Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
What does it mean that the bridegroom was delayed? What was the “right time” for the bridegroom to return, suggested by the language here? Jesus must be speaking in a way meant for us. He knew many of His disciples would expect Him to return in their lifetimes. He knew the wait would go on and on, that from their perspective, he would “be delayed.” Of course, the Lord knows His time, and there is no “delay.” The Lord will come when He will come.
For us who feel as if the Lord is lingering on and on, well, there you have it. He’s “delayed.” Something in the cosmic arena is keeping Him from coming at the time we think He should come. Again, it’s not that anything is really “keeping” Him. He will come when He will come.
Meantime, there is a good chance we will slumber and sleep. This detail has always struck me as difficult, because in the epistle for this same Sunday, we hear St. Paul say, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night.”
Were the virgins wrong to sleep? Given the conclusion, it couldn’t have been that bad. Half the virgins that slept ended up at the feast. And nothing in the text suggests they were wrong to sleep. Even for the foolish virgins, their foolishness wasn’t that their oil ran out while they slept. The text says the light was going out after they awoke, as they were trimming their lambs. Their foolishness was that they didn’t prepare for the longer wait.
Let’s go with two theories. The first theory is that sleeping is among the dangers we have to be aware of as we await Christ’s return, per St. Paul. The second theory is that Matthew and Paul mean “sleep” in two different senses.
According to the first theory, sleeping is simply one of the meany weaknesses Christians struggle with. Paul has to exhort, “let us not sleep” because it’s clearly a temptation for Christians. Even the five wise virgins fell for the temptation. It’s not exactly a “you’re going to go to hell if you sleep” type temptation, but a temptation none the less. It’s what Peter, James, and John fell for when they slept in the garden, and Jesus said to them, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Understood in this way, what would “sleeping” be? In the context of St. Paul’s words, and using the example of Peter, James, and John, we could say “sleeping” is simply taking a break from vigilance and alertness, that is, not taking a prayerful posture. St. Paul talked about those who say “peace and safety” at the end of time, as if falling into a cozy complacency regarding life in this world. We pray because we long for a new kingdom to come, not because we’re quite satisfied in the current kingdom. If we cease to pray, we may be beginning to slumber.
Not everyone is praying constantly, as St. Paul counsels, but that doesn’t mean everyone is being lulled into faithlessness. Yet, consistent repose from the things of alert faith can be dangerous. We can become lulled into slumber, falling into that cozy complacency regarding this world.
The second theory regarding sleep is that Paul and Matthew mean two different things by “sleep.” Again, nothing in the Gospel suggests the virgins sleeping was bad. The bridegroom was delayed, so the virgins did what would be expected in such a situation, they nodded off and fell to sleep.
By this theory, Paul’s use of “sleep” would be that outlined above, that is, taking a complacent attitude regarding the so-called “peace and safety” of this world. Matthew’s use, however, would be more benign.
It could be just an obvious narrative detail we need not get too worked up about. Of course they’d sleep. Or, maybe in means “sleep” in another way the New Testament often uses it, as in, “death.” Nine times in the New Testament the word is used in this way. Jesus said the little girl and Lazarus “slept.” St. Paul teaches about the resurrection of those who sleep.
Perhaps the oddest use of sleep in this sense comes up…right after the epistle for this week! After counseling us not to sleep, St. Paul writes, “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”
Paul switches from one metaphorical sense of sleep – to not be in place of cozy complacency – to another metaphorical sense of sleep – to die. Talk about mixed metaphors.
Well, going with the “sleep is death” path of the “sleep is not wrong” theory, where might this take us? Did the ten virgins represent Christians who have died, who fell asleep in Christ? Midnight clearly symbolizes the return of Christ, does it not? The shout at midnight parallels the blast of the trumpet. The ten virgins awaking would be the resurrection.
But where this path runs into a thicket is what happens after the resurrection. There just are no correspondences. How, when we rise from the dead, will we have lamps to provide light, especially when Christ will be the morning sun at His second coming, providing light, as Revelation says, “There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light.”
There is a way to bring all these ideas together, however. We recall that baptism is a death and resurrection, and that this occurs daily. By these terms, baptism is also a sleeping and wakefulness. To die is to sleep. To rise up is to waken.
St. Paul speaks in this way in Ephesians, in a section that really brings many strains together, the night, foolishness, arising, sleep, etc. Here it is in full:
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says: “Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.” See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.
To be awake not as fools is to redeem the time (not falling into that cozy complacency), being filled (with the “oil,” to draw from our Gospel) of the Holy Spirit. How? Through Psalms, hymns, songs, giving thanks through Trinitarian worship, and by submitting to one another, that is, through good order in the church.
This brings us back to a theme brought up in last devotion, that to attend the bride is to attend church. Church is where all the singing and Trinitarian thanks-giving happens! Church is where the people of God are oriented toward the East, looking for her Lord. It’s an “alert” position.
Yes, we sleep. We all sleep. Peter, James, and John slept. Not everyone sings and prays constantly. But when the “day of the Lord” arrives – Sunday – the wise ones hear the call and attend the bride. It’s part of our baptismal cycle, to die daily (sleep) to our old selves, and then to rise again with Christ. The foolish ones die daily (sleep) as well, but when they arise, they actually walk away from Christ. They willfully depart, because they didn’t care enough to be ready when He came. Christ wasn’t a priority.