Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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 continues the theme of 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).
“Not much is known of the actual wedding ceremony in first-century Palestine. It was preceded by a betrothal that was much more binding than is an engagement in modern societies. It was really the first stage of marriage, and it took divorce proceedings to dissolve it. At the end of the betrothal period the marriage took place, on a Wednesday if the bride was a virgin and on a Thursday if she was a widow (Ketub. 1:1). The bridegroom and his party made their way to the home of the bride, or to some other place; there is a record of a wedding in which two parties, one of the bridegroom and his friends and the other of the bride and her people, went out to meet each other at an unspecified place (1 Macc. 9:37–39). When the two groups came together the wedding took place. After this there was a procession, generally to the home of the bridegroom, where feasting took place that might go on for days. The processions often took place at night, when torches made for a spectacular display. Clearly this is presupposed in Jesus’ parable. The ten girls were involved in going out to meet the bridegroom, which makes it appear that they belonged to the bride’s party. They would then have had their place in the procession to the bridegroom’s home for the feast” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 620-621).
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.
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 25:1-13 – we have the parable of the bridesmaids who are waiting to welcome the bridegroom. Parables appeal to our imaginations. They are instruments of encounter, full of surprises. Let us consider particularly, in this parable, the experience of those who did not bring enough oil for their lamps.
Two metaphors emerge here – one metaphor is for human failure and the other is for grace.
Perhaps the real failure here is not that they did not bring enough oil. It is rather that they did not appreciate a fundamental truth: There are some things in life we cannot borrow. In this parable, if those with oil shared it with those who had no oil, none of them would have had enough oil to keep their lamps burning. Extend the metaphor. We cannot borrow virtue. We have grown in virtue or we have not. A moment may come when we simply do not have the “oil” of virtue to light the lamp of truth and keep it burning.
Consider the “oil” as a metaphor for the grace that makes us a light to the world. Grace is God’s Presence – with us and in us. Given the promise to Moses on Sinai – “I will be with you!” (Exodus 3:12) – and Jesus’ reiteration of this promise at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we must assume that this “oil” is always there to bring light into our lives and the lives of others. But are we ready for that?
Recall the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel: “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (7:8). Think of the “asking”, the “searching” and the “knocking”, not as something we do but as expressions of what we are. Our very beings are asking, searching, and knocking, whether we realize it or not. In that direction, our best possibilities as human beings lie.
It is by being faithful to what we are that we acquire the “oil” for our lamps. The grace is in being rather than seeming, the truth rather than pretense. Our fundamental disposition is to be open to this. Living is receiving before it is giving.
The readiness asked for is not readiness for us to do something for God but for God to do something for us. Are we ready to be the place where God lights up the world? Are we ready for the Love that is able to set a bush on fire in the desert – see Exodus 3:1-6? Jesus asks us to be ready. He will come to us clothed in the ordinary events and experiences of our days. The clothing he wears might not attract our attention or please us. It might even frighten or disgust us. Be ready for him! Be ready to be surprised by grace, anywhere, any time. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.