The lectionary gospel reading for the third Sunday before Advent at the end of Year A is Matt 25.1–13, known as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. This forms part of the second half of Jesus’ teaching about the future. In Matt 24.3, in response to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple, his disciples have asked him a two-part question:
“Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
In response, Jesus answers the first question (‘When will this happen?’) in Matt 24.4–25, and then changes to answer the second question (‘What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’) from Matt 24.36 (‘But concerning that day and hour…’) through to the end of chapter 25. Once again, the chapter divisions mislead us by putting the break in the wrong place. Jesus does indeed give the disciples plenty of information about the ‘signs’ that will accompany the fall of Jerusalem, and what they are to do in response to these events which will happen ‘before this generation passes away’ (Matt 24.34). But from Matt 24.36 onwards, there is a complete absence of signs; the parousia of the Son of Man will happen without warning, and so the repeated emphasis is on continual readiness, rather than on looking out for signs.
Throughout this whole long section Jesus deliberately refuses to give the disciples the sign they have asked for. The timing of the parousia and the final judgement cannot be calculated and foreseen. Readiness for those climactic events can be achieved only by living all the time in such a way that their unannounced arrival need not be a disaster but rather a time of praise and reward for a life well lived and opportunities well taken (R T France NICNT p 936).
Within this section, we have an introduction and a conclusion, and within that (yes, you guessed it!) three parables:
- The suddenness of the parousia compared with Noah’s flood
- The parable of the slave left in charge
- The parable of the girls waiting for the bridegroom (‘the wise and foolish virgins’)
- The parable of the slaves entrusted with money (‘the parable of the talents’)
- The final judgement by the Son of Man now enthroned
The final episode, often called the ‘parable of the sheep and the goats’ is not actually a parable; the simile of a farmer dividing the sheep and goats is only mentioned in one verse, and otherwise this is a simple, visual description.
Much of this material, and its distinctive structuring, is unique to Matthew. Some of it appears in Luke 12 and 17, whilst variations of the ‘parable of the talents’ does come in the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13 and Luke 19. But many of the themes are characteristic of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus. The parable has been very popular in church art and sculpture, and it was the subject of one of the earliest of theological treatises, that by Methodius (bother of Cyril), on The Banquet of the Ten Virgins which includes one of our earliest written commentaries on the Book of Revelation. Some have claimed that, with its motif of delay of the parousia, this must be a creation of the early church, but the belief that the delay was a crisis requiring a response is solely based on texts like this, so this argument is entirely circular.
Kenneth Bailey, in Jesus Through Mediterranean Eyes p 270, observes a seven-point symmetrical structure to the parable, in which it is the coming of the bridegroom that forms the central turning point:
He also notes some key elements that make sense of the story within its culture. Weddings would normally take place in the seven months of the hot and cloudless summer, and so the celebrations would take place in the cool of the evening and into the night. The bridegroom would leave the celebration party at his own house, and journey through the village to collect his bride, whilst the party remained outside the house awaiting his arrival. The bride would then be placed on the back of an animal, and the groom would lead her back through the village, taking the longest route possible through all the streets so that the whole town could see and join in the celebration. The exact time of the return would therefore be unknown, and could be longer than expected.
In contrast with this background, there is no obvious role for the ten young women, and the various speculations of commentators on their role in the celebrations is fruitless—we simply don’t have enough detail about the ceremonies of the time to know. Although the word parthenos is used to describe them, nothing is made of their virginity as such; the term would be understood simply to imply that they were young enough not to have been married yet. And, of course, they are not the bride! This is a parable, not an allegory, and we need not press each detail into the theological shape of other parts of the NT where the bride for the groom represents the people of God.
The parable begins with the comparison formula we have already seen in Matt 13.24, 18.23, and 22.2, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’ but in this case, since it is looking ahead to The End, we now have the future tense ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like…’ As in previous parables in this gospel, the comparison is made directly with (a person of) a group of people—though we might more naturally make the comparison with the situation.
The previous parable had as its central character a male slave; by contrast we have here women providing the example for understanding the kingdom. Matthew does not have quite the same deliberate pairing of male and female in both the narrative and teaching of Jesus, but it is clear that women remain models of discipleship and positive examples in the teaching of Jesus. The number ‘ten’ might allude to the ten men required to form a synagogue, but it is also a natural, round number, and in the telling of the parable it is then easy to use the five fingers of each hand to illustrate the two groups.
