There is a parable of Jesus that always puzzled me in my pre-Orthodox days. It is the one of the ten maidens (virgins) with lamps who await the bridegroom. In it, we see that all ten “fall asleep” and are awakened at the call that the Bridegroom is approaching.
Five of them are called “wise” and they have enough oil for their lamps; the other five “foolish” ones do not. The five that are lacking attempt to borrow oil from the others, but they are refused. The five foolish ones then attempt to rush to the market to purchase oil, but it is too late, the bridegroom comes when they are away and they are locked outside of his doors. They request he open the doors to them, but he says, “Truly, truly, I do not know you.”
This parable confused me for many years because it seemed to oppose sharing with others.
The ten virgins have fallen asleep, meaning that they have passed away. They are awakened with the sudden announcement that all of us will hear one day: the Bridegroom, who is the King and the Judge of all mankind, is now coming.
There are five maidens who have much oil, but no money. There are another five who have money, but no oil.
The virgins who had money, but no oil are those who did not fully invest their “talent” that the Master gave them. St John Chrysostom teaches that the merchants who sell oil represent those in the world whom we assist with charitable action. By being generous, we purchase “oil” for the age to come.
The five maidens who were lacking oil either thought that they could take their worldly goods with them or they thought, “I’ll have time to repent and do good later.” And so they procrastinated and, without warning, “fell asleep” until the sudden announcement of the bridegrooms arrival. Realizing their works were not on par with the faith they professed, they attempted to borrow the good deeds of others. But that cannot be done. So, they scrambled to the market place and returned to find that it was too late. The Bridegroom never knew them anyway.
Other fathers, take a slightly different angle in interpreting it. St. Gregory Palamas and St. Seraphim of Sarov note that all ten are called “virgins,” which means they lived in a state of virtuous actions, but not all ten entered the Kingdom. Those who were outside of the Kingdom had good works, but did not acquire the grace of God.
THE PARALLEL PARABLE
This parable was part of today’s readings, and the Orthodox Church ties it together with the parable of the servants who received the talents (five, two, and one) from their Master. Bringing these parables together helps us to understand that they are teaching the same thing. The servant who received one talent hid it in the earth, which the fathers teach us means that he used his God-given abilities in earthly pursuits.
While St Chrysostom frequently focuses on generosity toward the poor, our abilities are not limited to that.
Today’s reading in the Triodion states,
…Let us serve the Master eagerly, for He gives riches to His servants. Each of us according to the measure that we have received, let us increase the talent of grace. Let one gain wisdom through good deeds; let another celebrate the Liturgy with beauty; let another share his faith by preaching to the uninstructed; let another give wealth to the poor. So shall we increase what is entrusted to us, and as faithful stewards of His grace we shall be counted worthy of the Master’s joy.
So what message are we to take home from this? Each of us has been granted abilities by God to serve him in diverse ways. Some bring beauty into the Church and world through art and music, others through encouraging words, and still others through generosity. One person may be good with repairing things that are broken and can help his neighbors, another may have the gift of listening and she can bring comfort to those around her by simply being fully present.
Whatever your gifts and abilities, utilize them without restraint to benefit others and glorify God, while not thinking highly of yourself. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (ESV)
The dread warning is that those who think “I’ll start tomorrow” may fall asleep and find that the Bridegroom is coming sooner than later. There is also a warning against using our gifts out of egotism or for selfish pursuits.
Whatever gifts we have been given, we are to fully utilize while in this life. The day of our departure from this world will come like a thief in the night, and we will not be given leniency for procrastination. Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day to sow the goodness, hope, and love that we have received into those around us.
And what a reward it brings! By doing so we enter into our Master’s joy today, in this life, and in the age to come. We reap a great harvest that not only draws us closer to the Kingdom, but carries others with us to that glorious place!