Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13
On its face this parable seems straightforward enough, especially if we read it through the traditional allegorical lens: the bridegroom is Jesus, his delay is the “delay of the parousia,” and the banquet is the Messianic banquet.
The young women, five foolish and five wise (lit. “cunning,” “shrewd,” or even “attentive”), represent the corpus permixtum of the church, whose membership includes both the righteous and the unrighteous, and thus, inevitably, some who will not be “ready” with sufficient measures of the oil of good works when the Groom/Messiah comes. Jesus has been stressing the need for readiness and watchfulness (Matthew 25:13, cf. 24:42-44,45-51), especially if the Son of Man is delayed. In this reading, the parable is another in the series of stark, scary scenarios that focus on readiness and watchfulness (Matthew 24:42-44, 45-51; 25:13), meant to frighten the disciples into compliance.
Many problems attend this allegorical reading. What exactly is the oil — what kind works well? how much? — that we should be storing up? In association with good works, the wise/foolish dichotomy can easily be put to use in service of “works righteousness.” Even worse, the allegorical reading inscribes the stark dualism between the unrighteous and the righteous that has plagued so much of the church for so long. The wise maidens provide, at best, an ambivalent model for us: their wisdom (the modifier actually suggests shrewdness or cunning) apparently values self-interest more than group solidarity. And why is the Bridegroom such a jerk when the foolish girls do return? Does Jesus, presuming that he understands himself allegorically as the bridegroom, really mean to portray himself as such a harsh judge?
As with so many other parables where allegory has dominated our interpretive approaches, we may do better by putting our Christian allegorizing tendencies and assumptions aside. We do not, in fact, need to allegorize the parable at all to get its central point, the same point made repeatedly in the preceding context: be ready all the time, because we don’t know when the “Son of Man”/thief/master/bridegroom/judge is coming. Beyond this basic claim, the parable includes several other details worth noting. The identification of the ten as, literally, “virgins,” may have suggested to ancient audiences that these girls were nubile, but not yet possessed of the faculties necessary to be a wife or an adult. They are a ready target for mockery.1 Perhaps from the get go, the men, boys, and maybe even some of the women in Jesus’ audience would suspect that these are just silly girls. The foolish five demonstrate their foolishness in spades. First, they fail to bring any oil. Contrary to what many readers suppose, it is not likely that their torches, which were probably meant to serve ceremonial purposes, were burning as they waited and slept, thus exhausting an inadequate supply of fuel. Rather, from the outset the foolish had torches, but no oil. Second, the bridegroom’s delay is not so much a problem as an opportunity for the foolish to procure the needed oil, but instead the foolish fall asleep alongside their better prepared sisters. Third, when the groom’s coming is finally announced, they panic and, at the suggestion of the well-prepared five, run off into the night to buy the needed oil. From whom might they buy oil at midnight? The parable thus seems to invite its audience to join in laughing at some of the most vulnerable members of the society.
When they race back — with or without oil we are not told — they find the door closed and locked. Of course it would be. The closed door is the final obstacle in this comedic sketch. The audience, whether in Hollywood or Jerusalem, has gotten a good laugh, and might now anticipate that the foolish girls have learned their lessons and now, with proper apologies, will be admitted to the party. But instead the surprise turn we encounter so often in Jesus’ parables kicks in, this time a harshly stunning kick. The laughter stops. It’s not a funny story anymore. The girls’ pleas for entrance are met with a stone cold rebuke from the groom: “I don’t know you.” The door stays shut.
With this shock, we realize that we, too, have been turned into fools. Neither ancient nor modern audiences are ready for this ending. As we have nodded and laughed at the foolish maidens, we too became fools. We are no more ready for this ending than the girls. We realize that, like them, we are vulnerable, out of touch with the time, sleeping through life, busy playing church, thinking everything is okay. We may have identified with the wise maidens, but now we know that we, too, are on the other side of the door.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like?
Yes. The coming of God’s rule generates shock, division, and resistance. Why would this “coming” — the coming of the crucified one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given (Matthew 28:18) — be any different? The point of the parable is not to confirm our comfortable sense of insiders and outsiders, righteous and unrighteous, wise and foolish, but to move us to a place where we have the possibility of discovering once again our common humanity. God’s coming, in any case, always means both judgment and deliverance, the two faces of a single moment. More than this, God’s coming can never be timed (Matthew 24:42-44, 50). God, in fact, is always coming to us, but never on our terms, according to our calendar, or in line with our expectations.
Could we ever be ready for this coming? Jesus’ disciples never were. They are merely the first to stumble and sleep their way through the advent of God’s reign. But at the end of this Gospel, Jesus promises to be with them, with us, nonetheless. The crucified and risen Lord of all creation is already here with us — always with us — but we greet him by being constantly prepared, by both repentance and compassionate service, for the surprise of his advent.
1 Vicky Balabanski, “Opening the Closed Door: A Feminist Rereading of the ‘Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (Mt. 25:1-13)” in Mary Ann Beavis, ed., The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom (Sheffield Academic Press, 2002): 71-97, cf. especially 84-87.