Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary (Page 30 of 32)

By: Fr. Victor PotapovRead time: 215 mins16004 Hits

The parable of the ten virgins, who await the coming bridegroom and go out to meet him, is found only in the Gospel according to Matthew. However, certain details have parallels in the Gospel according to the Apostle Luke (Luke 13:25).

“Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them 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. 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. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 25:1-13).

The wise and foolish virgins are the souls of men. Both those who believe in the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and those who hope to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, will stand at the Dread Judgment to enter the Kingdom of Heaven or not to enter – their faith not withstanding.

Here Christ figures His Second Coming in the coming of the Jewish bridegroom to the home of the bride during the wedding ritual. According to ancient custom, after the betrothal, the bridegroom with family and friends would go to the home of the bride, who awaits the groom in her best attire, surrounded by her friends. The wedding ceremony usually took place at night, so the friends of the bride could meet the bridegroom with lamps burning. Because of the uncertain time of the bridegroom’s arrival, those waiting would store extra oil in case the lamps might burn out. The bride, with her face covered by a thick veil, the bridegroom and all the participants in the solemnity would proceed to the bridegroom’s home with singing and music. The doors would be shut, the marriage contract would be signed, “blessings” would be pronounced in honor of the bridegroom and the bride, the bride would uncover her face, and the marriage feast would begin, seven days for a maiden or three days for a widow remarrying.

In this parable, the marriage feast is the Kingdom of Heaven, where the faithful will be united to the Lord for eternal life. The waiting for the bridegroom is a man’s whole earthly life, preparing himself for the meeting with the Lord. The shut doors of the marriage chamber do not admit those who were late, that is, those who died before repentance and amendment.

According to Hierarch John Chrysostom, Christ shows the faithful entering the Kingdom of Heaven as virgins, thereby extolling spiritual as well as physical virginity. “Here,” says Chrysostom, “the gift of virginity, the purity of holiness, Christ calls a lamp; while philanthropy, kindheartedness, helping the poor, he calls oil.” Oil in Sacred Scripture is usually an image of the Holy Spirit, and burning oil is the spiritual ardor of the faithful, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The righteous Venerable Seraphim of Sarov explains the parable of the ten virgins as an understanding of Christian life as “the acquisition of the grace of the All-Holy Spirit.” In a remarkable conversation with the merchant, Motovilov, Venerable Seraphim said to his companion: “In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, when the foolish ones lacked oil, it was said: “Go and buy in the market.” But when they had bought, the door to the bride chamber was already shut and they could not get in. Some say that the lack of oil in the lamps of the foolish virgins means a lack of good deeds in their lifetime. Such an interpretation is not quite correct. Why should they be lacking in good deeds if they are called virgins, even though foolish ones? Virginity is the supreme virtue, an angelic state, and it could take the place of all other good works.”

“I think that what they were lacking was the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God. These virgins practiced the virtues, but their spiritual ignorance made them suppose that the Christian life consisted merely in doing good works. By doing a good deed they thought they were doing the work of God, but they little cared whether they acquired thereby the grace of God’s Spirit. Patristic books mentions such ways of life, based on doing “good” without testing whether the ways bring the grace of the Spirit of God, are mentioned in the Patristic books. ‘There is another way which is deemed good at the beginning, but it ends at the bottom of hell.'”

Not every “good work,” according to the teaching of Venerable Seraphim, has spiritual value. Only those “good works” have value that are done in Christ’s name. In fact, unbelieving people perform good works. But the Apostle Paul says of them: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (I Corinthians 13:3).

Venerable Seraphim says: “Antony the Great in his letters to Monks says of such virgins: ‘Many Monks and virgins have no idea of the different kinds of will which act in man, and they do not know that we are influenced by three wills: the first is God’s all-perfect and all-saving will; the second is our own human will which, if not destructive, yet neither is it saving; and the third is the devil’s will – wholly destructive.’ And this third will of the enemy teaches man either not to do any good deeds, or to do them out of vanity, or to do them merely for virtue’s sake and not for Christ’s sake. The second, our own will, teaches us to do everything to flatter our passions, or else it teaches us like the enemy to do good for the sake of good and not care for the grace which is acquired by it. But the first, God’s all-saving will, consists in doing good solely to acquire the Holy Spirit, as an eternal, inexhaustible treasure that cannot be rightly valued. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is, so to say, the oil which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish just because they had forgotten the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is or can be saved, for: ‘Every soul is quickened by the Holy Spirit and exalted by purity and mystically illumined by the Trinal Unity.”

“This is the oil in the lamps of the wise virgins that could burn long and brightly, and these virgins with their burning lamps were able to meet the Bridegroom, Who came at midnight, and could enter the bride chamber of joy with him. But the foolish ones, though they went to market to buy some oil when they saw their lamps going out, were unable to return in time, for the door was already shut.”

The parable of the ten virgins shows that only a man’s earthly life in God, according to the testaments of Christ and, therefore, consonant with the Kingdom of Heaven, will justify him both at the particular judgment (after death) and at the general Dread Judgment. But all “formal” Christians, who live out of contact with God and care not about their salvation, prepare for themselves a rejection. “No one mounts to heaven while living only,” teaches Venerable Isaac the Syrian. Neither formal faith, without a life according to Christ’s commandments (Luke 6:46; James 1:22; Romans 2:13), nor prophecies in Christ’s name or many miracles worked by His Name, as is evident from the Savior’s words (Matthew 7:21-23), are sufficient for inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven.

“Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:9), and it will be natural for such to hear the words of the Son of God:

“Verily I say unto you, I know you not” (Matthew 25:12).

[Quotations here are taken from Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, St. Seraphim of Sarov, A Spiritual Biography (Blanco TX: New Sarov Press 1994) 172-174.]

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