Jesus had just finished telling his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. Looking out from the Mount of Olives, He related a few parables about watching for His return. He began with a story of ten young women invited to a wedding, who waited for the bridegroom to pass by so that they could follow him in procession to the feast. “Five of them,” we know, “were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps” (Matthew 25:2-4).
“While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps” (v. 5-7).
Finding the oil in their lamps was exhausted, “the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out.” The wise virgins refused, telling them to “go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy,” a futile mission, to be sure, for all the shops would be closed at that hour, “the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.” The foolish virgins arrived late, and cried out, “Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” (v. 8-12).
And the foolish virgins, it must be assumed, turned away, sorrowing.
It’s a puzzling parable. Why couldn’t/didn’t the women share their oil with their compatriots? Why couldn’t everyone walk in the light of the five lamps that were lit? And why does the bridegroom so cruelly turn away the guests who arrive late?
In Church discourse, the oil represents spiritual strength gained from years of righteous living. As Spencer W. Kimball put it, “the oil of preparedness is accumulated drop by drop in righteous living. Fasting, family prayer...control of bodily appetites, preaching the gospel, studying the scriptures--each act of dedication and obedience is a drop added to our store.” Sometimes we say that the oil is testimony, and that testimony cannot be shared with others. Except, of course, that one person’s flame of testimony can light another’s lamp, that one person can lean on another when they are weak
I don’t doubt that consistent good works gives us spiritual strength that can sustain us in times of darkness, of doubt, of waiting for the Bridegroom to come. I don’t doubt that strong testimony can act as a bulwark against temptation. But I don’t believe that a person could ever do enough good to be ready, could ever amass enough oil of testimony to light their way through the mists of darkness that will encircle us all, at some point in life.
It is interesting to me that the parable lists two containers for oil, two sources of power: the lamps that each of the virgins carried with them, and another set of vessels, separate from the lamps, that held an extra reserve of oil. The parable doesn’t say that the wise virgins had more oil in their lamps than the foolish virgins. It appears that both sets of women had lamps, both filled with oil, but that only one set had an additional vessel filled with oil that they carried with them, “their vessels with their lamps.” They knew that they would need more oil than they could fit in their lamps. and so they sought out another source, a reservoir deeper than their own.
The kingdom of heaven is like two groups of people. Both were waiting for the Savior to return. Both passed through many nights of darkness as they waited. Both knew the importance of spiritual preparation and had spent their lives studying the scriptures, doing their home teaching, bringing casseroles to their neighbors and raising good families. But there came a time in each person’s life, a time that comes in all of our lives, when their spiritual strength was tested. There came a time when the darkness they passed through overcame them. There came a time when their spiritual strength was not enough. There came a time when they were not enough.
One group was mystified. Hadn’t they been faithful? Hadn’t they known all the right answers in Sunday School? Hadn’t they served the Lord well in every calling they’d been given? Why were they being overpowered by the darkness? Where was the strength that had sustained them all these years?
The other group was not surprised when they awoke in darkness. They knew that their efforts, though necessary, would never be enough for the days ahead. They had brought another source of oil, another vessel to fill them up when they were empty. When the cry to be ready rang out, their alarm was only momentary. Then they arose, trimmed their lamps, and filled them with the oil from a source outside themselves. Their vessels were a gifts from a man they knew well, a man they called a friend. Over the years, he had often given them extra oil when their lamps had gone out. They had dined at his table and learned at his feet. And now they were going to the wedding banquet of his son.
The first group was in a panic. The wise ones told them of their generous benefactor, but they were too embarrassed to go begging for oil to a man they did not know. So instead of accepting the oil offered “without money, and without price,” they went to those that sell. They bought self-help books. They read advice from Oprah and listened to televangelists. They meditated and practiced self-actualization. They found strength in support groups and service projects and never thought to look for the man who gave real light. And when, their lamps newly illuminated, they rushed on to the wedding feast, the response at the door was one of regret, not condemnation, “Good people, I never knew you!” Their host lamented that they had never spent time with him, that they were never at home to answer their doors when he knocked, that there had always been a project or a cause or a diversion more worthy of their time, and so his letters and phone calls had gone unreturned. And when they looked back, they were forced to admit he was right. He had never known them, though he had tried. And they had never known Him, not really. They had no relationship with the Master that they could draw on in times of hardship, when their strength was gone. They had never taken his proffered gift of oil. They had thought the dim light that sputtered from their tiny lamps would be all they would ever need, but now they stood in the presence of greater light than they had imagined. The lamps that filled this room burned with a bright, steady flame, while their little lamps sputtered and smoked, filled with old cooking oil and wicked with scraggly straw.
And the wise men and women danced and sang, congratulated the newlyweds, and thanked their host for his generosity, in a room filled with light. They remembered that Isaiah had promised, “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God” (Isaiah 50:10).
And the foolish left, hanging their heads in shame, the words of the prophet Isaiah ringing in their ears, “Behold all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This ye shall have of my hand: ye shall lie down in sorrow (v. 11).