It is interesting to notice the variety of aspects in which, in this long discourse, Jesus sets forth His Second Coming. It is like the flood that swept away a world. It is like a thief stealing through the dark, and breaking up a house. It is like a master reckoning with his servants. These three metaphors suggest solemn, one might almost say alarming, images. But then this parable comes in and tells how that coming is like that of a bridegroom to the bride's house, with joy and music. I am afraid that the average Christian, when he thinks at all of Christ's coming, takes these three first aspects rather than the last one, and so loses what is meant to be a bright hope and a great stimulus. It is not in human nature to think much about a terrible future. It is not in human nature to avoid thinking a great deal about a blessed future. And although one does not wish to preach carelessness, or the ignoring of the solemn side of that coming, sure I am that our Christian lives would be stronger and purer, brighter and better able to front the solemn side, if the blessed side of it were more often the object of our contemplation.
Turning to the words of my text, which seem to me to be the very centre and heart of this parable, I ask: --
I. What makes readiness?
There have been many answers given to that question. One has been that to be ready means to be perpetually having before us the thought of the coming of the Lord, and that has been taken to be the meaning of the watchfulness which is enjoined in the context. But the parable itself points in an altogether different direction. Who, according to it, were ready? The five who had lamps and oil. To have these was readiness.
It is beautiful to notice how these five who were ready when the Master came had 'slumbered and slept' like the other five. Ah! that touch in the picture shows that 'He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.' It is not in human nature to keep up permanently a tension of expectation for a far-off good; and in profound knowledge of the weakness of humanity, our Lord, in this parable, says: 'While the Bridegroom tarried they all slumbered' -- and yet the five were ready when the Bridegroom came. In like manner, Christian men and women who have no expectation at all that the Second Coming of the Lord will occur during their lifetimes, may nevertheless be ready, if they have the burning lamps and the store of oil. The question then comes to be, What is meant by these?
Perhaps harm has been done by insisting upon too minute and specific interpretation. But, at the same time, we must not forget that, from the very beginning of the Jewish Revelation, from the time when the seven-branched candlestick was appointed for the Tabernacle, right down to the day when the Apocalyptic Seer saw in Patmos the Son of Man walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, the metaphor has had one meaning. The aggregate of God's people are intended to be, as Jesus told us immediately after He had drawn the character of a true disciple, in the wonderful outlines of the Beatitudes, 'the light of the world,' and they will be so in the measure in which the gentle radiance of that character shines through their lives, as the light of a lamp through frosted glass. But the aggregate is made up of units, and individual Christians are to shine 'as lights in the world,' and their separate brightnesses are to coalesce in the clustered light of the whole Church. What makes an individual Christian a light is a Christ-like life, derived from that Life which was 'the Light of men.' The lamp which the five wise virgins bear is the same as the light which the consistent Christian is. The inner self illuminated from Christ, the source of all our illumination, lights up the outward life, which each of us may be conceived as carrying in our hands. It is not ourselves, and yet it is ourselves made visible. It is not ourselves, but Christ in us; and so we shine as lights in the world, only by 'holding forth the word of life.'
That modification of the figure by Paul is profoundly true and important, for after all we are not so much lights as candelabra, and only as we bear aloft the flashing light of Christ shall we shine 'in a naughty world.' Our lamps, then, are Christ-like characters derived from Christ, and to have and bear these is the first element in being ready for the Bridegroom.
Dear friends, remember that this whole parable is spoken to professing Christians and real members of Christ's Church; and that there is no meaning in it unless it is possible to quench the light of the lamp. Remember that our Lord said once, 'Let your loins be girt,' and put that as the necessary condition of lamps burning. 'Let your loins be girt' with resolved effort of faith and dependence, and make sure that you have the provision for the continuance of the light. So, and only so, shall any man be of the happy company of them that were ready.
II. Note that this readiness is the condition of entrance.
'They that were ready went in with Him to the marriage.' Now faith alone unites a man to Jesus Christ, and makes him an heir of salvation. But faith alone, if that were possible, would not admit a man to the marriage-feast. Of course the supposed case is an impossible case, for as James has taught us in his plain moral way, faith which is alone dies, or perhaps never lived. But what our Lord tells us here is that moral character, which is of such a sort as to shine in the world's darkness, is the condition of entrance. People say that salvation is by faith. Yes, that is true; but salvation is by works also, only that the works are made possible through faith. In the very necessity and nature of things nothing but the readiness which consists in continued Christ-like character will ever allow a man to pass the threshold. Now do you believe that? Or are you saying, 'I trust to Jesus Christ, and so I am sure I shall go to Heaven.' No, you will not, unless your faith is making you heavenly, in your temper and conduct. For to talk about the next world as a place of retribution is but an imperfect statement of the case. It is not a place of retribution so much as of outcome, and the apostle gives a completer view when he says, 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' That future life is not the reward of goodness so much as the necessary consequence of holiness. Holiness and blessedness are, in some measure, separated here; there they are two names for the one condition. 'No man shall see the Lord,' without that holiness. 'They that were ready went in.' Of course they did. Am I ready? That question means, Am I, by my faith in Jesus Christ, receiving into my heart the anointing which that great anointed One gives us? Am I living a life that is a light in the world? If so, and not else, my entrance is sure.
We have seen what this readiness consists in, and how it is the condition of entrance. There is one last thought --
III. To delay preparation is madness.
There is nothing in all Christ's parables more tragical, more pathetic, than this picture of the hapless five when they woke up to find their lamps going out. They heard the procession coming, the sound of feet drawing nearer, and the music borne every moment more loudly on the midnight air. And there were they, with dying lamps and empty oil-cans. Their shock, their alarm, their bewilderment, are all expressed in that preposterous request of theirs, Give us of your oil.'
The answer of the wise virgins has been said to be cold and unfeeling. It is not that; it is simply a plain statement of facts. The oil that belongs to me cannot be given to you. That is the first lesson taught us by the request of the foolish and the answer of the wise. 'If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself; and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.' 'Every man shall bear his own burden.' There is no possible transference of moral character or spiritual gifts in that fashion. The awful individuality of each soul, and its unshareable personal responsibility, come solemnly to view in the words which superficial readers pass by: 'Not so, lest there be not enough for us and you.' You cannot share your brother's oil. You may share many of his possessions; not this.
'Go to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.' The question of whether there was time to buy was not for the five wise to answer. There was not much chance that the would-be buyers would find a shop open and anybody waiting to sell them oil at twelve o'clock at night. But they risked it; and when they came back they were too late.
Now, dear friends, all the lessons of this parable may be taken by us, though we do not believe, and think we have good reason for not believing, that the literal return of Jesus Christ is to take place in our time. It does not matter very much, in so far as the teaching of this parable is concerned, whether the Bridegroom comes to us, or whether we go to the Bridegroom. I do not for a moment say that there is no such thing as coming to Jesus Christ in the last hours of life, and becoming ready to enter even then, but I do say that it is a very rare case, and that there is a terrible risk in delaying till then. But I pray you to remember that our parable is addressed to, and contemplates the case of, not people who are away from Jesus Christ, but Christians, and that it is to them that its message is chiefly brought. It is they whom it warns not to put off making sure that they have provision for the continuance of the Christ-life. We have, day by day, to go to Him that sells and 'buy for ourselves.' And we know, what it did not fall within our Lord's purpose to say in this parable, that the price of the oil is the surrender of ourselves, and the opening of our hearts to the entrance of that divine Spirit. Then there will be no fear but that the lamp will hold out to burn, and no fear but that 'when the Bridegroom, with His feastful friends, passes to bliss, at the mid-hour of night,' we shall gain our entrance.