The parable of the 5 wise and five foolish virgins is a well enough known parable. It is found in Matt 25:1-13. The parable provides ample opportunity for reflection as it asks searching questions of readers. Such questions can be blunted by overuse of analogy. What was Jesus saying to his listeners? What does Matthew want his readers to learn? The parable concerns the coming of the kingdom of heaven. But what are we to make of it’s many elements? The sleep of all virgins, the oil, the lack of spare oil, late night merchants and final rejection of the 5 foolish virgins? How much should we take from this parable?
At its core the parable is telling us the kingdom is within reach of anyone who is prepared to be prepared. However despite this accessibility, too many won’t take a better safe than sorry approach to their service. The parable is a warning – but also demonstrates reaching the kingdom isn’t an impossible assignment.
The Kingdom of Heaven
In Matt 23:27-38 Jesus concludes a pronouncement of terrible judgment on the religious leaders of his day. As his speech reaches its crescendo, he tells the audience in v39:
For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord
In making this statement Jesus is drawing on Psa 118:22-26 – a passage which became a popular proof text for early believers that the establishment would reject Messiah. In this instance Jesus references Psa 118:26 – intimating that while the rejection would be reversed, there would be a period of Messianic absence.
But what of the kingdom of heaven? The Jewish understanding of this phrase was a restoration of Israel’s sovereignty under a David messiah king. This, rather than a post corporal future, was the local expectation and Jesus preached the same. The Christadelphians have long held this is the Biblical hope and it isn’t remarkable to find modern scholars who agree, for example NT Wright says the expression
‘Kingdom of Heaven’, which we find in Matthew’s gospel, does not mean ‘a Kingdom-place called “heaven”.’ It is a reverent way of saying ‘the Kingship of God’
This hope accorded with the restoration prophecies at the end of Isaiah and various other prophets who promise great and as yet unrealised things for Israel – centred on Jerusalem. Jesus rarely (is ever) adds to the details provided by the prophets, except in the broadest manner (“the meek shall inherit the earth” Matt 5:5 is vague at best and certainly requires divine intervention to implement). The parable of the 10 virgins, and those that follow, aren’t concerned with details of the kingdom but rather the way into it.
Why the parable?
Parables were a familiar Jewish teaching format and Jesus alluded to existing Jewish stories from time to time. While derivation in this particular case is too strong a claim, the Talmud records a parable of sorts where one Rabbi Eleazer famously told his disciples:
“Repent one day before your death.” His disciples were perplexed, and asked, “How is a person able to know the day of death, in order to repent before dying?” “All the more reason to repent today!” exclaimed Rabbi Eleazer, “lest he die tomorrow, and hence his whole life should be spent in repentance.”
Both Jesus’ parable and the verbal tradition point to one thing – time is of the essence. The time for preparation is now because of the uncertainty about the time of judgement (or death).
Jesus’ parable is in the context of Matt 24, essentially the disciples questioning the signs of the time of the end. Jesus answers their question with thirty-two verses of detail about signs. He then continues straight on to provide another sixty-two verses of parables warning the disciples about the need to be ready and HOW to spend their time in the intervening period. Yes verse numbers are a late addition of convenience to the text, but the comparison of volume still provides a useful guide as to where our focus should be. Bauckham put it as:
The delay of the parousia is filled [perhaps – should be filled?] with the mission of the church.
Many explanations of the parable delve into wedding customs. Many an allegorical point has been founded on what happened when with whom in first century Judea. No doubt local practice forms a backdrop to the parable. But we need to be careful not to focus on the set at the expense of the actual play. The temptation to make much of the wedding customs must be tempered by the reality that:
…information about wedding customs in the ancient world is relatively sparse, and practices may have differed from place to place…after the bride was suitably adorned and perfumed, she would be taken in a festive procession to the groom’s home (or that of his parents, if the couple were to live there). About nightfall the procession would begin and the bride would be escorted to the groom’s house by an entourage with torches or lanterns. The groom would go out to receive the bride and bring her into his home where blessings and celebration would last as long as seven days. In some texts bride and groom are both accompanied by an entourage through the streets on the way to where the festivities will be held…If Greco-Roman sources are used and if Palestinian customs are assumed to be similar, which is not unreasonable, the groom is understood as bringing his bride back to his (or his parents’) house after observing a banquet at the home of the bride. The virgins then wait in the home of the groom. This is an attractive explanation and would make good sense of the text, but certainty does not exist about where they are and exactly what is described
It seems that somewhat like weddings today, even within one culture, the order of events is inconsistent depending on specific circumstances and personal whims.
Jesus doesn’t appear to make significant use of the details of the wedding feast and procession. His plot set up doesn’t define where the bride was. We are not told whose house the virgins are in (the bride’s, the groom’s? the groom’s family home?). If Jesus doesn’t clarify the details, and Matthew as narrator doesn’t feel the need to either, we can safely assume the details are unimportant and do not warrant speculation. It is building on sand to make pronouncements about types and analogies on how we imagine the wedding may have been organised.
