Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is a major part of how the Armenian Church approaches Easter. We enact it not just once, but twice — in the Palm Sunday Drnbatsek service, and again on Holy Tuesday.
Like all of Jesus’ teaching stories, its purpose is to disturb us, to raise questions and force us to reevaluate. In so doing, it invites us to enter the world of meaning that lies behind our own ordinary experience, a world where we begin to encounter the eternal significance of mundane life.
So let us look at the parable actively wondering what that significance might be.
The story of the wise and foolish virgins is embedded in a sequence of stories Jesus tells in Matthew’s Gospel about the way the kingdom of heaven arrives, and the different attitudes people take towards its arrival. It is sandwiched between two other parables about wise and foolish people.
One of those parables tells the story of a servant who does not know when his master may return. The servant has two choices: either he can keep the house in order and treat everyone well, ready to greet the master whenever he returns, or he can take advantage of the master’s absence to throw a big party at the house, carouse with his friends, and mistreat his fellow servants. In either case, when the master suddenly arrives, the results are predictable: praise and promotion for the wise servant or ignominious removal of the foolish servant from his position of trust.
Immediately following the wise and foolish virgins story is another parable, this time about a rich man who before going on a long journey entrusts three servants with funds. Through wise investment, two of the servants double the amount they were given. The third, fearing the master’s wrath, foolishly buries his. When the master returns he rewards the first two in proportion to their gains, but banishes the third and gives his amount to the most diligent investor.
Between these two parables, Jesus tells the wise and foolish virgins story. We all know how it goes. Ten women are invited to accompany a groom to his evening wedding. Knowing that it will get dark, they all bring oil lamps to light their way into the happy event. The groom had not specified arrival time, so they didn’t know how long they might have to wait.
Five of the young women were prepared for the possibility that he would come late; they carried containers of extra oil for their lamps. Five were not prepared, even though they knew he would probably delay his arrival. Perhaps they thought that if he was late, they would extinguish their lamps for a while during the wait. Who knows. However they all dozed off, and when the groom’s approach was finally announced, the five without extra oil realized that they didn’t have enough. When they asked their better-prepared companions to share some of their oil, they wouldn’t. So while the five went off to buy more oil the groom arrived and those who were prepared went in with him to the house. When the others returned and knocked on the door, instead of welcoming them the groom said, “I don’t know who you are.”
For many people, this is a troubling story. The five “wise” virgins get to go into the wedding festivities, why? Because they were mean; should they not have shared their oil with the other five? What kind of god-pleasing behavior is that?
This jarring reaction is intended. It is intended to make us question, to point us toward a deeper level of the story. Our recoiling at the thought of people being excluded from the kingdom of God because someone else wouldn’t give them oil tells us that whatever “oil” is, it’s very, very important to have it. Apparently, it can’t be shared, yet a person doesn’t enter the kingdom of God without it.
Another clue to oil’s importance is that it’s not at all necessary to the story: the foolish virgins could have been excluded from the feast for having been slow. Or lazy. Or disheveled. Or late. Or the story could have hinged on their not having brought a present, or they could have been denied entry because they were not properly dressed. But no. They didn’t get in because they had to go try to find oil. Something no good event planner would ever have let happen somehow happens in this story. Clearly, the oil is key.
So, we should ask, what is this all-important oil?
To find out, the Armenian fathers first paid special attention to Jesus’ own stories about oil.
One of Jesus’ most famous oil stories is about a Samaritan who finds a wounded man by the side of the road after religious leaders have passed by without helping him. The first thing the Samaritan does is to pour oil on his wounds. Oil, in other words, is healing. By giving it, the Samaritan puts the wounded man on the road toward wellness.
A second oil story from the Gospels recounts how a woman anointed Jesus’ head with very expensive, fragrant oil, symbolically showing that she understood his approaching death — something even his loving disciples didn’t want to acknowledge. Love that spares no expense to validate the beloved is also oil. Without it, we are all indeed in darkness. With it, we light up the way into the kingdom that is already among us.
In other words, the Armenian fathers said, the wise virgins could not give the foolish any of their own oil, even if they wanted to. We can only store up the oil of kindness, care, healing and validating love by doing those things ourselves. No one else can be loving on our behalf. No one else can create the light of our compassion. That’s just how it is. And one day, there will be no more time to accumulate oil. We will either have it, or we won’t.
So, in the end, did the foolish virgins get in, or did they not? The story itself doesn’t tell us, but the Drnbatsek service says that for us, foolish as we are, the door to eternal happiness will indeed be opened. And so we can hope that there is still time to wisely supply ourselves with the oil of compassion, charity, and love, in order to shed light on the arrival of the Groom who has invited us all to be part of his most joyous and eternal celebration of loving union with humanity.