My first title for this piece was “Good Works are the Ticket into the Kingdom of Heaven.” That’s a title/statement that would make the average Lutheran theologian react in defense of what he/she was taught in confirmation and seminary. Let me explain how Jesus’s parable about the kingdom of heaven via the Ten Wise and Foolish Virgins supports the first title, and yet, isn’t the whole answer.
Before you can begin to interpret this or any parable about the kingdom of heaven, you have to know that Jesus was not speaking about what will happen at the end of time. Jesus and the Jewish tradition had no judgment day theology that spoke of people going to heaven or hell at the end of the world.
The kingdom of heaven that Jesus spoke of (as I explained in detail in The Kingdom of Heaven is for Real) is the development of unity and harmony in the present day.
Oil makes things work smoothly, with less effort. Oil greatly reduces the friction between objects. It unblocks the joints or junctures that have been stuck in one place by rust or inaction. Most important in this story of the ten virgins and their ancient lamps, oil is what feeds the flame and brings light into the world.
The oil for the lamps represents good works. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Your light can’t shine without good works fueling the light.
There’s more to this justification. Just look at the string of stories before and after this parable in Matthew 24 and 25. Who is the faithful and wise servant in the story immediately before the ten bridesmaids? The one who does his job, caring for and giving food to household of the master. Servants who treat the household poorly will end up living in sorrow and anger.
The parable following the parable of the ten bridesmaids is about a master entrusting servants with his talents. The servants who used what they had been given to increase the treasure of the master will enter the joy (which is plentiful in the kingdom of harmony and unity) of the lord. Those who don’t use what they are given to increase the treasure of the master will not experience the joy they could have experienced.
A third parable seals the deal. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned (good works) and you will be welcomed into the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed – unity. Good works, done from compassion and commitment to the well-being of others, will allow you to enter the development of unity that Jesus called the kingdom of heaven.
There’s one small question. In the parable, it’s not the oil or the light that gets the five wise virgins into the wedding banquet where there is joy and celebrating. After all, the foolish virgins bought some oil and came back. Still, they were not admitted into the celebration. To focus on the oil misses the point.
The parable was about their readiness or not. The wise bridesmaids were ready, willing, and prepared to act when the need presented itself — ready to feed, ready to clothe, ready to visit, ready to welcome the Son of Man when he showed up in their lives.
Everything Jesus talks about in these two chapters is about being ready for the Son of Man to appear. If you are ready to act, to perform a good work, when a hungry person, a sick person, a homeless person, etc., appears in your life (“Inasmuch as you did it for the least of these, you did it to me”), you will be assisting in bringing the kingdom of harmony, unity, into being.
To quote Martin Luther: “But know that to serve God is nothing else than to serve your neighbor and do good to him in love, be it a child, wife, servant, enemy, friend.…If you do not find yourself among the needy and the poor, where the Gospel shows us Christ, then you may know that your faith is not right, and that you have not yet tasted of Christ’s benevolence and work for you.”
If he (or she) shows up and you aren’t ready to help, you will lose out on your chance to bring peace, hope, joy, love, goodness, and unity into the world. Every time you are able to respond by doing the right thing in love, you will enter into the joy of the lord…and the kingdom of unity.
So in the words of the Boy Scouts: “be prepared.”
The Son of Man is coming at a time you do not expect it. Will you be ready to act in love?
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