Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13
This parable of the bridesmaids (probably better translated “virgins”) is yet another Matthean parable sung in an eschatological key. Like the text last week, Matthew has the future arrival of the Kingdom in mind. And this parable follows on the heels of “The Faithful and Unfaithful Slave,” where the faithful slave is found to be busy and working when the master arrives, while the “wicked slave” is found cavorting with drunkards and abusing others when the master is delayed. This parable of the faithful and wicked slaves sets the scene for the story of the wedding-attending virgins. The reader already has “end times” in mind and this question of “readiness” or “watchfulness” is already in the atmosphere.
So, here we encounter a parable that is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. And it has all the characteristics of a Matthean parable—allegorical interpretive possibilities, eschatological wedding celebrations, people that end up included and excluded by the end. Right from the beginning the women are labeled as “wise” or “foolish,” though there is little to distinguish them in the first half of the story. At the start, there are 10 women, all with lamps, waiting for the bridegroom. And, when the bridegroom is delayed, they all do the same thing—fall asleep. The difference comes when the delayed bridegroom finally does arrive. All ten awake when they hear someone shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” The “wise” women brought extra oil and are able to trim their lamps and get ready, while the “foolish” “took no oil with them,” and so are in need.
When the foolish five ask their sisters for some oil, the wise reply that there is not enough to share. The wise recommend that those without oil go purchase more. And, ultimately, the “wise” are ready when the bridegroom arrives and they are able to join the celebration right away. When the “foolish” women finally do arrive (after, apparently, finding a 24-hour oil store), they ask to be let into the party, crying “Lord, lord, open to us.” But, consistent with the claim made in Matthew’s rendition of the Sermon on the Mount (see 7:21), instead of welcoming them in, the bridegroom denies even knowing them.
In spite of the final line of the text, imploring the faithful to “keep awake,” the difference between the foolish and the wise was not about sleeping—after all, they all slept! Instead, the emphasis is on preparedness or, perhaps better, readiness for the possibility of a delay. A traditional interpretation of this story might lean towards the idea that we need to be ready for Jesus to return at any moment and not be caught unprepared or not engaging in good works. Indeed, Eugene Boring, in his allegorical engagement with this text suggests that “the oil, or rather having oil, represents what will count at the parousia: deeds of love and mercy in obedience to the Great Commandment (25:31-46).”1 This interpretation about busyness and anticipating Christ’s return is only accented by the fact that this text is often preached during Advent, as suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary.
This interpretation is certainly a faithful one, particularly when one is engaging in allegorical work and thinking about Matthew’s insistence that the community should anticipate Jesus’ (already delayed) return. However, I want to suggest that there is another angle we might engage as preachers and people of faith in these challenging and uncertain times.
This text is taken up and richly interpreted in the gospel spiritual, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.”2 Originally sung by African Americans suffering under the horrendously oppressive conditions of slavery, this spiritual is believed to have served both as an expression of spiritual encouragement as well as a way to communicate plans for escape or liberation. One thing that is stunning about this spiritual is that the chorus is not about Christ’s return, but focuses on what to do during the delay. As the chorus repeats:
Children don’t grow weary,
Children don’t grow weary,
Children don’t grow weary,
The time is drawing nigh.
I wonder if we might take a cue from this powerful spiritual as we consider this parabolic/allegorical story from Matthew. From this viewpoint, this text is not just a warning about the end times but might also help us to navigate what we are supposed to do in the meantime.
If truth be told, we are living in what feels like an in-between time. The world is hurting, violence is a daily reality, illness and pandemic continue to haunt and hurt us, and it seems like the promise of peace, wholeness, or even hope seems far away. Communities, whether they want to admit it or not, are still contending with the trauma from the pandemic and figuring out how we live as community in new ways, now that all our patterns have been disrupted and our ways disordered. And on top of that, our country and world seem more divided than ever.
Yet, amid all of this hurt, people long for a cure to cancer or Covid or mental illness or for a day when oppression or division will be no more. We live in this in-between space where many are wondering where God might be amid all of this, even as we are waiting (perhaps more eagerly than we would like to admit) for God’s grace, peace, and love to infuse our lives, country, and world. And yet, like Matthew’s first-century church, we find ourselves in a holding pattern, waiting with no guarantee how long it will be until things are made right.
Perhaps the bridesmaids of this story might offer us some guidance. The ones who brought oil are labeled as “wise,” not because they had some kind of predictive powers to know how much oil to pack. Instead, their wisdom was in being ready for a timetable that might be different than the one they would have preferred. They are ready for the fact that things don’t always happen when and how they would like. But they sit (or sleep!) ready; they have what they need for the journey, even if it is long.
Friends, we don’t know how long the journey to justice or peace or wholeness will be. But Matthew reminds us to “keep our lamps trimmed and burning” in order that we might not grow weary in the waiting. For, there is work to be done, even as we wait for the coming of the bridegroom who makes all things new.
- Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 450.
- My favorite rendition of this is the version arranged for choirs by André J. Thomas. You can hear it sung here by the St. Olaf Choir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPxVyTeM5dY.
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
March 19, 2023