***EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay originally ran in 2017.***
Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable
By: The Rev. David Clifford
As a pastor, I often find myself talking with people about their favorite Bible passages. However, I rarely find myself discussing people’s least favorite Biblical passages. It doesn’t seem to be something that many people want to admit to the pastor–“I don’t really like that Bible passage.” However, the truth is, we each have favorite scriptures that stand out to us. And, in the same way, we each have scriptures that we struggle with and just don’t seem to like all that much. This is true for us pastors as well.
If I’m completely honest (even at the risk of challenging the expectation that pastors love all scripture), this week’s lectionary scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is a scripture I find myself struggling with. Jesus begins to talk about the end times with his disciples and telling them stories about what God’s Kingdom and realm are really like. This particular story is about ten virgins: 5 of whom are wise and the other 5, well, not so much.
In this parable, Jesus draws to mind ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom. The foolish virgins take with them no oil for their lamps. When they run out of oil, the other 5 refuse to help them. The foolish virgins must go buy more oil. While they are out, the bridegroom comes. The wise virgins go off with the bridegroom. When the foolish virgins return and knock on the door, the bridegroom replies, “Truly…I don’t know you” (verse 12 NIV).
In his book, The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus uses both common and traditional formatting for his parables. This particular parable is a perfect example of “Olrik’s “law of contrast,” the tendency toward polarization, especially of “good” versus “bad,” “ins” versus “outs,” “haves” versus “have-nots,” and those who fail versus those who succeed.” For Crossan, Jesus uses common and traditional – “expected” – formatting, but “dramatic content” and “unexpected contrast”
Here’s my struggle and the reason I’m not a huge fan of this particular passage and parable. This is supposedly the same “Kingdom of God” that Jesus describes a few chapters earlier with the parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew 18: 12-14, Jesus says:
12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (NIV)
I find myself wondering if both of these stories can describe the same Kingdom. Is God’s Kingdom like the shepherd that is happier about the one lost sheep over the 99 that are not lost? Or, is God’s Kingdom like the bridegroom that closes the door on the foolish virgins simply because they were out getting more oil?
Of course, a simple answer is that these two parables are describing very different things. One is describing the joy at returning the lost, while the other is describing the fact that no one knows the time nor hour of the coming of the Son of Man and God’s Kingdom. However, I believe this week’s lectionary can be used to tease out some of the differences that Jesus may highlight about God’s Kingdom through his parabolic teachings. This particular parable can be compared to other parables. The formatting may be similar – “lost” versus “found,” and “in” versus “out,” or “wise” versus “foolish.” However, the truth of the parable seems to be very different. Crossan may be on to something. The formatting is common, while the content and contrast are dramatic and unexpected.
As it relates to this week’s lectionary, I often found myself wondering why Jesus doesn’t highlight that God’s Kingdom is like 5 wise virgins that share their oil so that all 10 get to meet the bridegroom at midnight. He could have still highlighted that no one knows for sure when the Son of Man will come; while also highlighting the need for each of us to take care of one another while we wait. However, Jesus rarely meets our expectations and I can only assume that God’s Kingdom is similar.
It often happens to me that on Monday I come up with the perfect way to express my sermon for the previous Sunday. I usually note these things down and save them for a future sermon. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus missed a great teaching opportunity with this parable. Maybe the next day he thought, “I should have changed that story so my disciples would know how easy it would have been for those 5 wise virgins to help their neighbors.”
It could be that Jesus is merely highlighting the fact that no one truly knows the day or hour. However, the following two parables seem to suggest otherwise. It is difficult to interpret that the foolish virgins somehow find their way through that door. The very next parable tells us of servants given bags of gold, the servants who manage their gold well are reward. The servants who manage their gold poorly, are treated…not so well…
29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 18:29-30 NIV)
Following this parable is the parable of the sheep and goats. When the Son of Man comes, all will be divided into two groups. Sheep on one hand, goats on the other. To both parties the King will acknowledge whether they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, looked after the sick, and visit the prisoner. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV). Those that did not do these things “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV).
Of course, there is nothing in this listing of things the least of these needs that speaks about oil for their lamps as they await their bridegroom, but I can’t help but wonder if those 5 foolish virgins could be considered the least of these. What would our parable for this week’s lectionary look like if the 5 wise virgins had shared their oil instead of sending the foolish virgins of to the market?
If you are preaching on this parable for this week’s lectionary, it may be a great time to remind those hearing God’s Word about the unorthodox way in which Jesus teaches us about God and God’s Kingdom. Not that Jesus teaches in parable: many are doing that, but, that Jesus rarely meets the expectations of his followers and those who listen to his teaching. I struggle to fit many of Jesus’ parables together because it can be so difficult to follow a Lord and Savior who is constantly challenging you to be a better person; and whose entire life was a challenge to re-evaluate our lives and expectations. May God bless us with the strength and wisdom to continue in the faith and to continue the task at hand.
The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David received a Master of Divinity and Master of Mental Health Counseling from Christian Theological Seminary in May of 2014. David has been serving at Westmont since July 2016. David enjoys reading and bicycle riding. He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children.
 Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2012. Pg. 109.
 See Footnote 1 above.