“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13 – NRSV)
A similar reference to being ready for the master’s return is found in Luke 12:35-38.
This picks up the theme already stated in 24:41: “Watch therefore because you do not know in what day your Lord comes.” In both instances the theme of watchfulness is emphasized by contrasting those who are ready with those who are not.
The text may be read as an allegory or a parable: “There is a longstanding debate about the extent to which the parable of the ten maidens should be interpreted as an allegory. Since for many interpreters allegory implies creation by the early Church, a decision about this matter has importance for the way one looks at the history of the text. The allegorical interpretation understands the parable as an allegory of the parousia of Christ, the heavenly bridegroom (Jeremias, Parables, 51–53). According to the allegorical approach the bridegroom is Christ, the ten maidens are the Christian community waiting for Christ, the delay of the bridegroom is the postponement of the parousia, his sudden coming is the unexpected arrival of the parousia, the rejection of the foolish maidens is the last judgment, and perhaps the foolish virgins represent Israel and the wise ones the Gentiles. That the parable of the ten maidens has some allegorical features must be admitted. But that it is a full-fledged allegory in which each detail has another significance is unlikely. Of the items listed in the preceding paragraph the Jewish-Gentile division has no basis in the text. Nevertheless the story clearly operates at two levels: that of an unusual event at a wedding feast, and that of the parousia of the Son of Man.” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 349.)
Ten bridesmaids: The Greek word here – parthenos – is the same as that used in Matthew 1:23. It can be translated as “virgins” – as in the KJV and most other versions. Of course, the issue of virginity is not relevant as such here. The translation of the JB and the NRSV – “bridesmaids” – does not seem appropriate however, since there are ten of them and they are already at the house of the groom – see following note below. Perhaps the word “maidens” is a better translation.
to meet the bridegroom: “The setting of the parable is the return of the groom from the house of the bride’s father. He would be taking the bride from her father’s house into his own house (or that of his father). The maidens are to welcome bride and groom into the household. Some manuscripts add ‘and the bride’, probably in light of the customary way of conducting a wedding.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 347.)
the bridegroom was delayed: “At the bride’s house the bridegroom had to complete the negotiations with the bride’s father. A dispute regarding the terms would not have been unrealistic, and this could have been the implied cause of his late return home.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 348.)
while they went to buy (the oil): It does not seem likely that they would find a place to buy oil at midnight! Incongruities are part and parcel of the parables. What is important is not the precision of the details but the overall impression or thrust of the story.
“Lord, Lord, open to us”: Recall Jesus’ earlier warning: Just because you say ‘Lord, Lord’, does not mean you will enter the kingdom – see Matt 7:21–22.
Keep awake: It is hard to know what we should make of this since all the “maidens” fell asleep. The real issue seems to be that some did not make provision for the future contingency and were left without oil for their lamps.
Today’s Gospel – Matthew 25:1-13 – presents us with special challenges. Some scholars treat it as an allegory. That is, they think it is a story, developed within the community, to emphasize the requirements of the Christian life. Thus, the “wise bridesmaids” are those Christians who live in a way that makes them ready for the return of Jesus (“the bridegroom”) at the end of time. On the other hand, some scholars, whilst noting allegorical features in the text, treat it as a parable. Parables are much more open-ended and they happily contain incongruities. Note, for example, the instruction to stay awake, as if the “wise bridesmaids” exemplified this. In fact they were sound asleep like the “foolish bridesmaids”! “To listen to the Parables of Jesus, it seems to me, is to let one’s imagination be opened to the new possibilities disclosed by the extravagance of these short dramas. If we look at the parables as at a word addressed first to our imagination rather than to our will, we shall not be tempted to reduce them to mere didactic devices, to moralizing allegories. We will let their poetic power display itself within us.” (Paul Ricoeur, “Listening to the Parables of Jesus”, in C. E. Reagan & D. Stewart, eds., Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, Beacon Press, 1978, 245.)
As I meditated on this text as a parable, the words, “being ready”, came to mind. A fairly obvious thought really. What is not so obvious is that those words are ambiguous. “Being ready” might mean “ready for action”. But it might also mean “ready for being”.
The medieval philosophers had a saying: “Agere sequitur esse” – “To do follows to be”. Thus a turnip produces turnips, not petunias. And so it is throughout the natural world – except with human beings. With us, the rule gets complicated. We are capable of doing things that are contrary to who and what we truly are. We can build a false self and be what we are not! It is a challenge for us to allow our true “being” to give birth to our “doing”. Each of us is a word made flesh – a loving, creative, wise and beautiful word spoken by God. That is what a human being is. Sadly it is not always manifest in what a human being does.
Our Gospel asks: Are you “being ready”? Does the rule – “Agere sequitur esse” – apply in your life? We are a doing culture. In such a culture we have to be very deliberate and work very hard to become “being ready”. It is the work of a lifetime to unearth our “being” so our “doing” can truly manifest who and what we most deeply are. And that “work” is more about getting out of the way than setting about self-mastery. The “work” is to uncover and set free what is already given. A sign that we are on track with this “work” will be a growing sense of grace and freedom.