The word translated ‘lamp’ in most ETs is lampas which actually means ‘torch’ for use outdoors, formed from a bundle of sticks which is then dipped in oil, rather than the pottery lamps with a wick which are called luchnos. These are the torches born by the arresting party in John 18.3 and the torches around the throne signifying the Spirit in Rev 4.5. This fits perfectly with the situation of the parable, with the girls (along with the rest of the party) waiting outside, though most illustrations, including that by Blake above (and Bailey’s commentary, surprisingly) mistaking the one for the other. Unlike, lamps, which have a reservoir and so can burn for some time, torches go out quickly and need to be dipped in oil repeatedly to maintain their light. ‘A torch without a jar of oil was as useless as a modern flashlight without a battery’ (France, p 949).
The distinction between the ‘wise’ and the ‘foolish’ was made at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, with reference to the two builders, the wise one building on the rock of obedience to Jesus’ teaching and the foolish one building on the sand of ignoring what he said in Matt 7.24f. The wisdom commended here is phronesis rather then sophia, practical wisdom that involves good judgement as well as sound character and habits, rather than abstract or speculative wisdom acquired by reflection. It was also the hallmark of the faithful slave in the preceding parable. The term for ‘foolish’, moros, has given us our term ‘moron’; the contrast between the wise and foolish is a frequent feature of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially in Proverbs, highlighting different practical approaches and choices in lifestyle.
The image of the bridegroom at the wedding was used earlier, in Jesus’ Galilee ministry, in relation to the question of fasting (Matt 9.15) where Jesus clearly depicts this as a reference to himself. This nuptial imagery is developed theologically in John 3.29, and most extensively in Rev 21.2, 9 and 22.17, where the people of God as the holy city become the bride of the lamb. However, not all the details are developed in this way in this parable.
Earlier in this section, staying awake has been the primary metaphor for alert readiness for the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24.42), but here the metaphor is changed. Both the wise and the foolish fall asleep and need to be roused, but the wise have made provision so that their lamps are ready. The conclusion to the parable, ‘Stay awake (gregoreo) therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour’ sits uneasily with the preceding narrative, so should perhaps be read as a conclusion to the earlier teaching rather than this parable in particular.
It would not be difficult, within a first-century village, quickly to borrow some oil from a neighbour, and the closing of the door, shutting out the foolish, is not based on any actual practice that we know of. As with other parables, the details of the real-life illustration have been adapted to fit the point that Jesus wants to make in his teaching.
In a parable things do not always happen according to real life, and the hard-nosed realism of the sensible girls invites the reader to reflect that spiritual preparedness is not something that others can provide for you: each needs their own oil (R T France, NICNT, p 949).
The conclusion of the story blends the narrative itself into the teaching of Jesus, so that the bridegroom transitions to become the person of Jesus himself. The appeal of the five foolish girls, ‘Lord, lord…’ reminds us of the appeal of those who ‘prophesied in your name’ in Matt 7.22, as does Jesus’ reply, introduced as a solemn ‘Amen…’ saying ‘I do not know you’.
But this has become, like so many of the other parables, a story of insiders and outsiders, of the saved and the lost, and the closing of the door symbolises that final division of the last judgement, as we have seen it in [other passages] (France, p 950).
For all who are committed to the host of the banquet, the door to the banquet is open. But near the end of the parable that door is closed. Jesus’ parable places limits to the Roman sacred cow of inclusiveness that wandered the streets of Rome and now traverses the byways of contemporary western culture (Bailey p 275).
There are two final issues to consider. First, what, if anything, do the lamps and their oil signify? Dick France is sceptical of any specific reference, other than the whole episode signifying the need to be in a state of constant readiness, and there do not appear to be many clues in the passage itself. But the importance of oil in anointing in the OT, signifying the calling and equipping of God, and the image of tongues of fire at Pentecost and torches in Rev 4.5 makes it hard not to associate the torches and their light here with the Spirit—though explicit mention of the Spirit is not a feature of this gospel. Matthew’s repeated emphasis is on discipleship expressing itself in practical action, so I would link the Spirit with the life of holiness as Paul does in Gal 5.22. And the focus at the end is on filial relationship with the bridegroom (‘I do not know you’; compare Matt 12.50 where Jesus’ disciples are his family) so I would also want to link the Spirit to the relational knowledge of God as Paul does in Romans 8.
The second concluding question is whether this parable is about judgement or grace. The rhetorical punch of the close and climax of the parable is, as France points out, the division and exclusion created by the closing of the door, and the emotion of this is captured well by Blake (so we can perhaps forgive the use of the wrong kind of lamp!). Yet the context of the whole story is the certainty of the coming of the bridegroom, and the feast to which all ten girls have been invited. This invitation, as much as the possibility of its loss, should surely be a vital part of the motivation to ‘stay awake’, constantly open to the daily renewing of the Spirit in both bringing life to our relationship with God and shaping our lives in holy obedience.
Give me oil in my lamp/torch, keep me burning. Keep me burning till the break of day…