Ten Virgins: A Mercy Party
We’re starting a new series today—“The Kingdom is Like…”
“The Kingdom of Heaven” (or “Kingdom of God”) is the good news according to Jesus. The kingdom is Jesus’ gospel. Not a proclamation of how you can go somewhere else when you die, but a proclamation of how something is coming here… right now and in the future.
“The kingdom of heaven” is a phrase that sounds kind of churchy—kind of Bible-y—and sometimes we all blow past it and assume we know what it means. But what does that mean?
For that matter, what does “kingdom” mean? That might be the place to start. I mean, we don’t use the word “kingdom” very often in everyday life. Probably because we don’t do kings here in the United States. There are still kingdoms in the world—there are still some absolute monarchies in the world like the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the kingdom of Swaziland—but most the kingdoms that we’re most familiar with are in Disney movies. Let’s be honest: most of what we know about kingdoms, we’ve learned from Frozen.
Let’s run with that.
Because even the reign of Queen Elsa in Frozen can point us toward what a kingdom is. In Frozen, the kingdom of Arendelle is the realm—it’s the sphere of influence, the region, the area—that is under the rule and reign of Arendelle’s Queen. It’s the place where things are as Elsa wants them to be. And at the end of the movie—when Elsa finally sorts herself out—the kingdom becomes warm and green and prosperous. The realm flourishes because that’s what the queen wants.
A kingdom is the place where the realm lines up with the ruler.
Almost every translation translates “he basileia ton ouranon” as “the kingdom of heaven”, even though there are other ways of translating it that might wake us up a bit more. You could say the “dominion of heaven” or the “ruling authority of heaven” or the “governance of heaven.” And when we hear that, it at least makes us stop for a minute.
“Wait—what’s he talking about?”
You know… the “governance of God.” The world being ordered the way God designed. Life being arranged the way that God intends. Things being the way that God wants them to be. The kingdom of heaven is where earth lines up with heaven. That is what Jesus is announcing. That’s the gospel according to Jesus.
Well, if the kingdom is Jesus’ gospel, what is the kingdom like? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in this series: What does it look like to live under the rule and reign of heaven? What does it look like when heaven reigns?
And we’re beginning at the end. Today we’re hearing a moment in Matthew near the end of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus is telling us what the reign of heaven will look like at particular moment in time because verse 1 begins: “tote.” (“Then. At that time.”)
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like “deka parthenoi”—10 virgins or 10 maidens or 10 unmarried women. Anyone heard of the great Temple of Athena, called “The Parthenon?” Deka Parthenoi. Ten Virgins.
Our modern culture tends to deride (to make fun of) virginity. But “parthenoi” were these significant symbols of purity—so much so that ancient cultures worldwide have sacrificed them to the gods—you know… the picture of throwing the virgin in the volcano. It’s a big group of purity.
Two groups of purity, in fact (v2): five wise and five foolish. Five are “phronimos”(thoughtful or sensible or mindful)… and five are “moros” (quite literally: they’re “morons”). And this parable—at its most basic—is about the fact that these two groups get separated.
And what separates these two groups? What makes the difference? It’s a story about all of them in a wedding together… evidently all of them bridesmaids—none of them the bride herself—waiting to greet the groom. They’re all waiting on the same thing: a great feast and celebration.
In the ancient world—and dependent on local customs—after nightfall, the groom would escort his bride with a caravan from her father’s house to his own house. It would frequently happen after nightfall, so you need two things for safety and protection: a caravan (a group of people) and lamps or torches (some kind of light).
And once you get to the house for celebration, do you open the door to strangers in the darkness? No. We don’t like opening our doors at night even with the modern conveniences of electric light and security cameras and on-demand police. Imagine opening your front door after nightfall in the ancient world.
What separates these two groups in parable—what separates the celebrants from the strangers—is how they’ve prepared. You’ve heard people say before that “it’s all about oil.” That happens to be true here. It all comes down to “elaion.” It all comes down to “oil.”
One group (v3-4) is prepared, loaded with oil. And the other is unprepared. They are oil-less. And so when the decisive moment comes, when the groom and his caravan finally arrive, one group of purity is joins him and celebrates because they have elaion. The other group of purity, however, is left in the dark because they don’t have elaoin.
Jesus says, “that’s what the reign of heaven will be like at that time.” Tote. Then (v1).
When is he talking about? And what does this mean for us?
Both of those are tricky questions—because there’s a lot of disagreement about what Jesus means here. We’ll talk for just a few minutes about “when?” and then we’ll answer “what does this mean?” as we come to the table.
On the question of “when”… we need to flip back a chapter to Matthew 24. We need to listen carefully to what Jesus has been talking about. Jesus has entered Jerusalem just before Passover, and he’s been teaching in the Temple and he’s telling his disciples that this great building, this marvel of the ancient world, is going to be destroyed:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2)
And so they ask him an obvious question:
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
They’re following Jesus thinking he’s the foretold King who will kick butt and take names and establish God’s kingdom. Now this… this is a juicy detail… the Temple is going to be destroyed? When? What’s it going to look like when the present evil age ends and the new age of God’s kingdom begins? When will you come into your kingdom?
And Jesus proceeds through the rest of chapter 24 (leading right into our parable today) to talk like one of Israel’s prophets—like Isaiah or Micah or Jeremiah. He talks in poetic, earth-shaking language—about wars and rumors of wars (24v6) and famines and earthquakes (24v7)—about the sun darkening and stars falling (24v29).
