Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13
The parable of the bridesmaids stands second in a series of four distinctly Matthean parables, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting (24:43-25:46).
The third, the parable of the “Talents” (25:14-30), has a parallel in Luke, but it likewise reflects a distinctly Matthean perspective. Immediately preceding these four parables stands Jesus’ instruction, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).
If we dare be honest, these parables can arouse our discomfort. This particular one discriminates between wise and foolish virgins (translated “bridesmaids” in the NRSV), half of whom miss out on the party on account of their unpreparedness because the door has been shut while they were seeking oil (25:10). Is that how it works, that one apparently arbitrary decision marks the line between inclusion and exclusion from the ultimate party? This parable just doesn’t feel like the gospel.
Our congregations will likely experience similar reservations, so we might as well address them directly. For one thing, how far do we push the meaning of a parable? A metaphorical quality is basic to a parable. Metaphors reveal one or more levels of meaning. If you say, “My daughter’s grades went up this term,” you mean they improved. You do not mean her grades literally ascended to the ceiling. We all know what you mean — and what you don’t mean. Someone might argue that this parable discloses exactly one thing, the importance of being “ready” for the Lord’s return even if it is delayed. According to this line of thinking the metaphor stops there. It does not connote a message about worthiness and judgment.
Nevertheless, this cluster of parables suggests a fuller range of meaning for a couple of related reasons. First, the parable of the virgins, like the other three in this unit, comes across as a sort of allegory. While a metaphor may establish a comparison on the basis of just one point, an allegory connects with its referent at multiple points. As an allegory, this parable reflects several stereotypical features of early Christian eschatological reflection. The scene involves delay, evoking the delay of the Lord’s return, along with the motifs of sleeping and being ready. Early Christians reminded one another that Jesus’ return might happen suddenly, so that alertness is necessary.
We don’t ordinarily read parables as allegories, but this one makes sense as an allegory: several of its features map closely onto other Matthean themes. Matthew stands out among the Gospels for its interest in a final judgment. Luke includes the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” once (13:28), and Mark does not use it, but it appears in Matthew on six occasions. Matthew also emphasizes final judgment scenes more than do the other Gospels. Jesus warns that “on that day” he will reject those who practice lawlessness (7:21-23), while in the parable of the sheep and the goats the Son of Man divides the nations into two groups (25:31-46): the wicked depart into eternal fire and the righteous to eternal life.
We might recall the parables of the tares (13:24-30, 36-43) and the net (13:47-50), which include sorting out the good from the bad, while similar language occurs in Matthew’s version of the wedding banquet parable (22:10).
If Matthew emphasizes judgment scenes more than do the other Gospels, it adds another distinctive element: in this age one cannot discern the blessed from the damned. Wheat grows alongside tares (13:24-30). Good and bad fish alike make their way into the net (13:47-50). The poor guest at the wedding banquet has been “compelled” to attend and had no means of knowing he should wear a wedding garment (22:11-14). The sheep are just as surprised by their identity and fate as are the goats (25:31-46). Therefore, we may blame the “foolish” virgins for failing to bring extra oil, but we remember that the bridegroom is delayed. Given Matthew’s fondness for judgment scenes, especially those with elements of harshness and surprise, it makes sense to read this parable allegorically rather than metaphorically.
The parable knows only one distinction between the wise and the foolish virgins. It characterizes five as wise because they bring extra oil, and it renders five as foolish for failing to do so. Otherwise, all the virgins act the same. They arrive on time. They wait. They tire and fall asleep. (When it comes to Jesus’ return, early Christian discourse typically regards falling asleep as a bad thing, as does 24:42. See Mark 13:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:6.) Awakened, they all trim their lamps. But when the bridegroom arrives, the foolish virgins find their oil going out. The five wise virgins, claiming they have only enough oil for themselves, will not share. So the foolish five go out for more oil, finding the door shut upon their return. They miss out. Preparation marks the only distinction.
Our discomfort with the parable of the virgins likely arises from self-awareness. Most of us know ourselves as wise in some contexts and foolish in others. On an imaginary scale of wilderness readiness, some people are more likely to prepare for every eventuality, but most of us vary from context to context. Preparation seems an arbitrary distinction.
The parable of the virgins isn’t necessarily arbitrary, but it is challenging. It calls Jesus’ disciples to a state of constant alertness, of perpetual openness to God’s dramatic future. We all know a few people, just a few, who tend to live that way. I think especially of some cancer survivors I know — and of some friends who live with grim diagnoses. But here we’re not talking about a generic carpe diem approach to life. We’re talking about living with a keen awareness of Jesus’ return, an alertness tempered by preparation for a long haul.
November 9, 2014