Nestled in what is sometimes called Jesus' eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46), the parable of the bridesmaids follows Jesus' warnings about the end when many will fall away from the faith and the faithful will be hated by the world (24:9-13).
The parable teaches all would-be followers of Jesus the importance of vigilance in an uncertain time and illustrates how one is able to "endure to the end" (24:13).
The entire section of eschatological teaching is addressed to the disciples in private as they sit with Jesus on the Mount of Olives (24:3). This setting is not insignificant. In Zechariah 14:1-21, the prophet looks forward to a day when the LORD will stand on the Mount of Olives and be recognized as king over all the earth (14:9, 16-17). The coming of this day is certain, as this parable illustrates with the coming of the bridegroom.
The teaching of the wise and foolish maids builds on the previous teaching of the wise and foolish servants. Both parables illustrate the need to live in a manner that expects the return of the Lord, even when the return is delayed (24:48; 25:5).
The parable opens with a familiar phrase, "The kingdom of heaven will be like this." The kingdom is like the whole scene portrayed by this parable where some bridesmaids are prepared for the groom and enjoy the banquet and others are excluded by their own lack of preparation.
The banquet itself is symbolic imagery of the eschatological messianic banquet. The importance of a typical wedding banquet, however, would not have been lost on the first-century recipients. Wedding festivities typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the joyous event.
In this story, it is expected that the bridesmaids would await the arrival of the bridegroom and greet him with a procession of light in the darkness. Presumably the bridesmaids are waiting either at the brides' home for the groom to come and fetch her or at the home of the groom's family where the wedding would take place. All the maids have either lamps or perhaps large torches. All are waiting with their lamps lit in eager expectation of the groom's appearance.
The bridegroom is delayed. In reality, a groom's delay was not altogether uncommon.1 For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride's relatives over the gifts exchanged. The text does not bother to explain the delay. Indeed, the reason for the delay is not the bridesmaids' concern. They should have anticipated that a delay might occur. In its literary setting, the delay echoes the previous parable of the two servants (24:48), anticipates the parable of the talents (25:19), and illustrates Jesus' warning in 24:14: "Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
Due to the delay of the groom and the late hour, all the bridesmaids have fallen asleep. Their sleepiness is not the problem, since both wise and foolish alike have become drowsy. The wise brought extra oil for their lamps (verses 2-4). Both groups knew that the groom was coming and waited with their lamps burning, but only half considered that the wait in the darkness might be longer than anticipated.
When all the maids were awakened at the announcement of the groom's arrival, they all set about trimming and preparing their lamps for the procession. To the horror of the foolish, though, they discovered that they would not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The wise maidens refused to lend their extra oil. If they gave away their oil, they would not have enough. Then what would become of the processional?
For modern ears, the wise maids' suggestion to go to the dealers to buy more oil may seem ridiculous. The text says that it is midnight (verse 6). Where will the foolish maids buy oil in the middle of the night? This detail is unimportant, however, because apparently the maids do find a place to buy oil (verse 10).
When the foolish were away making arrangements that should have been made already, the groom arrived. The procession occurred without the foolish bridesmaids, and the banquet began.
The foolish returned, ready for the processional. They knocked on the door of the house, but their entrance to the wedding banquet was denied by the groom. They missed the grand procession.
Although these bridesmaids were chosen to accompany the bride and groom, their role as bridesmaids did not guarantee them a place at the banquet. They had initially played the part of wedding attendants. They had waited with lamps lit, for a while, but they did not plan for the long dark time of waiting. As a result, they were shut out of the banquet. The maids' plea (25:11) recalls Jesus' warning that not everyone who cries "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven (7:21-23).
The parable is summed up in verse 13. The imperative often translated as "keep awake" might best be rendered, "be vigilant." In this parable, the bridegroom's arrival was certain. The uncertainty of the timing illustrates the need for constant vigilance.
The earliest readers of this Gospel have already entered the dark days after the crucifixion and resurrection and have begun waiting for Christ's return. This parable challenges them to be vigilant and live in anticipation of the Lord's coming.
Readers today may find themselves secretly sympathetic to the foolish maidens. Does the church really live as though the bridegroom's arrival is certain? Some have become caught up in trying to determine the day and the hour, while others have let their lamps run out. To live in vigilance means for the disciples to do the tasks that they have been appointed to do in preparation for the Master's coming. In Matthew's Gospel, those tasks include bearing witness to God's kingdom by welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned (25:31-46), and making disciples in all the world (28:19-20).
1See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 597.