As we draw near to Lent, it seems appropriate to transition to the stories told by our Lord in the final days of his earthly life—the parables of judgment. I will be focusing on the three parables of Matthew 25—the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Great Judgment. In the opinion of Robert Farrar Capon, these parables represent the capstone of Jesus’ parabolic teaching. Not only are the key notes of his parables present in them, but they “are at last harmonized and given their ultimate expression” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 490).
I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how very strange the Parable of the Ten Virgins actually is until I started preparing for this article. I don’t know how to account for this. Either I never preached on the parable (unlikely), or I simply preached vacuous, insipid sermons (likely).
Then the Kingdom of the heavens shall be likened to ten virgins who, taking their own lamps, went out to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish and five wise. For the foolish, when taking the lamps, did not take oil with them. But the wise took oil in vessels along with their lamps. With the bridegroom taking a long time, however, they all grew drowsy and lay down to sleep. And in the middle of the night there was a cry: “Look, the bridegroom; go out to meet him!” Then all those virgins were roused and trimmed their lamps. But the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones answered by saying, “Surely there would not be enough for us and for you; rather than that, go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” But while they were gone away to make their purchase the bridegroom came, and those who were prepared went in with him to the wedding celebrations, and the door was shut. And afterward the remaining virgins also come, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But in reply he said, “Amen, I tell you, I do not know you.” So be alert, for you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt 25:1-13)
Jesus opens the parable with language that takes us back to his early parables: “Then the Kingdom of the heavens shall be likened to . . .” Capon summarizes the parabolic development from kingdom to grace to judgment:
At the beginning of his ministry, in the parables of the kingdom, he proclaimed the mystery of a kingdom already present in this world. In the parables of grace that followed, he proclaimed the device by which that mystery operates, namely, grace working through death and resurrection. Now though, he comes full circle and gives, in the concluding parables of judgment, a series of pictures of how it ultimately triumphs, separating those who accept the mystery in faith from those who, by unfaith, reject his freely given acceptance of them in the resurrection of the dead. (p. 496)
Jesus tells a story about ten young girls invited to a wedding party. Their task is to carry lamps to welcome the arrival of the bridegroom. The wise five bring extra vessels of oil; the foolish five fail, as it turns out, to bring sufficient oil. As a result the oil-deprived girls are unprepared for the bridegroom’s late arrival and end up excluded from the celebration: “I do not know you,” the groom tells them. That’s a harsh response, don’t you think? It’s not the girls’ fault that the guy ended up coming late to his own wedding. We can imagine our teenagers sitting around talking and giggling and finally nodding off, only to be awakened by the announcement of the bridegroom’s arrival. By then the oil in five of the lamps had run out. The foolish five try to persuade the others to share their extra oil with them, but the wise five (no doubt doing their best to hide their sniggers) bluntly tell them to bugger off. The oil-deprived girls then run off to frantically look for a merchant who might be willing to open up his shop in the middle of the night (good luck with that!), while the lamp-lit girls join the festivities, the eschatological door closing behind them. So what are we to make of this story?
To grasp Capon’s reading of the judgment parables, one needs to grasp his understanding of the biblical notion of history:
In the Bible, the course of the world and the course of God’s action in it are like an arrow shot toward a target, not like a planet endlessly pursuing an unchanging, circular course. And nowhere is this “linear as opposed to circular” view more manifest than in the biblical notion of judgment. In a “circular” system, there is no possibility of judgment, of history-altering and history-fulfilling krisis, happening from within the system. The only controlling parousia (presence) in the orbit, say, of Mars around the sun is the constant presence of gravitation producing an equally constant repetition of course: Mars is not going anywhere but around. If there is a krisis, it will have to come from outside the system—from, for example, a collision with an alien body. But in a “linear” system, judgment is built in; krisis is the whole point of the system. The target is where the arrow is going, and every action in the whole of the arrow’s course—the drawing of it from the quiver, the setting of it on the bowstring, the releasing of the bow, and the flight of the arrow through the air—everything, quite literally, is governed by the history-fulfilling judgment of the bull’s-eye at the end: it partakes of the nature of that krisis at every point. (p. 494)
I do not know if scholars today would agree with Capon’s teleological construal of history as linear as opposed to circular (I suspect his acquaintance with the apocalyptic literature of Second Temple Judaism was limited); but I remember being taught something similar in seminary. The point is, if history is linear, an arrow launched at the beginning toward some future target, then all events and happenings share in the comprehensive purpose, goal, and meaning of the final judgment (krisis). History is one krisis after another, concluding in the absolute krisis that explains and justifies all.