And then Jesus says something really—really—interesting.
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matthew 24:34-36)
Jesus—in his humanity—didn’t know the exact day or hour… But he could tell it was soon. Really soon. Like… within this generation.
How long is “a generation” in the Jewish imagination? (It’s a nice round number…) That’s right… within 40 years. Within the same generation of Jesus—Jesus says—the Temple is going to be destroyed.
And Jesus was really close. It actually started about 36 years after Jesus spoke these words. The entire region got out of control beginning with some riots in the year 66. The Judeans revolted against the Roman Caesar, Nero, and the local Roman governor. They hated their tax rates, they hated impure, unclean Gentiles ruling over them, they hated honoring Caesar in any way.
So eventually riots broke out—and you know how these things go. The Romans killed some of their people, they killed some Romans, they took back the city and the region, they killed 6,000 of Rome’s reinforcements. It was an exciting time for a couple of years. They actually immediately began to print their own currency:
This is a silver shekel minted in the year 66 or 67 celebrating the kingdom—the kingdom!—the kingdom of God is finally here! We kicked butt. We killed them. We showed no mercy, and look what we have to show for it: The kingdom is here!
But this “kingdom” only last a couple of years. In the year 68, they had to stop making coins, because the rebel forces started killing each other. It starts looking less like a kingdom and more like a graveyard. One group of Judeans killed another group of Judeans—they showed showed each other no mercy—and this is what they get to show for it: They get to rule that graveyard.
It all came to a screeching halt in the year 70 though—around 40 years after Jesus spoke these words. For four months that year—from April to August—the Roman general Titus garrisoned 70,000 soldiers to surround Israel’s great city—brimming with Passover visitors—and slowly—incrementally, area-by-area, block-by block—reclaimed control of the city.
And then on August 30 of the year 70, the four-month siege of the city of Jerusalem finally ended when Titus’ forces set fire to the Temple… and most of the city. They slaughtered the rebels, and they tore down the Temple. Stone by giant stone, they tore it apart.
The young men who turned violence on Jesus became old men who had violence turned on them. Their dreams of the kingdom came crashing down. Those with no mercy are shown no mercy.
And do you know where the early Christian movement was during all of this? The early Christians were embracing a different kind of kingdom. For decades, they had been meditating on Jesus’ words—warning about Jerusalem’s self-destruction. For decades, they had been thinking about Jesus’ life—refusing to raise a sword against Rome. For decades, they had been trying to obey Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy... I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 5v7, 5v44, 7v2)
And so they fled the city when all of this started unfolding. They refused to join the violence. They weren’t looking to win a kingdom with violence; they were trusting a kingdom already won by love. And they were seeking to live in that love. They were seeking to give the mercy that they realized they had already received. And because they were filled up with love—because they were filled up with mercy—they did not join the graveyard.
That’s the answer to the question of “when.” Tote. At what time? At that time—within a generation—the kingdom of heaven is going to be like a separation of two groups. Both are symbols of purity. Both are looking for the same thing—the kingdom. But only one group has oil—only one group has elaion.
Jesus is doing something tricky in this parable—he’s making a word play. That word “oil” sounds like another word in Greek. Another word that Jesus talks a lot about—especially in the gospel of Matthew.
“Elaion” sounds like “Eleos.”
“Oil” sounds like “mercy.”
In fact—with its uses in cleaning and comfort and medicine—oil itself actually was an ancient symbol for mercy. This parable is like an embodiment of Jesus’ teaching that the merciful will receive mercy. Those filled up with elaion (oil) will receive eleos (mercy).
The parable is warning us to be careful: If we want a life without mercy, we may get what we want.
In the year 70, this unfolded with a group of virgins—a group of “pure” people—people who very much wanted God’s kingdom—finding themselves ruling over a graveyard. They lived with no mercy, and the died with no mercy. Life without mercy is the great foolishness. And it leads one place—outer darkness. To weeping and gnashing of teeth. To the great Merciful One sadly saying…(v12) “Truly I tell you, I don’t you.” If we want a life without mercy, we may get what we want. If we care nothing about mercy, we miss all the merriment.
The reign of heaven looks like a mercy party. The kingdom comes through mercy—through grace, through forgiveness. It will never come by armies; it will never come by violence. It will never come hurting people—by holding grudges or withholding forgiveness. The kingdom on comes by healing people—by forgiving, by grace, by mercy.
Ultimately it came through the cross—through God himself showing us that the heavens aren’t holding sins against us, as he takes our violence on himself and refuses to return it. Instead, the Son gives mercy: “Father, forgive them.” And the Father does.
That’s the gospel.
We can’t be the people of God without being the people of mercy.
So Jesus ends this parable by telling us to “keep watch” (v13)—literally the word means “wake up.” And he knows that none of us are perfect—none of us are entirely merciful, entirely committed, entirely awake. I mean, both groups in this story eventually fall asleep (v5). But it’s like Jesus is saying: Every day you wake up, strive to be awake.
Be awake to God’s mercy. That God has mercy on you. That God is kind to you. God loves you—forever and always. And embody that mercy—that kindness, that love—to others. You want to live under the reign of heaven? Have mercy on them.
Yes. Them. Even them. Pray for wisdom about what it means… but, yes… even them. Trust God with justice, and have mercy. Forgive them. Release them. Live free. Don’t be a fool living the dark… put the words of Jesus into practice. Leave the graveyard, and join the party.
We wake up to the kingdom of heaven by embodying the mercy of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a mercy party… may that party be the kind of place we want to be.