The Ten Virgins: A Parable of Environmental Stewardship

Back in 1995, I was serving in the bishopric of a student ward at the same time that I was teaching freshman composition at UCSB. From time to time, one of the members of the ward showed up in my class, which gave me the dual role of spiritual and academic adviser. On one such occasion, a young freshman came into my office and told men that he had changed his mind about going to medical school when he graduated because of something he heard in Church.

The reason? He learned in an institute class that Christ was going to return in, or very close to, the year 2000, and he didn’t want to go through eight years of college if Jesus was just going to show up and make everything perfect. Not knowing what to say, I told him that he should probably go to med. school anyway because Jesus was probably going to be too busy to heal everyone.

I have no idea what ever happened to this young man; I hope he went to medical school and became a doctor. But when I taught today’s youth Sunday School lesson about “spiritual self-reliance,” which included both a reading and a video viewing of the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), I started off with this experience because I think that it can help correct a common misreading of this story in both LDS and general Christian circles.

The misreading goes like this: the wedding represents the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Bridegroom represents Christ—so the ten virgins are waiting for the coming of Christ. The oil in their lamps, then, represents the things that they will need when Christ comes: a testimony, a righteous life, a store of scriptural knowledge, and so on. The wise virgins represent those who will be prepared when Christ comes. The foolish virgins are those who will be unprepared. And the overall message we are told to draw from this parable is something like, “you never know when the Second Coming is going to happen, so you had better be prepared at all times.”

This is certainly a fine message, but it can’t really be derived from the plain sense of the text. It would work much better  if the five foolish virgins, thinking that the bridegroom was going to take a long time to come, neglected their oil-purchasing responsibilities so they could eat, drink, and be merry. But that is not what the story says. The foolish virgins came without extra oil because they thought that the bridegroom would come sooner than he did. They thought that they were prepared just fine, because they never imagined that it would take so long. They were prepared for the wedding, but they were not prepared for the wait.

The oil, you see, was not something that the virgins needed in order to go to the wedding. Had that been the case, they could have just shut their lamps off and waited in the dark. The oil was something that the virgins needed to sustain themselves until the bridegroom got there. Wisdom lay not in being prepared for the lord to come early, but in being prepared to wait outside until he got there late.

Read this way, the Parable of the Ten Virgins is a necessary corrective to the notion—quite common throughout Christian history—to see Christ’s immanent coming as a reason not to worry too much about the future. From what I have been able to tell, every generation of Christianity since Saint Peter—and every generation of Latter-day Saints since Joseph Smith—has perceived itself as the last generation before the Second Coming–the few, the warriors saved for Saturday.

This can lead to disastrous personal decisions, such as not getting an education because nobody will need a college degree in the Millennium. But it also contributes to disastrous collective decisions, such as not worrying about being good stewards of the earth because it isn’t going to last very long as we know it anyway.

For example, in a recent poll conducted by Yale University, 11% of the population agreed with the statement “the end of times is coming; therefore we don’t have to worry about global warming.” And this number increases dramatically in populations that control a significant portion of the electorate, such as Evangelicals and Born-Again Christians (26%) and Conservative Republicans (21%). Percentages like this are enough to win primaries and control elections.

This kind of thinking is precisely what the Parable of the Ten Virgins warns us against. We miss the point when we over-spiritualize the temporal elements of the story. The “oil in our lamp” does not just represent the things that we will need to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It also stands for the things that we need to live well on earth. Things like clean air and clean water, deserts and forests and tall-grass prairies, a climate that can sustain life, and communities that allow people to thrive and reach their full potential. And we might even make the huge interpretive leap to suggest that not running out of oil might be likened to, well, not running out of oil.

All of this is important because the earth is our stewardship—given to us by God to sustain us for as long as our species is here–and there is a good chance that we are going to be here for a very long time to come.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent.

  2. Thank you, Michael Austin! This makes so much sense. As the world becomes more and more depraved, I find myself hoping that Christ returns while there are still those waiting for Him.

  3. Leonard R says:

    Really interesting insight.

  4. I like that reading, although I’d categorise it as an additional reading rather than a superior or corrective one. The reading of being prepared at all times is more relevant to me, although additional readings can illuminate the text in other ways that aren’t necessarily apparent. I’ve never read this parable as excusing the duty to be a good steward. Rather, being prepared at all times would seem to include that. I tend to read the virgin’s effort to get more oil as being those very actions, whether it be praying enough, good works, resuming neglected duties etc.

