I was a public school teacher and (later) a seminary professor, I would sometimes give my students a definite date on which a report would be due. And, like the fools in our passage, some of my students would look at the date, goof off till the last minute, and then rush around like crazy in an effort to turn something in. On other occasions, I would spring a pop quiz on my students, asking them - with no advance notice - to give an account of what they had learned. The point of this was to keep students on their toes. My desire was that each student might be ready in season and out of season . . . in a state of constant preparedness. I kinda think that’s the way God works. In Matthew, chapter 24, verse 44, we read: “You must be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect Him.”

There’s a marvelous quote from Martin Luther that helps us here: "We are to believe and live and love and work as though Jesus Christ died yesterday, rose today, and is coming again tomorrow."

The bottom line question for us on this today is this: Are you prepared? Do you have oil for your lamp? Who knows what tomorrow may bring? Who knows what kind of severe test we might confront? Who knows what kind of door might open? Who knows if we might even have tomorrow? The bridegroom comes unexpectedly. Are you prepared?

For one thing, are you making the most of the opportunities presented to you?

Arthur Barry
Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar tells about a most successful jewel thief back in the Roaring Twenties by the name of Arthur Barry. Barry liked to hobnob with the rich and famous of Boston's elite, except he did his hobnobbing at night when they were out or sleeping. And he wouldn't steal from just anybody. As a matter of fact, a visit from Arthur was a sign of status among the ladies of Boston's upper crust. The police were not amused by his thievery and one night they caught him and shot him three times. He fell through a glass window, shattered glass stuck in his body, and he lay on the ground in excruciating pain. Not surprisingly, he came to a conclusion amidst the blood, glass, and handcuffs, and muttered, "I ain't gonna to do this anymore!”

To make a long story short, Arthur got out of prison two decades later, and settled down in a quiet New England town. There he became a respected citizen, even leading a local veterans’ organization. But it finally leaked out to the press that this notorious jewel thief was holed up in this tiny New England hamlet and the nation's media arrived in droves. One young reporter asked him, "Mr. Barry, you stole from a lot of wealthy people in your life as a jewel thief. Let me ask you a question. From whom did you steal the most?"

Without a moment's hesitation Arthur Barry replied, "That's the easiest question I've ever been asked. The man from whom I stole the most was Arthur Barry. You see, I could have been a successful businessman had I utilized my God-given talents and developed them legitimately. I could have made it big in business but I spent two-thirds of my adult life behind bars."

Arthur Barry was a thief who stole from himself. He didn’t use the God-given talents and opportunities at his disposal, and it haunted him throughout his life. How about you? If the bridegroom were to come tonight and ask you to give an account of your life, could you say that you had taken complete advantage of the opportunities you have been given?

Let's narrow the question a little more. Have you been faithful in your service to God and your fellow human beings?

The year was 1780. In New England there was an eerie dark day that frightened many people. At noon it was as dark as early night. The birds, as confused as the people, sang a final twilight song and fluttered off into the evening dusk. The cows came meandering home from the pastures and chickens came home to roost. Religious men fell on their knees and begged a final blessing before the end came.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the State Legislature was in session and someone moved adjournment thinking that the Day of Judgment had come. But then the Speaker of the House, Colonel Davenport, stood up and said, "I am against adjournment. The Day of Judgment either is approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, candles to be brought." The legislature approved his request. Have you been faithful in your service to God and to your fellow human beings? If the bridegroom were to come would He find you at your post?

A third question. Is there anything in your life right now about which you would be embarrassed or ashamed at His coming? The great preacher Jonathan Edwards believed in the principle that Jesus taught in this parable so strongly that he felt compelled to put it down on paper in the form of a resolution: "Resolved, to live with all my might while I do live. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can. Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge. Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life."

A mother wrote to Catholic Digest saying that one day, when she was heading up the stairs with a basket containing the last load of folded clothes, herding her three little ones in front of her for bedtime, her eldest child, a little girl who was then in kindergarten, picked that moment to begin one of those questions that seem to intrigue all children at some time.

"Mummy," she asked, "If it were the end of the world, and everyone was getting ready to die..." The mother stopped, shifted the basket on her hip, and said an ultra-quick prayer for wisdom to answer this question. "Yes?" The mother prodded her daughter. The little girl finished her theological inquiry: "If the end of the world came, would you have to take your library books back?" Now that little girl apparently didn’t want any unfinished business in her life.

How about you? Is there some unfinished business in your life that needs to be taken care of? Is there anything about which you would be embarrassed or ashamed if the bridegroom were to come today?

Here's another important question concerning the uncertainty of tomorrow: Do people you love know how much you love and appreciate them? Sometimes we wait till it’s too late to say, "I love you," or "I forgive you," or "Thank you." You may know the story of William Stidger, a businessman who experienced a shattering emotional breakdown. His energies were depleted. His enthusiasm for life had vanished. He was depressed. He sought help, but did not progress. Days passed.

One day an insightful friend said to William, "When was the last time you singled out one of your acquaintances who has been gracious to you and expressed appreciation?"

That question annoyed him, but he went home that evening and, in the comfort of his living room, he selected some stationery and, for the first time in two decades, he remembered a high school English teacher. He hadn’t even thought of her in years, but she had taken an interest in him. She had helped him to discover a love for poetry he didn't know he had.

