Ancient Jewish wedding customs included an early betrothal that was more than just our modern-day engagement. The couple was viewed as if they were married, sometimes for several years, even though the marriage itself had not yet happened or been consummated.
When it came time for the wedding, the bridegroom would go with his wedding party to the bride’s home and then escort her back to his home. When the entire wedding party arrived at his home, the ceremony would take place, usually late in the evening. This meant that those accompanying the party from the bride’s home to the bridegroom’s home would carry small oil lamps with them so they could see through the darkness.
In the story of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25, the women in the wedding party knew the bride was betrothed, promised to the bridegroom. They knew he was coming, were prepared and eagerly awaiting to escort her to the marriage. When the announcement was made that the bridegroom was finally on his way, all of the women went out to watch for him as he arrived. After waiting all evening, and knowing their journey would be at least partly in the dark, all 10 of the women prepared their lamps as they waited for him to arrive.
These women represent members of the church, those who have already made baptismal covenants. The bridegroom represents the Savior. The members of the church have already made covenants with the Savior, as they prepared for and made baptismal covenants. This was their “betrothal,” the initial installment of the future wedding yet to unfold. The wedding soon to happen is the second coming of the Savior, when he will return again and usher in his kingdom on Earth.
However, the women in this parable soon encounter a problem. Five of the women have been “foolish” and are not spiritually prepared for the return of the Savior. They have no oil in their lamps, or have not kept their covenants, and so have no light to see through the darkness along the way.
The journey of mortality is long and often includes waiting for promises to be fulfilled. But members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been given not just the promise that Jesus Christ will return, but also the tools that will provide them enough "light" until that time. Prayer, scripture study and keeping our covenants light the way along the sometimes dark mortal journey while we wait for promises to be fulfilled.
The little lamps carried by hand were small and for personal use. They were of such a shape that it would have been difficult to pour out some of the oil to share with another. The wise women knew they needed their oil, and there was no way to share it. The foolish women had to go buy their own oil for their lamps; it was not a task that could be done for them. This oil represents the righteousness each person must personally obtain through efforts of obedience. There is no substitute for personal obedience and righteousness.
LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball wrote in "Faith Precedes the Miracle," “In our lives the oil of preparedness is accumulated drop by drop in righteous living. Attendance at sacrament meetings adds oil to our lamps, drop by drop over the years. Fasting, family prayer, home teaching, control of bodily appetites, preaching the gospel, studying the scriptures — each act of dedication and obedience is a drop added to our store. Deeds of kindness, payment of offerings and tithes, chaste thoughts and actions, marriage in the covenant for eternity — these, too, contribute importantly to the oil with which we can at midnight refuel our exhausted lamps.”
The oil also represents testimony: Since testimonies are very personal and unique to each person, they cannot be given away or shared. Each person must develop his or her own testimony and do the work required. The verification that a person has a testimony and is keeping her covenants comes in the form of a temple recommend, which can no more be shared or given away than the oil in the lamps.
Spiritual preparation for the second coming of the Savior is an active and ongoing process. The bridegroom in the parable finally appears, almost without warning, except for the promise that he would indeed come. The Savior will come, and he will establish his kingdom on Earth. The more prepared members are to live the laws of that kingdom now, the more prepared each one will be when that time comes.
President Kimball also wrote, in "The Miracle of Forgiveness," “The 10 virgins belonged to the kingdom and had every right to the blessings — except that five were not valiant and were not ready when the great day came. They were unprepared through not living all the commandments. They were bitterly disappointed at being shut out from the marriage — as likewise their modern counterparts (members today who are not prepared) will be.”
Emily Christensen lives with her husband in Oklahoma. Her doctorate is in marriage and family therapy, and she is pursuing a second degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies. She blogs at www.housewifeclass.com and her email is email@example.com