  5. Thank you. First for the obviously correct and important lesson, and second for a useful and persuasive reading (that I have already made my own).

  6. Interesting reading of the scripture. It may have a small part to do with the current policies wrt economics, environmental protection, and government regulations. Clearly, one of the most important messages of the parable is that the foolish virgins were incorrect in their guess as to when the bridegroom would appear. LDS church leaders have increased investment in education , especially in making it more affordable to a much larger portion of the global population of members of the church. Investing in the long-term benefits of education is clearly something that church leaders still teach. Not all members may be getting that message.
    From a political standpoint, you may want to look at the fact that a majority of Republicans think that most proposed fixes for anthropogenic global warming are worse than the actual environmental change that is being experienced. Some reasons for this include known issues with falsification of global temperature data (this does not eliminate the real data, but raises the issue of trust in the scientific experts), known biases in funding for studies and publication of contrary positions, and especially the known politicization by some global warming advocates of many other issues.

  7. Michael this is a brilliant reading of the parable. So much of the disastrous decisions around the environment, everything from failing to preserve ecologies for the next generations to the benighted lack of attention to climate change, means that when the bridegroom comes I fear we will have destroyed the earth of which we were suppose to be stewards, rather than Satans who take the treasures of the earth for our own opulence and aggrandizement.

  8. This is a very interesting point of view, and I considered it a helpful view. But, when the virgins came back to the wedding after obtaining more oil, the Lord would not let them in. Does that part of the story fit into this new and interesting point of view? Was that symbolic of the Lord refusing republicans entry to heaven because of their viewpoint on global warming?

  9. Wes, if we assume that the Kingdom of God is within us, and that Zion is something that we can build in this world, then destroying the earth is not something that God has to punish anybody for. God doesn’t have to make up a hell to send us to when we are doing a perfectly good job of making one out of the paradise that he gave us. Maybe what God is saying is something like, “if you use up all of your resources, I can’t save you from the dark and miserable world that you made for yourselves.”

  10. I honestly enjoyed the post. But like so many things, it became marred in political rhetoric. I have occasionally been tempted to believe that planning for a long future is unnecessary because surely the Lord will return soon. I loved the viewpoint that perhaps the virgins were prepared for the Lord, but not for the wait. It is a viewpoint that I could have applied on a very personal level. But then things went off the rails, and suddenly, instead of being able to appreciate this very interesting new way to look at this parable, I find myself defensively having to justify my political affiliation. I believe the post had a message that was strong enough to stand on its own without injecting politics.

  11. It is hard to remove politics from environmental stewardship these days, but I did not see the intent of that discussion as political. The discussion is a logical extension of the idea that we should be prepared to survive for a long time on the earth. It ought to be understood as easily as food storage – on a global scale, it *is* food storage. And on a practical level caring about that means electing people who care about it too.

    Thanks for the post, it was a new and refreshing viewpoint for me.

  12. I agree with Wes.

  13. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    “We miss the point when we over-spiritualize the temporal elements of the story.” Yeah, that’s what happens when we use metaphors to teach principles. They ALWAYS get stretched beyond their usefulness. No idea why Christ chose to use parables to teach, because every on of them has been distorted to the point of leading people to think things that are ridiculous, or to justify behaviors that are unjustifiable. Think what you want about when the the Savior will come again. Judge the science on climate change to be incomplete. Disagree with experts who say rising temperatures will lead to increased natural disasters. But if you think we’re doing admirably as stewards of the planet, you’re an idiot. There, I said it.

  14. But doesn’t this reading move against ideas that Jesus was an apocoleptic teacher himself – that he also taught that the end times were soon coming?

  15. John Mansfield says:

    Those ten virgins sure are popular. They’re the Noah’s Ark of second-coming parables. The thief with the unannounced schedule is a poor also-ran. But what of Jesus’ own use of Noah as a second-coming parable? Far less memorable, as a second-coming parable, than the virgins or the thief. That’s why the virgins are the Noah’s Ark of second-coming parables, with endless paintings of all ten faces and blog analyses, and Noah himself is not the Noah’s Ark of second-coming parables. Noah’s Ark is the Noah’s Ark of Bible stories.

