Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.”But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Translation: Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps (and) went out to meet the bridegroom, but five of them were foolish and five wise. For the foolish took their lamps not taking olive oil with them, but the wise took olive oil in the vessels with their lamps. And the bridegroom was delayed (and) they all slumbered and slept. But midnight happened a cry: "Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." Then all those virgins were raised and made ready their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, "Give to us out of your olive oil, for our lamps are extinguished." But the wise answered, saying, "No, there may not be enough for us and you. Go soon to the sellers and buy for yourselves." As they were going out to buy, the bridegroom came, and the ones who were ready went in with him into the marriage feast, and the door was shut. But afterward, the other virgins came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, saying, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you." Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
Background and situation: The story appears only in Matthew. Matthew has already been discussing the problem of absence. In the parable of the King's Son's wedding (22: 1-14), the King doesn't show up until the wedding hall was already filled with guests. In the parable of the faithful servant and the unfaithful servant (24: 45-51), which directly precedes our lection, the whole problem revolves around the "delay" of the master.
The master, or bridegroom, is delayed, yet, when he does appear, he does so suddenly and his appearance is surprising. The exhortation to "keep awake" occurs twice (24:42, 25:13).
One notes also that the parable of the faithful servant and unfaithful servant features men while the parable of the ten virgins makes a similar point but features women. Also, in the former, the unfaithful servant realizes the master is delayed and takes advantage. In the latter, none of the virgins expect a delay, but half of them are prepared should it happen.
Parable of the ten virgins: First century marriage customs would suggest that the bridegroom and his entourage would go to the home of the bride. As they were approaching, they would be met by the bride's attendants, with lighted lamps, who would escort the male party to the home of the bride's parents. Then, they would escort both bride and groom to the house where the marriage and banquet would take place.
In the parable of the ten virgins, the central problem is, again, the delay of the bridegroom. Ten virgins go out to meet the bridegroom, "but the bridegroom was delayed." The word translated as "delayed" is chronizontos. In addition to delay, it also has the sense of lingering or tarrying. It indicates that the bridegroom was not being forceably delayed, but rather is delayed of his own volition.
The word is based on chronos, one of two Greek words for "time." Chronos refers to regular, every day time--chronological time, we call it. Kairos, on the other hand, means "special" time, or even "God's time," and kairos is often used to indicate an inbreaking of God.
According to chronos--according to business as usual, according to the status quo--the bridegroom is delayed. The ten virgins fall asleep.
"But midnight a cry happened!" The Greek contains the word gegonen, which comes from ginomai, and which means "it came into existence," i.e. "it happened." The word is often used to underline the significance of the event. In the middle of the night of chronological time comes an inbreaking--"a cry"--and an announcement: "Behold! the bridegroom!"
Five of the virgins had brought extra olive oil for their lamps, but five did not--five wise (phronimoi) and five foolish (morai). Robert Capons argues--as usual, persausively--that the five foolish represent the "wisdom of this world--the live-by-what-you-see wisdom" that God has turned upside down. The five wise virgins represent the "wisdom of faith," the wisdom of trusting in God's crazy redemption of the world.
As a sign of how the five foolish virgins live by the ways of this world, they handle their problem in the most conventional of ways: they go to the store. They wind up going to the marketplace to try to buy some more oil. While they were participating in the established market system, the bridegroom interrupted chronological business-as-usual time by breaking in and making a dramatic arrival.
Faith is not about believing correct thoughts. Faith is about trusting in Jesus, which, in turn, means living in the new reality he teaches--not status quo, business-as-usual living, but rather living in "the way" of Jesus, in anticipation of God's kingdom, by affirming the absolute equality and dignity of all people, and hanging in there with it even when it appears that God is far away, or that the bridegroom has been delayed.
Note that all of the ten virgins fell asleep. What distinguishes the wise ones from the foolish is that the five virgins who brought oil for their lamps were prepared not merely for the arrival of the bridegroom, but also for the delay of the bridegroom. They were prepared if he didn't show up at the hour they expected. Their preparation is rewarded. They are called "those who were ready" (25:10), and they are admitted to the wedding banquet.
After hanging around at the marketplace for awhile, the foolish virgins manage to make it back to the wedding celebration only to find the door to the wedding feast shut in their face. They holler, "Lord, Lord," a direct allusion to 7: 21 where Jesus had said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven."
In 7:21, Jesus was concluding the Sermon on the Mount. The "will" of Jesus' father in 7: 21 had just been expressed at some length ever since the beatitudes in chapter 5. The ways of this world are radically up-ended. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for justice!" God's will is clear!
In the signature statement of Jesus' teaching in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, the way of Jesus is defined as equality, dignity, compassion, non-violence, and trust in God. All this is what Matthew means when he speaks of faith and following Jesus.
The exhortation to "watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour" is an encouragement to hang in there and trust in God in spite of God's apparent "absence." In chronological time only is the Lord delayed. In reality, any time is his, even and especially the present moment.
Image: The ten virgins, William Blake