So it is with the biblical view of history in general, and so it is with Jesus’ parables of judgment in particular. Both it and they are about an action going somewhere to happen. They are not about a system of static recurrences in which time goes on forever—where there is always, by the rules of the system, time for a second chance at everything. They do not allow you the luxury of a historical perspective in which a step taken too soon or a move made too late can always be remedied the next time around. Rather, they are about a world in which too early or too late can be crashing, fatal mistakes—in which there is only one chance for anything: one moment to aim the arrow, one brief, high time to make allowances for the crosswind, one critical instant to shoot, and one final judgment, hit or miss, on the entire proceeding. In the Ten Virgins, for example, the bridegroom comes late, the oil of the foolish has run out, the storekeepers’ shops are closed, and the door to the marriage feast is shut. In the Talents, the time for doing business is finally over for good. And in the Great Judgment, the day of ministry to the King who lives in the least is gone forever. (pp. 494-495)
Every good story concludes with an ending that wraps all the plot threads together in a coherent, satisfying whole. Lovers are reconciled (or not), the wicked are punished (or not), the virtuous rewarded (or not); puzzles are solved, long-sought treasure is found, hidden motives revealed, the mysterious depths of the human heart manifested. The ending is the judgment toward which the narrative has been leading—not just a terminus, in other words, but a conclusion that allows the auditors to say, “This was a great story.” Without such an ending, there is no history, only one damned thing after another. “What God saves by grace through faith,” Capon continues, “is precisely the dynamic of history, the once-and-never-again quality of a world he was pleased to make that way” (p. 495).
Back to the virgins. “The foolish,” Jesus tells us, “did not take oil with them.” But why should they have brought extra oil? Their lamps were full. The schedule was set. There was no reason to believe that the groom would not arrive on time. It’s not as if he were flying into town from LaGuardia. But dilly dally he did, and an early evening party ends up becoming a midnight party. But this is precisely the point of the story, remarks Capon: “in this world, something always does go wrong” (p. 497).
We read the parable and we immediately jump to the conclusion that the five “foolish” girls are justly excluded from the wedding feast. But why? “For whose fault is it, ultimately,” asks Capon, “that the prudentially correct amount of oil in the foolish girls’ lamps ran out?” Answer: “The bridegroom’s, that’s whose” (p. 498). There is no escaping the complicity of the bridegroom for his delayed arrival for the festivities, just as there is no escaping the complicity of the eternal Word in our many failures. Capon’s judgment is discomfortingly blunt:
And whose fault is it, finally, that Peter denied Jesus or that Judas betrayed him? It is God’s. If God had left Peter in the fishing business, Peter would never have gotten into waters he couldn’t navigate. If God had left Judas to be just the smartest CPA in the county, Judas would never have been tempted to run Jesus’ career for him. I said before that God is not an honest man. Well, he is not an innocent man either. He is just the only God we’ve got, and we’re stuck with him. That he is also stuck with us—and stuck by us—may take the curse off it all; but it does not do a thing about his complicity in our failures. Why he couldn’t have figured out a way of getting rid of sin without creating more sinners in the process is a big question. And the big answer is that there is no answer. No answer except Job’s, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” No answer except Jesus’, “Take this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” (p. 498)
I suspect that many readers will immediately jump to the bridegroom’s defense. Maybe one or two will even write a blog apologia on why he is not responsible for his delay to the wedding feast and why the foolish maidens should have been prepared for all eventualities. But what was the maidens’ real mistake? They trusted the groom not to stop off at his favorite bar for a few drinks . . . but he did . . . and was late . . . and at that moment the girls were doomed. Man plans, God disposes.
“Look, the bridegroom; go out to meet him!”
With this announcement we come to the parabolic krisis. The girls immediately awake from their slumbers and trim their lamps, only to discover that there’s not enough oil to go around. Capon elaborates:
But now Jesus brings on the krisis of unfaith, the judgment pronounced on those who thought that history could be brought home by something neater and more plausible than the mystery. “Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.” They all take the ordinary, prudential steps that life in this world dictates as necessary. But then they discover something. All the wick trimming in the world—all the brilliant steps that might be taken to make a properly designed operation run right—are irrelevant. The operation is not properly designed. The bridegroom is late for his own party: God has taken so long to do anything that the world has dug its own grave in the meantime. Unless there is something other than the wisdom of the world to help it, there is nothing for the world to do but to lie down and die. (p. 499)
There will be a true ending, and when it does come, the exalted Lord will reveal who is, and is not, living in a relationship of faith with him:
For that is the whole point of the parable: some day, late or soon, it will be too late even to believe. We become what we do. If we trust, we become trusters, and we enter into the sure possession of him whom we trust. If we distrust, we become distrusters and close out the only relationship with reality ever offered to us. That closure is the note on which the parable ends. “While they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, `Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”‘ The shut door is God’s final answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. In the death of Jesus, he closes forever the way of winning—the right-handed, prudential road to the kingdom, the path of living as the path of life. All the silly little girls with their Clorox bottles—all the neurotics of faith, all the wise fools who were willing to trust him in their lastness, lostness, leastness, and death—have gone into the party. And all the bright, savvy types who thought they had it figured are outside in the dark—with no oil and even less fun. The dreadful sentence, “Amen, I say to you, I never knew you,” is simply the truth of their condition. He does not say, “I never called you.” He does not say, “I never loved you.” He does not say, “I never drew you to myself.” He only says, “I never knew you—because you never bothered to know me.” (p. 500)
The Church speaks of a Dread Judgment and rightly so. None of us wish to hear “I do not know you” spoken to us through the closed door. On the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Orthodox sing:
When Thou, O God, shalt come to earth with glory,
all things shall tremble,
and the river of fire shall flow before Thy judgment seat;
the books shall be opened, and the hidden things disclosed;
then deliver me from the unquenchable fire,
and make me worthy to stand at Thy right hand,
O Righteous Judge!
I have one question for Robert Farrar Capon and ultimately for Jesus: What if the foolish five had decided to immediately join the festivities, empty lamps and all?