She helped him see that he might be worth something after all. He wrote her a simple letter. Three days later, by return mail, a letter came from her. In the tremulous handwriting of a long retired teacher she wrote, "My eyes are blinded with tears as I write. You are the first student in all my career who has ever written me a letter to express thanks."

She continued, "I will keep it as long as I live." With her response to his letter in mind he thought of someone else. And so he wrote another letter and another. He didn't even notice when he got well, as he discovered the joy of expressing his love and gratitude to others.

My husband Gene has a student who has filled him with that kind of joy. One day, four years ago this month, he received an email from Andrea. She’s now a successful professional photographer based in California and she tracked him down online through a church I was serving at the time. She emailed me and I put her in touch with Gene. She was his student for four years in Photography, Commercial Art and Technical Illustration.

Andrea wrote: “I’m glad you got a chance to see some of my work [online]. I am that person today because of you. I always tell people this story: 'I joined Commercial Art because I thought I could draw. I found out that was false. So this teacher handed me a cardboard box and asked me to make a camera from it. I was 14 at the time and knew EVERYTHING, but despite all that, I did what I was told and BAMMMM I was HOOKED!!!' I've never looked back, and I owe it all to you. Thank you for helping me to find the person I am so proud to be today.”

A few months ago, we had a most delightful visit with Andrea and her family in California and, again, she expressed her gratitude to Gene. On her Facebook page, she also credits him with getting her started in the profession that she has continued to pursue with great passion.

If you knew that the bridegroom was coming today, are there some people to whom you would want to express your appreciation or your love? Who knows what tomorrow may bring? Why not do it now?

One final question concerning the coming of the bridegroom. Would He find you a stranger or a long-time acquaintance?

I will be eternally grateful that my mother prayed with me – as she lay on her deathbed -- to receive Christ as her Savior but I still wish she hadn’t been so resistant – over a lifetime -- to entering into a relationship with Jesus. She could have known such peace and joy!

Queen Mary of Orange by Willem Wissing, c. 1686-87
When Queen Mary of Orange was about to die, her chaplain wished to console her with some reading from Scripture. He wanted to be certain she was prepared for the journey. She replied, "I have not left the matter till this hour." She was prepared. An old Scotsman expressed the same sense of assured preparedness as he faced eternity. As a friend offered some sayings at the end, he replied, "I thatched my house when the weather was warm." He was ready.

Dr. John Mitchell relates a story about seeing a friend who was in the last hours of his life. When the physician came to his bedside, the man reached out and grasped his hand. "Oh, John," he whispered, "I'm so sick." Then his head dropped back and John assumed he was gone.

But after a moment the man opened his eyes again. "John, is that you?" he asked. The doctor replied, "Yes, it's me." And the dying man said, "Oh, I'm so disappointed. I was expecting to see the Lord and all I see is you."

Now there was a man who knew that his Redeemer lives!

As I conclude this entry today, I’d asked you to remember that there are some things in life that can’t be borrowed. You and I can’t live on somebody else's oil. We can help one another in many ways but, at some point, we’re on our own. This is especially true when it comes to faith. Faith is the most intensely personal experience we will ever have in life. Others can help us toward it. They can encourage us. They can pray for us. They can train us up in the way we should go, but in the end, we have to embrace it ourselves. No one can do that for us. Some things just can’t be borrowed. And remember also that some things can’t be postponed.

When the fools arrived at the party, they were told: "the door is shut." When I read these words I can’t help but think of the story of Noah and how he gathered his family into the ark. When the great flood came, there were many who pounded on the door and begged to be let in, but the scripture says: "the door was shut."

These are metaphors for God's judgment. They remind us that the door that God shuts, no human being can open. How many great opportunities are lost because we’re not ready? There could be a great job but, if we don't prepare for it, we won't get it. There could be a great game, but it we don't train for it, we won't score well. There could be a great life with Jesus, a great eternity with Jesus, but if we don't fill our lamps...

Why not spend some time in silent meditation before the Lord right now pondering your readiness. If you have never turned to Jesus as Lord and Savior and you feel His prodding to do so now, I’d invite you to pray a prayer to welcome Him into your life. If you are one who has strayed or one whose heart has grown cold or if you simply want to tell the Lord again how much you love Him, you can take this opportunity to rededicate yourself to Him.

Let’s pray:

Dear Jesus, grant that I might be wise and not foolish. I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for any sin I have knowingly or unknowingly committed against you. I want to turn my life around and live for you. I believe that you died on the cross for me. With all sincerity and with all gratitude, I accept your sacrifice in my place and invite you to come into my heart and my life to be my Lord and Savior. I place my hope in you and thank you for the gift of You, the gift precious beyond all gifts. Amen

If you earnestly prayed to receive Jesus as Savior today, know that the Word of God promises that you will have eternal life and you are a new person in Christ from this day forward. This is good news to share and I’d love to hear that you have made this commitment to the Lord. I would love to celebrate with you! And, if you have any other concern for which you would like prayer, please let me know about this as well. I pray the Lord will shower you with blessings in the days ahead!

And…Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, power and authority through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all time, now, and forevermore. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25)

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