Reverend Father John-Brian Paprock
In the beginning of Holy Week, it is prescribed by Holy Orthodoxy to remember the Parable of the Virgins. In the service appointed in the Malankara Syrian tradition, there is even a ritual “knocking at the door.” The scriptures appointed are Hebrews 5:12-14 and Matthew 25:1-13. This essay is from an extemporaneous sermon recorded Monday evening, April 17, 2006 at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Mission Chapel, Madison, Wisconsin. The recorded sermon can be heard online at http://frjohbrian.blogspot.com/2006/04/prepared-as-wise-virgins-april-2006.html
It is a very ancient practice to do this service of the Ten Virgins, remembering this parable at the beginning of Holy Week – after the celebration of Palm Sunday. If we are open to it, it is very healing and nurturing. If we are not very open to it, we can find ourselves asking, “What the heck was this for? What a bunch of bologna, what an effort for nothing?” Or we feel something in us being kind of pulled in a way that we weren’t expecting. It’s a pretty short service, actually. And due to our restrictions at this chapel, we have it on Monday night, not Sunday night. We left palm branches out so that you could know it was part of the same time.
There’s an interesting problem brought up in this particular gospel reading and the lessons that are given to us from the epistle of Paul to the Hebrews. There is an implication that no matter what you’ve done, if you’re not prepared when he comes, it won’t matter what other things you’ve done. It won’t matter how many times you came to church. It won’t matter how much you received the sacraments. It won’t matter how many times you repented. It won’t matter if any of these things have been done unless you are prepared for His coming.
In the instance of the Ten Virgins, they knew that both the bride and the bridegroom is coming. Now the Gospel assumed an understanding of the wedding traditions of that time. The women of the time, particularly the young women who were not married yet, would look upon the opportunities available to intermingle to see the other eligible bachelors and be seen by them. So they really wanted to be at the feast. They really wanted to be included in the banquet hall. The local traditions of that time, gave them a way they could gain entrance. When the newly wedded couple came to their village or neighborhood there would be a wedding feast. The young and eligible women would carry the lighted lamps to guide them in - and that would be their way, like a ticket to get into the celebration. They would accompany the bridegroom and the bride. With the light they could be seen and carrying the light into the feats meant they were available.
So it’s not so much that they were waiting for a bridegroom who was coming for them, actually it was the newly married couple that was coming and the banquet hall was a place where one would enter after being seen and welcomed in by the bridegroom – the primary guest of the feast. It was a place that everyone wanted to be and the virgins particularly. These were the eligible women ready, willing and available to be married, ready to start families. Being a virgin didn’t mean just a chaste young life, although that was a big part of being ready and willing and able to be married.
Jesus, in this parable, draws this tremendous contrast between the five that are wise and the five that are foolish. It’s interesting that he uses five as opposed to three or two or twenty. You can say it’s an arbitrary number, but it’s not necessarily as arbitrary as you would think. There is this symbolic quality of five representing the five basic senses. There are the five sensory ways that we perceive the world around us: through the eyes, through the nose, through the mouth, through the ears and through hands. So everyone perceives the world in these five ways.
So in a sense, the parable is drawing our attention to the preparation of the way we perceive things. If we delve into a mystical idea or a metaphorical idea, which parables are, sometimes we are free to kind of speculate. The tradition of our church, which can be heard in the hymns and prayers of the service, clarifies that the lessons are not necessarily about ten or about five, but about each one of us. In fact, if you listen to the service, it is not just about each one of us, but also about all of us together. Having, in a sense, the full altar opened up again to us. So, church tradition seems to be drawing us into ideas of how we perceive.
So what’s going on here? If we say we have light in our eyes, if we have light in our senses, it means that we are able to see clearly, right? If you think about it, the idea of seeing clearly means seeing the truth. And if we don’t have enough oil, then we won’t see truly. We won’t see the truth anymore. This would be like we gave up the truth for wrong ideas we have about ourselves, about our world, about our past, about whatever else that we want to believe because we don’t want to accept the truth because it’s not appealing.
