Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13
The expectation of Christ’s return is central to Christian living.¹
Although many Christians today consign talk of the Last Day to the realm of eccentric individuals with cult-like followings, the message of this passage suggests otherwise. The lives of Jesus’ disciples are to be shaped by knowledge of his return.
Like the other Gospels, Matthew is clear that the timing of Christ’s return is unknown. Although Jesus speaks of signs of the end time (Matthew 24:3-35), he goes on to say that no one but God knows the day or hour of its arrival (Matthew 24:36; see also Mark 13:1-37). In this sense, the Gospel’s view differs strongly from that of modern sages who claim to predict Christ’s second coming. Matthew states clearly, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).
The unknown timing of the Son’s return makes readiness essential. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is sandwiched between two passages that emphasize preparation for the master’s return. The prior passage, Matthew 24:45-51, contrasts the “faithful and wise slave” who is at work when his master comes (Matthew 24:45-46) with the self-indulgent slave who mistreats others and is surprised by the master’s return Matthew (24:48-50). The passage that follows this one, Matthew 25:14-30, is a parable in which the master entrusts his property to his slaves and expects their diligent investment of it. Both parables emphasize the actions of the slaves in the absence of the master. Their faithfulness is known through what they do when he is away.
The bridesmaids parable also points to the importance of readiness. Its last verse, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” points readers toward a message of watchfulness. It suggests that the foolish bridesmaids were not sufficiently prepared.
However, the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach.
What is distinctive about this parable is its focus on the delayed return of the expected one. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed.
In this parable alone, the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay. If the groom was coming quickly there would be nothing wrong with taking one’s lamp full of oil to meet him. But the wise disciple packs a supply of oil, knowing that her wait may be unpredictable.
It is difficult for many of today’s disciples to be anything like the bridesmaids, wise or foolish, because we have stopped waiting. We give little thought to Christ’s return, let alone what we should do to prepare for it. If we were to contemplate ourselves in relation to the end time, it might be easier to imagine ourselves as the slaves who work diligently while the master is away than as the bridesmaids whose primary job is to await the groom’s return. This is not necessarily something for which modern Christians should be chastised—after the passage of two millennia, we have grown accustomed to the master’s absence. It’s a long time to wait expectantly. Nevertheless, there may be something we can gain from the parable’s perspective.
The parable asks us to imagine ourselves as those who wait for the groom’s return. When the groom comes, the wedding feast may begin! The age-old promise of the marriage between God and Israel (for example in Hosea 2:16) will come to pass. Speaking as one who has already realized the promises, the prophet Isaiah writes, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:10-11). The prophet sees a restored Israel, where human unfaithfulness has faded away, and is replaced by righteousness and praise.
This is the wedding the bridesmaids await. Another voice proclaims the promise this way: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). The bridesmaids await not only the groom but the removal of pain and suffering. The wedding feast initiates the reign of God’s justice and mercy, the realization of all the hopes of Israel.
To act as wise bridesmaids is to affirm our faith in the coming Christ. Doing so shows our trust that God is a God of justice and mercy. The eschaton encapsulates the ideals of God’s reign. It is the vision against which we judge our efforts in the meantime to live according to God’s principles. It is a vision of God’s ultimate justice and righteousness without which our world appears very bleak.
The wise bridesmaids keep the vision of Christ’s return, and all that it stands for, alive through their faithful waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.
- Commentary first published on this site on November 12, 2017.