Reflections on the Word of God
by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas
"Ready for the Coming of the Lord" - A Reflection on Matthew 25:1-13
Christians believe that Christ will "come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," as we say each Sunday in the Creed during the Divine Liturgy. What does that mean for you and me, average Orthodox Christians? Part of the answer comes from the "Parable of the Ten Maidens" which Jesus told shortly before His Trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection.
A VILLAGE WEDDING: MODEL FOR THE SECOND COMING
v. 1. "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom."
In this parable, Jesus uses the traditional way people got married in the villages of His time, as a model for His teaching about how people should prepare for His Second Coming. In order to understand the parable, we need to look at these customs. On the day of the wedding, the groom would go to the house of the bride. There he would deal with the father of the bride, signing dowry agreements. It was not a religious service, but a social, legal, and financial arrangement.
Then, at night, the whole wedding party, would return to the home of the groom to celebrate the marriage. So that they would not return to a darkened home, it was the custom for young women, usually friends of the bride, to welcome the bridal party with lighted oil lamps.
TWO WAYS TO WAIT
v. 2-4. "Five of them were foolish and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps."
This is the main point of the story. Some of the young women prepared properly; but some did not. The five wise maidens knew that the groom and the bridal party might be delayed, so they brought extra oil. The patristic commentators interpret the extra oil primarily as "being prepared." But they also describe this "preparation" as consisting of two things. St. John Chrysostom talks about good deeds, and especially about works of philanthropy and caring for the poor, the afflicted and the suffering. Other Orthodox commentators, while not ignoring this, place the emphasis on the inner, spiritual life. True to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, they point to our inner dispositions of faith, commitment, unfeigned love for God and neighbor, humility, repentance and genuine virtue. Being prepared means cultivating our Christian lives, both in our inner dispositions and in our deeds, so as to be in a position to be recognized by the Lord and to recognize Him upon His return at the Second Coming.
IF YOU'RE NOT READY WHEN HE COMES IT'S TOO LATE FOR YOU
v. 6. "But at midnight there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him."
In the Bible, "midnight," the darkest hour, represents the suddenness and the unexpectedness of the "Day of the Lord." No one knows when Christ will return. Those foolish Christians who scour the Scriptures for hints of a supposed physical and historical "battle of Armageddon," or who craftily divide the biblical history into numerous so-called "dispensations," and who predict on the basis of the most flimsy interpretations of disjointed biblical passages the date of Christ's return, are all wrong. When they do these things they disobey Christ: for Jesus specifically taught, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matthew 24:36). The point of this parable is to tell the real truth, which is that we are to be ready, whenever it is that we must meet the Lord.
v.8. "And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves."
The wise maidens are not cruel or mean. For the purpose of the story is to show that "last minute" solutions cannot save us in the Judgment Day, if we have not been living the way God wants us to live. When Christ comes, whenever that may be, we must be ready. We can't expect others to do for us what we alone must do for ourselves. We cannot make the prayers of others, our own. We cannot take credit for the philanthropy of others. The faith of our neighbors cannot be credited to us. Neither can their love, their obedience, their service, nor their repentance. In short, we all have to do our own preparing for the Last Judgment.
Jesus is telling you and me that whether the end comes when we die, or whether the end comes when He returns to judge the living and the dead - the responsibility each of us has is to be ready. If we are, then we are numbered among the "faithful," and the "wise". Lukewarm, nominal Christianity will do us no good on that day, and it will be too late then to do anything about it. The time for preparing is now!
v. 10. ". . . and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast."
The five maidens who had brought extra oil with them were prepared when the wedding party was delayed. They were ready. So also are those Christians who live their lives daily in faith and obedience to God, whose hearts and spirits turn toward Him in love and devotion, and whose deeds reflect that faith and love. So, when they meet the Lord, either at their death, or at His Second Coming, He will recognize them, and welcome them into His eternal Kingdom. But those whose lives are unprepared have another end.
v. 11-12. "Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you."
"I do not know you!" What fearsome words for a Christian to hear! If we are like those foolish maidens, Jesus says He doesn't know us. Why? Because we never talk to Him in prayer. He doesn't know us, because we don't do good deeds in His name. He doesn't know us, because we don't long for His presence, we rarely struggle over what it means to serve Him, we hardly ever sacrifice for Him. That's why, when He comes, we will not be ready to meet Him as persons whom He knows. How sad and tragic for a person who bears the name "Christian" to hear Christ say to him "I do not know you. . ."
The parable ends with words designed to shake up "nominal Christians" and to alert us to what we must do. The words are serious and fateful. V. 13. "Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." Be ready, He says. Be ready every day. Be ready every hour. Be ready every minute.
Watch. Be ready.
For you know neither the day nor the hour.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America