There’s an old proverb that simply says, “be prepared.” The idea is that someone who is prepared is someone who will be ready for any challenge that might come along. Well, Jesus once provided an illustration to show His followers that this idea is also important spiritually as well…
“The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1).
While Jesus is using this story (or “parable“) to express a deeper spiritual truth, the activity that He describes here actually refers to a real historic practice of His day. You see, when the time came for an engaged* couple to be married in those days, the groom and his friends would travel together to the bride’s house. The bride and her bridesmaids would wait there at her parent’s home for the groom and once they arrived, the entire wedding party would go together to the marriage ceremony and a feast of celebration. So this story begins with a sense of expectancy and great anticipation- but we’re about to find out that there is trouble on the horizon…
“Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps” (Matthew 25:2-4 NIV).
In the days before electrical power and batteries, a fiery torch, candle, or oil filled lamp were the only portable means available to provide light after sunset. So as the darkness gathered and the time of the wedding drew near, the bridal party brought out the oil lamps that would enable them to see their way to the marriage feast. Now it seems that all the bridesmaids started off OK because it appears that they all had at least enough oil in their lamps to begin with. Unfortunately, five of them did not have the good judgment to be prepared with enough oil to keep their lamps burning if the groom was delayed for some reason. On the other hand, the five remaining bridesmaids made certain to plan ahead so they would be ready no matter when the wedding took place.
“Since the groom was late, all the bridesmaids became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight someone shouted, ‘The groom is here! Come to meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaids woke up and got their lamps ready. The foolish ones said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil. Our lamps are going out.’ But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘We can’t do that. There won’t be enough for both of us. Go! Find someone to sell you some oil'” (Matthew 25:5-9 GW).
Notice that these bridesmaids weren’t criticized for going to sleep; after all, it’s certainly not wrong to be sleeping at midnight. Besides, people usually don’t expect a party to break out in the middle of the night- but that’s what happened. So the ten bridesmaids all rose to fire up their lamps but only five of them had light and the other five didn’t. Now, everyone knew which of the bridesmaids were really ready and which ones weren’t. The five bridesmaids without any light desperately turned to the other five for help, only to be told, “We can’t help you because there won’t be enough for all of us- you’ll have to go and buy some oil on your own.”
“So the foolish girls went off to buy some oil…” (Matthew 25:10a TEV).
The five unprepared bridesmaids had no choice but to leave the bride and rest of the bridal party to try and find some oil for their lamps. Unfortunately for them, most stores are usually closed in the middle of the night and while they were out looking for the local 24-hour oil lamp convenience store, guess who shows up…
“…and while they were gone, the bridegroom arrived. The five who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. Later the others arrived. ‘Sir, sir! Let us in!’ they cried out. ‘Certainly not! I don’t know you,’ the bridegroom answered. And Jesus concluded, ‘Watch out, then, because you do not know the day or the hour'” (Matthew 25:10b-13 GNB).
The five foolish bridesmaids did the right thing at the wrong time and missed their opportunity to be a part of the celebration that they had been waiting for. If they had only paid attention to their need while they still had time, everything would have been OK. But while they were gone, the groom showed up and the rest of the wedding party took off without them.
Now it’s easy to say, C’mon, what’s the big deal? So they made a mistake- why couldn’t the groom just open the door and let them in? Well, the fact that these bridesmaids were not prepared created a number of problems. First, their mistake meant that half of the bridal party had to abandon the bride right before the wedding. Wouldn’t you feel insulted if you were a bride and half of your bridesmaids suddenly deserted you just as you were preparing to walk down the aisle?
Another problem was that the five unprepared bridesmaids missed some critical elements of the wedding festivities, such as the ceremonial wedding procession. They also missed the most important part of the wedding celebration- that part during the feast when the groom brought the bride to their new home for the first time. These represented important cultural traditions in that society and someone who was invited to participate in these ceremonies but failed to do so because they were unprepared brought insult to the dignity of the bride and groom.
So because they weren’t ready, the foolish bridesmaids were shut out from the party and no amount of pleading could get them inside. In fact, when they begged to be allowed in to enter the party, they were told, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you” (NIV) meaning, “you are not recognized as people who are allowed to come in.” While these five bridesmaids looked like they were prepared, it turned out they weren’t really ready for the groom to show up.
This same idea also applies for people today. Like the five wise bridesmaids in this story, it’s important to live the kind of lifestyle that anticipates that Jesus could return at any time. Whether Jesus returns for someone at the end of their life or whether He returns to begin a brand new chapter of history, our responsibility is to be ready whenever He appears just like the groom in this illustration.
*Or “betrothed.” See here for some more information