The wedding feast – with God or his Messiah as the groom draws on a number of OT passages (Isa 54:4, Ezek 16:8, Hos 2:19) leading scholars to describe it as a “stock metaphor”. The set-up of a wedding is a plot device to convey his key message – the one he highlights in his closing comments about preparation in the context of a defined period of opportunity.
Setting up the scenario
Jesus first sets up the scenario. Verse 1 is likely best understood as a summary of the scenario. The 10 young women, with their lamps have an appointed role – to meet the groom with lights.
Some texts mention the bride but Metzer and others believe the bride was added to a few textual witnesses to harmonise the scenario to copyists’ understanding of wedding practices. Since the bride is absent the rest of the parable, they deem it inauthentic.
The Lord in Matt 25:2 says half the woman were wise (or prudent) and five were foolish. The Greek has carried with minor modifications into English:
Silly, stupid, foolish, from which the Eng. Word “moron” is derived. Used of persons meaning morally worthless
Matthew uses the word a few times. In Matt 5:22 Jesus warns against calling others a moron. The passage might suggest that “moron” was a stronger term than “fool”, however such a distinction might be overreading the verse since both were “apparently popular curse words” and Jesus is warning against anger, rather than comparing degrees. The dual example of fool and moron is more “analogous to Jewish parallels” than a strict comparison. Of more interest are the other uses in Matthew which tend to suggest the word is commonly used in connection with people who reject or abandon faith. Examples include:
- Matt 5:13 salt that has lost (a related word) its flavor is used proverbially of disciples who have ceased to be authentic
- Matt 7:26 the foolish man hears and doesn’t act on Jesus words
- Matt 23:17 slightly different but I would suggest related is the Lord slamming the leaders as fools for “clever” solutions to minimising oaths. They had excellent access and technical understanding of the OT yet distorted the word into self-serving nonsense
Jesus as the storyteller creates the tension in the narrative which will be resolved. Five of the ten are foolish. A full half. The percentage of individuals saved or condemned in Jesus parables varies. In the next parable only one individual of three fails to make the cut. Jesus is using half here as a point of emphasis and surprise rather than a factual prediction of your chances of salvation. The point is rather that appearances are deceptive. Did the ten perceive any differences among themselves? There was nothing to indicate fully half of them were morons. Whitefield rightly makes the point that we all have our lamps and can look just as religiously attuned as the next Christian – it is not ours to judge since we are not in possession of all the facts. Rather than question (or denounce) the wisdom of our siblings, our time is better spent on self-reflection and preparation.
The role of the young women was to greet the groom with lamps. No further detail is provided. Presumably this was familiar enough to the hearers. What sort of lamps were they? I can remember the occasional Sunday School activities producing little replica clay lamps, complete with wick and oil chamber. My efforts were inevitably chronically flawed. While Snodgrass in his “Stories with Intent” protests that too much time and effort has gone into defining whether the lamps are the small hand held vessels with a wick (of better quality than I ever achieved) or large burning torches. However I’m inclined to accept the evidence assembled by Keener that:
The lamps here are not the small, hand-held Herodian period lamps, which would generate very little light, but torches (as in weddings in the rest of the Mediterranean world…). In poorer villages these torches may have been sticks wrapped with oiled rags, as in traditional Arab weddings
Practically torches seem far more likely since the little clay lamps would be useless outside a house – a flaming torch would be needed for any outside procession. Consistent with Snodgrass’ protest though, it makes no difference to the interpretation of the parable. Jesus is concerned with the preparation of the women rather than the mechanics of their light bringing devices.
Get oil now
The wise took extra oil, a spare supply with them. This was prudent since, in the absence of smartphones to tracking the groom and messaging apps to re-arrange the schedule, the time for the arrival of the groom would inevitably have been somewhat uncertain. The women had a practical, just in case, approach to their roles where they took more oil than perhaps a normal person would think necessary given the circumstances.
With the well-meant desire to find meaning in every word, much has been suggested regarding the allegorical significance of the oil:
it was a frequent symbol in earlier Hebrew literature for joy or for the anointing of a priest or king. As a result, scholars have suggested a wide variety of identities for the oil. Good works, saving faith or grace, and the Holy Spirit are three of the most prominent
To the above list can be added God’s word and (in a claim which feels like ‘everything just in case’) “joy, comfort and spiritual nourishment” . Such readings provide plenty of sermon fodder. Exhortations to the flock to invest in more Bible reading, to share the joy etc etc are all good but while truisms they are not sound application of this specific scripture.
Any suggestion on what the oil represents needs to survive the test of the parable’s context. In the parable the wise tell the fools to go and buy oil. Despite the late hour the foolish go to the sellers in v10 and seemingly procure oil. Joy is probably not for sale. Neither is God’s word, or faith or grace or the spirit etc etc.
