Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13
For a wedding story, the parable of the bridesmaids does not have a very happy ending.
Things may have turned out well for the bride and groom and for the five bridesmaids who had enough oil for their lamps and made it into the party. But the five foolish bridesmaids who didn’t have enough oil are sharply rebuked by the bridegroom and shut out of the wedding banquet.
The word translated “bridesmaids” is parthenoi in Greek, which means “virgins” or “young women.” Since the young women are attendants to the wedding party in the parable, many English translations use the term “bridesmaids.” The ancient Jewish custom was that the groom and his attendants would come to the home of the bride’s parents and take the bride along with her attendants in a bridal procession back to his parents’ home, where the wedding celebration would begin. In this story, the bridegroom is late — very late, in fact — so late that all ten of the bridesmaids become drowsy and fall asleep. What is the problem with this bridegroom? Is he getting cold feet?
Finally, at midnight, the bridegroom shows up. It is time for the bridesmaids to trim their lamps and go out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them have brought extra oil for their lamps, but the other five have not, and their lamps are going out. The five so-called wise bridesmaids who have extra oil refuse to share with the five who do not. Instead, they tell them to go to the dealers and buy some for themselves. This is perhaps questionable advice, since it is already midnight. Will they find a vendor at this hour?
Nevertheless, the foolish bridesmaids go in search of oil. While they are gone, they miss the bridegroom’s arrival. By the time the foolish bridesmaids catch up to the wedding party, it is too late. The door to the banquet is shut, and the bridegroom will not let them in. “Lord, Lord, open to us,” they say. And the bridegroom responds, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:11-12)
The bridegroom’s refusal brings to mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord …’ Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
The parable is troubling because there doesn’t seem to be any grace in it. The bridegroom — who was late in the first place — has no mercy on the foolish bridesmaids who are late for the party, and the wise bridesmaids with extra oil show no mercy to their unwise friends. Haven’t we all been guilty of poor planning at times? Haven’t we all found ourselves on the wrong side of a locked door?
This parable comes in the middle of a series of parables in Matthew 24-25 about the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man. One of the themes running through these parables is that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, and that no one knows the day or the hour, so followers of Jesus need to be ready at all times. The parable of the bridesmaids ends with Jesus saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
It will be important for the preacher to help hearers reflect on what Jesus means in telling his disciples to “stay awake.” The Greek verb translated “stay awake” (gregoreo) can also be translated, “be vigilant.” To be vigilant is to stay watchful, attentive, to avoid distraction and remain focused on the task at hand.
Of course, Jesus does not mean literally that we should stay awake at all hours, for that would be humanly impossible. With the bridegroom’s tardiness, all ten of the bridesmaids became drowsy and fell asleep, so evidently it is not falling asleep for which the foolish bridesmaids are blamed.
What, then, is the problem of the foolish bridesmaids? Perhaps it is not even their poor planning — that is, their failure to bring extra oil. Perhaps their problem is rather that at the critical moment when they were to welcome the bridegroom, they had abandoned their posts. They were foolish because they acted as if their primary job was to have oil in their lamps, when this was only a means to an end. Their primary job was to welcome the bridegroom and accompany the bridal party with joy. Because they got distracted with secondary concerns, they missed the bridegroom’s arrival and missed out on the party.
When it comes to thinking about the return of Jesus, there are a couple of different ditches into which Christians tend to fall. Some get absorbed with trying to figure out when the end will come, trying to match the symbolic imagery of the Bible with events in our world and to come up with some kind of timetable, some type of script for the end times. Yet Jesus says clearly that this is a waste of time. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
The other ditch into which Christians tend to fall is complacency and distraction. Because we don’t really expect Jesus to come anytime soon, we forget the urgency of the mission he has given us. We get distracted with so many other secondary concerns. Our priorities get skewed.
Remembering again the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven,” it is clear that being ready for Jesus’ return means doing the will of the Father.
And what is the will of the Father? Jesus gives us abundant clues throughout his teaching in Matthew. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, for instance, those who inherit the kingdom are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40). In fact, Jesus is already among us, identifying with the lowly, and how we respond to his presence is a crucial indicator of the health of our relationship with him.
Another important clue to the will of the Father comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as the risen Jesus tells his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).
As long as there are people who need to hear the gospel, and as long as there are hungry people to feed, strangers to welcome, sick people to take care of, and all kinds of people in need to visit, we have plenty of work to do until Jesus returns. It is not that we are saved by our works. Rather, what occupies us is a sign of where our heart is, what our priorities are.
The parable of the bridesmaids serves as a call to self-examination. Are our priorities aligned with God’s priorities, or are we so distracted with secondary concerns that we risk missing what is most important — the presence of Jesus in our midst?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of holy anticipation, you have promised that you would return at a time unknown to us. Make us ready, so that when you return we might be welcomed into your kingdom with open arms. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Rejoice, rejoice, believers ELW 244
Soul, adorn yourself with gladness ELW 488
Come down, O Love divine ELW 804, H82 516, UMH 475, NCH 289
Soul, adorn yourself with gladness, Scott Perkins