“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 text is found in Luke 12:35-38.
This parable 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 as 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 – the wise and the foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) – continues that sense of urgency and the call to be alert that we find throughout Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew. These Chapters are sometimes referred to as the Eschatological Discourse – from the Greek word eskhatos, “last”. There is talk of persecution and chaos, the destruction of the Temple and even the destruction of Jerusalem itself. There is mention of the coming of “the Son of Man. “Before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place” (24:32-36).
We should not conclude that this thinking and writing is an unabridged message of Jesus himself. The social and cultural environment was chaotic and desperate. There was an uprising of the Jewish Zealots in 66CE – which the Christians refused to join. The Romans moved with brutal force against the uprising and in August 70CE Jerusalem was subdued, the Temple burned and Jewish society as it had been, collapsed. A remnant – including women and children – fled south to Masada where, under siege by the Romans, they committed mass suicide three years later.
Matthew’s Gospel is probably written around 80-90CE. The audience is Jewish. The place is uncertain, though it is outside Jerusalem. We can hardly begin to imagine the sheer horror of the Roman assault and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, to Matthew’s audience. It is also reasonable to assume at least some of these Christians had known conflict in their own villages and families concerning Jesus.
The story of the wise and the foolish bridesmaids invites an allegorical interpretation. Who is the groom? Who are the bridesmaids? What is represented by the wedding feast? And what of those who are locked out? However, this story may also be reasonably treated as a parable. That is, it may be read as an open-ended story. What do you hear and see when you read – and re-read – this text. Listen with the ear of the heart.
The facts pertaining to a marriage celebration are obvious. So too are the facts pertaining to the different ways the participants handle the facts. Which reminds us that our days are filled with facts – simple facts.
There is a simple but very practical theme in the Catholic Tradition concerning mundane facts. It is called the grace of the present moment. It is grounded in the very Incarnation itself – God comes to us moment by moment in the facts of our lives. If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, every moment, every place, all circumstances speak to us of God!
Each day, take some time to slow down. Choose to be deliberate about some small things, like closing a door, turning on a light, making a cup of coffee, washing your face, hugging your child. Life is sacramental – in the material is the spiritual, in the human is the divine, in the temporal is the eternal . . . in the profane is the sacred. And give thanks in the moment!
A video presentation of the Reflection may be found on YouTube via https://stpatschurchhill.org/