The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

Matthew 25:1-13

The Absent-Minded Teenagers at a Wedding

Jesus told a parable about ten teenage girls who had a role to play in a wedding. Their role was simple: welcome the bridal party back to the groom’s house with a torchlight procession. The wedding would work something like this: the groom and his family would go to the bride’s family’s house. After some activities there, the bride and groom would return to the groom’s family’s house. That’s where the girls with the torches came in. They escorted the procession to the groom’s home. Then, the wedding feast would begin. This celebration would sometimes last for days. It was one of the few joyous occasions in an otherwise extremely hard life for most people. It’s easy to see why the coming of God’s kingdom was often compared to a wedding feast.

As Jesus told the parable, half the girls didn’t bring enough oil for a long wait. Anybody who has ever reared teenagers knows that they don’t always think things through.

Parent: It is 32 degrees outside. Did you bring a jacket?
Child: No.
Parent: Why?
Child: I didn’t think I’d need one.

I can imagine the parents of the girls at the wedding feast asking them when this was all over, “Why didn’t you bring extra oil for your lamp?”

Half of them would have answered, “I didn’t think I’d need it.” The foolish girls were prepared for the bridegroom to come; they weren’t prepared for him to be delayed! They had lamps and oil, but not enough oil to keep their lamps burning through the night.

That’s really the whole point of the parable. It’s not an allegory in which every detail has meaning. It’s basically a simple story about absentminded teenagers who weren’t prepared for a long wait.

The Parable in Matthew’s Context

Jesus’ parable of Matthew 25:1-13 is part of a larger unit of thought. Most of Matthew 24-25 is concerned with the coming of the kingdom at the end of the age, while other portions clearly allude to the coming, historical judgment on Judea and Jerusalem.

In Matthew 24, we read that Jesus foresaw Jerusalem’s destruction. Judea’s sins and its unwillingness to repent have consequences. The fate that Jesus envisioned for Jerusalem came to pass in 70 CE during the Judean revolt against Rome. Rome besieged Jerusalem and, upon breaching its defenses, burned the temple, desecrated its holy place and slaughtered over one million Jews, including Jerusalem’s residents and religious pilgrims. Many Judean Christians were part of that number. Others fled as refugees.

Jesus’ vision, however, did not end with Jerusalem’s destruction. As Matthew recounts Jesus’ words, there are more dramatic events ahead.

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29)

This kind of language is often labeled “apocalyptic.” Most often, it is a kind of dramatic shorthand for earthshaking (or heaven shaking) events. Whether Jesus intends for us to understand the heavenly imagery literally or figuratively, the event Jesus describes is truly earthshaking. The Son of Man will come on the clouds and his angels will gather his chosen ones from the four corners of the earth.

Although chapter 24 is filled with apocalyptic language that modern readers find strange and mysterious, Jesus’ central concerns in chapter 24-25 are rather clear:

  • He warns his followers that life before his return will be hard and he cautions his disciples not to let their faith be shaken by events.
  • He calls his disciples to endure hardships and persecutions in faith, to live in accordance with his teachings and to take care of each other in a hostile world.
  • He expects his disciples to use the time before the appearing of the Son of Man to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom and to accomplish God’s purposes.

These concerns should be in the back of our mind when interpreting Matthew 25:1-13.

Matthew places the parable in a section of the gospel related to the coming of the Son of Man and the eschatological judgment of the world. Within that context, then, this is not a “Jesus is coming soon” parable. This is a “Jesus may be awhile, so be ready to keep going” parable. This is not a “get ready” but a “stay ready” parable. This is a “be prepared to wait” parable.

This would have been especially important to the members of Matthew’s audience who were reading the text after Jerusalem fell. “He said he’d come after the temple was destroyed. Where is he?”

Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins doesn’t say why the bridegroom was delayed, just that he was. As a consequence his torchbearers would have to be prepared to wait. The Christians in Matthew’s audience would have to be prepared to wait as well.

Updated 7 Nov 14. Originally published 1 Nov 11. 

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1 thought on “The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins”

  1. Thank you for this.

    It is interesting, isn’t it, how we sometimes feel compelled to come up with a bigger “answer” than the means of grace. There is something so ordinary about the solution to our problem, but we live in a culture that expects “big” and “dynamic” solutions with a lot of “wow” factor.

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