These two words encapsule the theme of the Gospel. The five foolish virgins did not watch, and that led to their exclusion from the banquet. But what does this mean? After all, the problem, arguably, wasn’t that the virgins didn’t watch, but that they didn’t have reserves of oil. Why does Jesus conclude a parable that begins with tone of “Be sure to have reserves of oil” with “Stay awake and keep your eyes open”? It’s like mixed metaphors. There are two ways we can go with this, two interpreations.
The first interpretation is that “watch” here – despite its meaning – cannot mean “stay awake,” because, as we have seen, the wise virgins fell asleep as well. It means, obviously, to be mindful and prepared, to think about what is needed to be ready for the main mission the virgins had, which was escorting the bridegroom to the wedding.
This is an interpretation that follows how the parable is set up. The five foolish virgins, after all, are introduced as “foolish.” Why? Because they didn’t have reserves of oil.
The interpretation then follows this foundation. The foolish virgins had not oil because they didn’t prepare for the delay. They had enough oil for the immediate coming of the bridegroom, but didn’t factor in that he might be delayed. The wise virgins did, and so brought extra oil. That’s significant. It gives us a focus about what Jesus is teaching here. He’s teaching that He will be delayed, and that we should be prepared for that.
Keep in mind, many early Christians believed Jesus would be returning quickly. Several times in the New Testament there is teaching about how Christians should handle it if in fact Jesus doesn’t return quickly. Here are some other examples:
From Matthew: But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of
From Revelation: When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
And here’s the most famous one from II Peter: But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
So why is Jesus delayed?
Well, we know He’s going to prepare a place for us. Above we learn the Lord is allowing time for repentance. Finally, there seems to a be a “letting of blood” needed from Christ’s bride, paralleling the requirement for blood to show on the nuptial sheets of the bridegroom and his virgin bride, to prove her purity. Is the same true of Church? Is this the reason for the delay? To purify the Church through martyrdom and test her?
Whatever the case, our task is to be watchful, to consider the requirements for preparation, and to make sure we have reserves of oil. It’s to nurture those things which keep the flame of faith flickering, prayer and God’s Word, attendance at church giving thanks, receiving the sacrament, and so on.
The second interpretation is a bit more surprising and goes with the word Jesus actually used, “watch therefore.” Watch. The word specifically means to stay awake and alert, even to keep ones eyes open. But wait a minute! Didn’t the five wise virgins also sleep? Yes. But perhaps here’s the subtle point. When the bridegroom came, their eyes were filled with light and his face. Meanwhile, the foolish virgins were away from the groom in darkness. The wise virgins were “awake” and “watched” in a way other than simply by not sleeping.
In other words, “awake” isn’t a subjective thing, but an objective thing. It’s not about what was going on with the virgins eyes and state of mind, but rather what was going on with the object of their vision. As long as the bridegroom wasn’t there, it was like a sleep, like night. But as he approached, it was like being made awake.
“Watch therefore” means “keep your eyes filled with Christ.” To have your eyes filled with Christ is being awake. On these terms, the foolish virgin’s foolishness wasn’t so much that they didn’t prepare, but that they left the scene when the bridegroom came! Of course, they felt they had to leave the scene because their duty was to escort him with lighted candle, so that indeed was part of their foolishness.
But, say the foolish virgins stayed put even when their lamps went out. Say they said, “Sorry, sir, but we didn’t bring enough oil. But we’d rather be here for this great moment than not be here.” Would they still have been foolish? One has to believe that if they’d been humble and repentant, the bridegroom would have forgiven them.
Or again, if indeed the “watch therefore” is governed not by the virgins staying awake or not staying awake – because again, they all in fact did fall asleep, even the wise ones – but rather by idea of sticking around when the bridegroom comes, because he himself is the wakefulness of the virgins, then there’s a suggestion that the bridegroom himself had a sort of self-generating light, that the lamps weren’t ultimately needed.
This, indeed, is exactly as the Bible teaches regarding Christ’s return. As Revelation says, “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.” In the waiting time, that is, we are “dark,” but when He returns, there will be a revelation of light, or as St. Paul puts it, a “revealing of the sons of God” or the “sons of light.”
So, yes, the lamps of the virgins did provide light, a real light, a needed light as part of their task. But at the end of the day, this light would be swept away like a shadow with the coming of the “light of Light,” our Lord. Should the foolish virgins simply have stayed put and stayed “watchful,” they wouldn’t have been so concerned about their lack of oil, and simply rejoiced in the glory of the bridegroom.
Their foolishness, then, wasn’t that they didn’t have reserves of oil, but that their lack of oil led them away from the bridegroom when they should have stayed put. Again, Jesus’ final word isn’t, “Make sure you have reserves of oil, therefore.” Rather, it’s “Watch, therefore.”
When Jesus returns, He is clear, we should be doing one thing, watching, keeping our eyes open, not fussing about what we need to be doing. Just watch, become filled with light, a light, yes, our eyes have been adjusting too because of the light of faith from our lamps; but in the end, just watch.