Rather than attempt to ascribe meaning to every elements of the parable, we should instead take what is said and what Jesus focuses on. The point is the oil was widely available at any time of the day or night. The foolish had ample opportunity to be prepared for the groom’s coming. The issue wasn’t the material they needed – it was that they failed to appropriately invest. They weren’t prudent in preparations. They thought they had enough. They thought they were ready. But they were running on empty, they made assumptions about how much was necessary. The point is we can’t be ready enough for Jesus return. It’s not about what we specifically acquire, but an attitude of abundant commitment and preparation.
So while carefully maintaining the oil has no specific meaning, we can observe the exhortations later in the New Testament to abound in preparation:
- The rich are to be generous, to make a firm foundation for the future 1 Tim 6:18-19
- We should overflow with good works 2 Cor 9:8
- Our love should abound Phil 1:9, 1 Thes 3:12
- Being firm in faith and overflowing with thankfulness Col 2:7
Just as a Christian life has diverse ministries in which to serve (Rom 12:6-8), so too there are many opportunities for personal growth. 2 Pet 1:5-7 contains a virtue list of qualities we can develop (faith, virtue, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly affection and love). Ultimately these are all summarised in Eph 4:15 where we are to grow into our head – Jesus.
The objective of the parable is not to elevate one pursuit or avenue of growth. The oil is easily obtained – at any time of the day or night. It requires no riches nor special talents. The wise are not those with an academic bent or those with great emotional intelligence. All can grow in the Lord. All can prepare for the Kingdom. Wisdom is not limiting the amount of growth. No disciple can determine that such and such a level is “enough”.
Sleeping on the job
Keener, as with others, points out that the specific customs of their wedding ceremonies unknown but he still suggests:
Bridegrooms were often late, and their comings were repeatedly announced until they arrived.
The scenario Jesus paints was not outside the bounds of local experience, even if it was perhaps exaggerated for effect. There is no criticism of the sleeping young women and attempts to impose meaning reflect imagination rather than Jesus’ intention. It might be tempting to point to the Romans 13:11 to seek warnings for the listener:
we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers.
Or perhaps the disciples sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:45-46).
One of the more common explanations I’ve heard is their sleep represents the responsible/faithful dying and being resurrected when Jesus/the groom comes. But this is blending other truths into the parable and distorting the specific point Jesus is making. Such meanings – if legitimate – means post the return of Jesus the resurrected have time to rekindle their faith and even time to try to procure the essential ingredient for salvation from the local supermarket. Both wise and foolish sleep, there is no condemnation or differentiation, nor does the Lord reflect upon this aspect of the story. The sleeping is a tension building device in the story.
The sleeping virgins serves to make two points. The bridegroom was going to take far longer than anyone (including wise people) would think likely. This was the context of the parable, the disciples asking when the kingdom would come (Matt 24:3) and Jesus is preparing his disciples here for a unexpectedly long wait. Secondly, wisdom was not demonstrated by perfect alertness but by an approach to discipleship which does not limit preparation. Wisdom is having more preparation than anyone would think reasonably necessary. A priority is given to service which leaves nothing to chance.
In the broader context some have noted that the delay in this parable is the same word as the previous parable in Matt 24:48. In one instance the delay turned out to be less than expected and in this case more. Matthew is telling us to be ready continuously, to have a mindset of readiness.
Once awakened all the women have to rekindle their lamps and suddenly the lack of overabundant preparation becomes evident. The wise counsel the foolish to procure more oil. We might wonder whether 24-hour trading was a thing in first century Judea but such details are not the point.
So too the lack of sharing is not the point. Some apparently question why the wise didn’t share, but the parable is about wisdom (abundant preparation) versus foolishness (assuming what is sufficient).
The appeal to a closed door
The parable has a stark conclusion – the foolish do not gain entrance to the kingdom. In this parable it is the failure of the foolish which leads to exclusion. They are just not ready for the kingdom and therefore fail to enter. They failed to invest in their calling an as a result they ‘missed the boat’ to use a slightly more modern expression.
The statement of judgement which comes is final and seemingly harsh. “I don’t know you” is the bridegroom’s terse rejection of their appeals for late entry. As Wilkins notes this term resonates through Scripture:
Throughout the Old Testament God is said to “know” those whom he has chosen to be his people (Jer. 1:5; Hos. 13:5; Amos 3:2), a theme reiterated throughout the New Testament to speak of a saving relationship found with God through Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 4:8–9; 2 Tim. 2:19).
If life eternal is to know God and Jesus (John 17:3) we cannot over invest in developing a relationship and preparing for the kingdom.
by Daniel Edgecombe
 Wright, N. T. (1992). Who Was Jesus? (pp. 97–98). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Young, B. H. (2012). The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (p. 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
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 Wilkins, M. J. (2004). Matthew (p. 806). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Author: Daniel Edgecombe