In the parable, there are five foolish and five wise. The wise kept the light, kept enough for light. And the foolish did not. The foolish were willing to burn their light out at other times and not have enough oil to have light to see the truth. So, the only ones that were accepted into the celebration were the ones that, in a sense, have the truth lighting the way, lighting the entrance to see their own way because they’re each carrying their own lamp. The ones that don’t have light cannot see their own way anymore.
Notice another difficult issue: instead of sharing the oil, the foolish virgins are told to go out and get more. You would think that sharing oil would be the most Christian thing to do, even if it means that you might not have enough yourself, but notice that doesn’t happen here. In fact, since this is a parable of Jesus Christ himself speaking to his apostles about teaching them a lesson, he is teaching them something very important about living a Christian and Godly life. [This is so important.] Why doesn’t Jesus use the parable to teach sharing our resources? Because He is not speaking about something that can be shared.
In another place in the service, in one of the hymns, it says that our “good works are as oil.” Think about it: “Our good works are as oil.” Consider the idea of doing a good deed as accumulating a bank account. The only way to use my bank account is if I put something in there. This is probably not the best analogy because someone else can put money in a bank account, too. But imagine a bank account that only could happen if I actually reached into my pocket for money I earned and could only give money I earned into that bank account and no one else add to it. And no one else has access and, in this account, I really can’t share it either. So that is what is being said to the five foolish: “Well, we don’t have enough to share because this is ours, this is only ours. You have go out and buy some more.”
In some compassionate way, they are being instructed tp go and get some quickly – that is do more good works. If we use the analogy from the hymns in the service, we can use that as a key to understanding the Scripture. Remember, these hymns and services were put together long before any of us were alive and for centuries they have been sung in Syriac and Malayalam and several other languages besides English. All along, the ideas of truth have been preserved in the services. These keys to the kingdom are in the services, in the hymnography, not just in the Scripture.
So we have a key that can unlock the truth of this particular parable. The parable is speaking of what we do in our lives - our good actions are like accumulating oil for our lamps. When we are ready to be seen as available, to be seen as available to do what God intends us to do, in other words, as the wise virgins were saying, “We are ready to be married, to be part of the community,” and that’s really what they’re saying. They’re saying, “I’m want to be seen as a woman who’s ready to be married and I’m going to bring my light into the banquet hall.”
What was done at some of these banquets and some of these weddings was that people would get fixed up. Matches would be made. So that is why the door was locked, so they couldn’t escape. No, I’m just kidding. The door was locked to distinguish the ones that were ready to be matched and the ones that weren’t ready. There was a cutoff point: “Now, either you’re ready or you’re not.”
What was really happening to the ones that were being cut out is that they weren’t as ready as they may have thought. They just weren’t ready. And this is what it the scripture says, the bridegroom says to the foolish, “I do not know you.” The bridegroom says, “I do not know you, I’m not going to let you in.” Because he wasn’t met by them, so he doesn’t know them.
In those days, the bride and bridegroom travelled from town to town, from city to city, around their local area, home to home in the big communities to let everyone know they were married. They didn’t send out announcements that they were married, they had to go around and introduce themselves that they were a couple. Also, the only way he knew which virgins were part of that community was when they lit they way for him. So the ones he met when he arrived with his wife were not the ones at the door later. Since he did not meet them, he’s speaking the truth, “I don’t know you. I’m not going to let you in, I don’t know you.”
Immediately after that, Christ clarified for his apostles and for those listening to this parable what this difficult parable was all about: “Be alert for you do not know the time, the day or the hour.” The clarification: be alert, be awake, be alive. How is it possible not to be alert? When you have a lamp, you can see everything around you. If your light’s not lit, you can’t see in the dark. In the service for the virgins, we start with as many of the lights turned off as possible. Then we turn everything on at the end so that we can see! One of the complaints about small print, sometimes you can’t read because there’s not enough light.