  16. One of the most pernicious things about the traditional misreading is it’s suggestion that we can somehow save up and hoard merit we earn by keeping the commandments, along with its underlying assumption that our own merit actually does us any good.

  17. I love this analysis. However, I’ve always seen the waiting for the coming of Christ to have two meanings – His Second Coming and our return to Him through death. I believe that the second possibility justifies the always be prepared reading of the parable. Nevertheless, I accept that there is more than one valid way to read a parable. The value of them comes from their many layers of meaning.

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    I remember hearing a lot more end-times rhetoric in church growing up in the 90s–but now rarely if ever. I suppose it may have been the anticipation of crossing the numerological threshold of “The Year 2000” and all the cultural mythology connected to it. Or perhaps it was some residual cold war anxiety that our teachers were keen to impart. Regardless, sometimes it just freaked me out, like when my seminary teacher told all the young men in the class, without a hint of irony in his voice, that we would all go on missions, but we were going to be called home early to be drafted into the military, to fight in Armageddon.

    Reading this makes me glad I didn’t take it seriously enough to let it affect my major life decisions in the years that followed. It also serves to remind me to try not to pass generational anxiety down to my kids.

  19. Thanks, Michael. Very insightful. But dang it, I’m a Saturday’s Warrior. I was told so by Lex and company in 1977, and since then I’ve been sitting in my bedroom, reading my scriptures and waiting and waiting and waiting. I just know he’s gonna come next month. Right after the Republicans save the Constitution by giving the wealthy massive tax cuts and heal the economy by revoking all those unnecessary pollution regulations. Trust me.

  20. “The oil, you see, was not something that the virgins needed in order to go to the wedding. Had that been the case, they could have just shut their lamps off and waited in the dark. The oil was something that the virgins needed to sustain themselves until the bridegroom got there.”

    I LOVE this reading of the parable. It is a beautiful antidote to the “nothing matters because the end is near” attitude that I think has subtly caused great harm in the West for many years and is far less subtle and more global today.

    But, I also think it adds much richness to the parable as it applies to other aspects of our lives as Saints of the not-certain-how-latter days. We’re susceptible to feeling that whatever is going on now is far worse than everything that’s come before, and the best way to cope with the wickedness that obviously signals the endgame is to withdraw from the world, ignore thy neighbor, home-school your kids, store food and guns to defend it, and merely endure to the end, may it come soon. Perhaps that’s akin to trimming our lamps down to the merest sputter, forgetting that we’re here to celebrate the marriage.

  21. I love the message that the foolish virgins assumed they understood the timing of the coming of the Lord, and thus allowed themselves to burn their supplies too quickly. It is a good reminder of humility (not being so confident in how we know how things will turn out) and stewardship (protecting and conserving our resources). Be prepared for the long run, and don’t assume we will be saved after being short-sighted spendthrifts. And I like the implication that we should honor our stewardship of the Earth and be wary of the impact from short-sighted consumption.

    But if I want to explain it this way to others, I need to see this in a plain reading of the text. Did the foolish virgins actually bring oil and just didn’t preserve it? 3-5 reads, “They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.” This reads to me like the foolish virgins just didn’t bring any oil at all, and it doesn’t state that any lamps burned during the wait. Can I assume that the foolish lamps had oil in them already, and that “oil in their vessels” could refer to an extra supply brought only by the wise? Otherwise, it looks like the text is saying the foolish virgins inexplicably didn’t bring any oil, and I don’t know how to fit that into the stewardship metaphor. (Now that I think about it, it seems nonsensical to not bring any oil. Why did they bother to bring lamps?)

  22. rich jj, I read “oil” like “flashlight batteries” or “cell phone chargers.” Presumably they would have the oil that is already in the lamp. They just didn’t bring any spare batteries or an extra charging battery.

  23. I think “in their vessels with their lamps” supports that reading, Mike.

  24. Michael, I don’t comment frequently, but I just want to say that I appreciate you taking the time to draft and share your thoughtful posts.

  25. My mother in laws justification for why my wifes concerns about the presidential candidate that she voted for weren’t valid, was that God would do the second coming before allowing those bad things from happening.

  26. Paul Ritchey says:

    Michael: oh, OH how I wish I’d had this to read three weeks ago, when we discussed this parable in Sunday School. I can’t believe I’ve missed this interpretation my entire life. It’s the right one – the perfect antidote to pernicious and pervasive “temporal nihilism.” Thanks for enlightening!

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