If we are prepared and if we are ready, then St Paul in the epistle to the Hebrews writes, “My brethren, by now you should be teachers because you have been a long time in training. But even now, you need to be taught the primary writings of the word of God. You are still in need of milk. For every man whose food is milk is unfamiliar with the word of God, for he is a babe, but strongly belongs to those that are of full age, even those who by reason of training have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
See how this short epistle amplifies and clarifies, once again, what is in the gospel, what this whole service is about, why we start Holy Week this way. It is to understand that we are babes; that we should just take milk. In fact, this is also a good way to remind ourselves that we about fasting. Part of fasting is, in a sense, to say that we are not able to digest anything greater than just the vegetables like the humblest of animals.
So we come to God in being fully prepared to join Him in the new life as the ten wise virgins. For in that time, a virgin was one whose life was prepared to be married, have children, have a family and help in the progress of the community. We are all being asked this – this is not just a parable to women, it’s a parable to all of us. Remember the prayers and the hymns that we have sung are directed to each one of us. So this service for the Ten Virgins is one for us to remind ourselves where we are, what we are, and where we’re going. The key to it all is having a lamp that helps us see the truth.
If we haven’t done enough good (oil) and if we are not willing to accept true things (the bridegroom is coming), then we are truly living in darkness. We are asleep. We’re sleepwalking. We’re in a dream state and we want only our dreams to be true. We don’t want to accept the truth. As we’re dreaming away, we forget to do the things that are required of us to be ready.
One way we dream away is by focusing on things of the past. Either thinking that something should have changed, or that I should have done something differently, or somebody else should have done something differently and it didn’t happen that way. One of the ways that we can wake up is to accept what has happened and that we do not have the power to change what has happened.
A second way we dream away is that we believe somehow by the force of our will we can make everyone believe or accept what we want them to do. We do this in one of two ways – either we manipulate them or we try to exercise power over them, to force them to accept our version of reality, to accept our way over theirs. A third way of entering this dreamland is to pretend as though something was true that isn’t.
All three of these ways ensure we are not burning our lamp oil and not casting light upon our circumstance. If we have a light in front of us when walking in dark, we would not turn it off because none of us would want to trip on something and fall. Yet, so many of us are willing to walk around spiritually dark and the only outcome is to fall. The only outcome is to find ourselves right at the door without the oil of our good works because we have put no effort into obtaining that oil. We’ve put no effort into being ready. When God shows up and we’re not ready, that’s like falling, and it hurts.
The reason why we shine the light in front of us when it’s dark is because we know the pain of falling. All of us know the pain of falling. All of us know the pain of being excluded. And tonight, Christ is reminding every one of us. The church, by keeping this tradition alive, warns us and reminds us that we have this choice in front of us. We don’t do these traditions by mistake. We don’t keep these things arbitrarily. We don’t do these things just to keep ourselves busy. We don’t put our heads to the ground as a foolish effort. We keep these traditions out of sincere understanding that, minimally, they are something our spiritual fathers gave us.
Based on the tradition of honoring and remembering the parable of the ten virgins, I can’t expect that the oil that I already have stored up is going to be enough. So I continue to do what’s required and what’s right in front of me to do. I wasn’t expecting to really say anything this night, but I was inspired by the words in this service, its full name: “The Order of the Entrance into Heaven, Commonly Called the Parable of the Ten Virgins.” So you see, the issue is not the ten virgins, not the five wise or the five foolish. The service is about us entering into the culture of God - heaven. That is what this whole process is about.
I hope pray that we can go from this place and from this time to become more prepared, taking every opportunity to gather more oil. And every Holy Week, every Easter, ever chance that we get is a way to grow deeper into our own spiritual lives, but also in the lives that we are supposed to lead in the community.